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My son and guns: Living in a gun culture, he must understand them

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Ann Hermes/Staff

(Read caption) Shane Gazda sits at his kitchen table showing off one of his prize handguns for a Monitor story on American gun culture, while his 3-year-old daughter, Savannah, peers over his shoulder. Mr. Gazda sees his role as teacher, and, like many other Americans, plans to instruct his children, once they’re older, about gun safety and shooting.

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My 6-year-old son just found his favorite new show, the Discovery channel's “Sons of Guns” (yes, lots of explosions), and regularly draws pictures of guys with guns squaring off, with the sound caption: “Boom!” Even my 2-year-old daughter picked up a neighbor’s silver Colt cap gun the other day and went, “Pow!”

I certainly grew up pacifist, and I hail from a land – Sweden – where toy guns are heavily frowned upon and where even belt-carry of knives by adults is illegal.  My wife is the daughter of activist Democrats from northern Virginia for whom a gun in the house is a non-starter, even though we don’t exactly live in Atlanta’s safest neighborhood.

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Certainly, there have been attempts in the US, too, to ban or discourage "war-like" toys from getting into children's hands. But trying to keep toy guns out of kids’ hands is like trying to keep candy out of their mouths: impossible. And like most parents – at least the ones I know, including some uber-liberals – I have never really tried.

During a recent Monitor assignment on America’s gun culture – months before the awful shooting at the Aurora, Colo., movie theater that once again touched off a national gun debate – I met Shane Gazda, whose wife audibly gasped when our photographer, Ann Hermes, took pictures of Mr. Gazda at his kitchen table showing off one of his prize handguns, while his 3-year-daughter, Savannah, peered, fascinated, over his shoulder.

For Gazda, a concealed weapons permit owner, it was no big deal. He sees his role as teacher, and, like many other Americans, plans to instruct his children, once they’re older, about gun safety and shooting.

But his wife’s gasp told the story of the visual: Even those who basically support the Second Amendment sometimes cringe inside when they see images of kids and firearms, whether it’s child soldiers, toddlers waving pop guns, or even when their own children grab sticks on the playground and commence all-out war.

That power was certainly conveyed by Ann’s photograph, which struck me as bizarrely Rockwellian. It was also obvious by the conversation we had afterwards, in which we both questioned whether she should submit it to our editors. To be sure, Gazda was doing nothing wrong handling an unloaded gun in his own house. Yet our concern was it would leave him open for criticism, even ridicule.

In the end, the editors ran the picture, and as far as I know caused no discomfort to the Gazda family.

Sure, our concern about the picture had to do with journalism and the Monitor's credo, which is to "injure no man" with our reporting. But as a parent, it was also a personal conundrum, the backdrop a country with as many guns in circulation as there are people – about 300 million. Gun owners can point to the Second Amendment and the country’s rich tradition of giving especially rural kids BB guns at an early age to acclimate them to the weight and feel of a rifle. They also point to the exposure of kids to guns as a parental responsibility: In a world full of guns, we might as well teach kids to appreciate their power and how to handle them safely.

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But for those viscerally, philosophically, and politically uncomfortable with guns, it’s not so easy. To be sure, some states, like New York, have outlawed realistic-looking toy guns, mandating that they be brightly colored or have an orange barrel cap. But what is clear is that even a 2-year-old watching her older brother play sniper games begins to correctly recognize that gunpowder and lead can move the world. Since we may never be rid of that fact, and since actual guns will remain verboten in our house, I’ve decided to outsource our son’s firearms education to the Boy Scouts.

His troop is a particularly progressive one from one of Atlanta’s most liberal in-town neighborhoods. Some of the kids have same-sex parents. But when they grow into bigger Scouts, they’ll have opportunities to enter shooting sports programs, taught by certified National Rifle Association instructors.

It may be the first and last time some liberal urban pacifists hire the NRA to teach their kids. I, for one, will go along with it. And my son? He can’t wait.