To Arms!
The OC Gun Column

As the Smoke Clears...


Thoughts on children's gun safety in the aftermath of the Thurston tragedy.

In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of argument and passion in our community, centered around the tragedy at Thurston High School. As soon as I heard about the shocking events that Thursday morning, I knew that the age old struggle that divides our country would soon begin again.

Over the last week, I have withstood a great deal of shithouse psychology directed toward the Kinkel family, and Kip Kinkel's fascination with violence, guns and bombs. This is all perfectly understandable; people want to know "why?" But almost immediately, of course, the political profiteers got in on the action, and within hours I was watching anti-gun zealots Charles Schumer and Sarah Brady exploiting the situation, licking their slavering chops at the political windfall of another gun-related crime, on which to hawk their shoddy wares and panacean snake-oil solutions.

I am not going to waste another word on such political profiteers, whose only care for we backwater bumpkins of the Eugene/Springfield area is that we provide another opportunity to pass more gun control. Rather, I prefer to focus on the shining examples of humanity that overwhelmed the evil that visited Thurston that day: the five young men who took charge to put a stop to Kip Kinkel's killing spree, in particular, Jake and Josh Ryker.

A day or two after the shooting, the parents of these two young heroes appeared before CNN, the father wearing an NRA cap, to put the record straight about the use of firearms in this crime. The family made it clear that Jake and Josh have both been raised to use and respect firearms, and credited that training to the boys' quick actions--actions that resulted in the saving of a number of lives.

Said Linda Ryker, "They knew how to respect a gun, and I think all of that led to the fact that my boys did not panic when they saw them, and tried to assist and help."

Josh Ryker added, "We just did what we were taught."

In an interview conducted with the Register-Guard, while in the hospital recovering from his wounds, Jake Ryker said he recognized the sound of a hammer falling on an empty firing pin "like it was a brass gong going off," and that was the moment he saw his opportunity to jump Kinkel.

The father, Robert Ryker, concluded that in spite of the obvious danger that firearms present in the hands of the criminal, he doesn't think any new laws are needed to regulate guns, but rather that we need to start enforcing laws already on the books. "It's already illegal for a kid to have [guns] in school. Passing any more laws--what's the difference? He's already broken those. What's to stop a person from breaking any new laws you pass?"

We see here a remarkable contrast in attitudes between children who are brought up to use and respect firearms, and those who are educated about guns solely by the media. Without spending too much space criticizing Mr. Kinkel's parenting decisions, it has been reported that he had rather negative attitudes toward guns, and his son's training regarding the responsibilities of firearms was too little, too late. It would appear that in the absence of responsible adult guidance, Kip Kinkel's attitudes were heavily influenced by violent media images, which fetishize weaponry, and portray acts of violence as having little consequence. It is unfortunate that things have come to this, but as Americans have become separated from the day-to-day experience of gun ownership, firearms have come to be portrayed as exotic and even magical icons rather than tools of sport and defense. I sometimes find myself cringing when the likes of Nicholas Cage or John Travolta are shown twirling silver-plated handguns around in the latest John Woo or Quentin Tarantino flick. With every example of unsafe or idiotic gunplay we witness being performed by the glamorous gods of Hollyweird, we train another young boy who has no other source of information that that is what guns are all about. Our young people are not learning about gun handling at the firing range, with a proper safety instructor to guide them, but by blasting away at others on the latest 3-D video shoot-em up, a la Marathon and Quake. We are shaping a nation of sociopaths.

I would like to say that the answer to our problem is education: teaching kids about the reality of guns as tools for sport and protection, rather than as a means of attracting attention to themselves. I feel such a program would take much of the mystique away from firearms, and allow educators to teach children to handle guns properly, thus cutting down on both youth-related gun crime and accidents.

Such programs have been demonstrated to work, and work well; in a recent report by one of the major television networks, two sets of children were put in a room in which a deactivated handgun was placed. One set of kids was raised by gun owners, who had instructed their children on what (and what not) to do if they ever encountered a gun. The other set of parents were anti-gunners who had taken the "just say no" approach to firearms training. Both parents predicted that their children would leave the gun alone, and seek out an adult for help.

As it turns out, only one of the groups did so. The children who had been properly educated by gun-owning parents refused to touch the gun. They immediately got up and tried to find an adult. They were, in fact, found wandering in the halls, pointing to the room they had left, and warning passing adults about the gun in the room. The other children, who had been brought up on the "just say no" approach, were intoxicated with their exciting, unfamiliar discovery. They immediately began playing with the gun, pointing it at other kids and themselves, pulling the trigger. Which set of children would you identify with Jake and Josh Ryker? Which would be Kip Kinkel?

What do I think would be the ideal training program? I would handle gun education the way the Swiss do. Every Swiss kid is familiar with guns, in the same way that every American kid is familiar with cars: because every male adult has one, and is trained to use it. Children are shown how to properly handle and care for firearms in school from a very young age. Around the age of fourteen, kids are often enrolled by their schools, over summer vacation, for training in the Jungshutzenverein, the Young Shooter's Association. After extensive instructions on firearms handling and safety, they can take home a military rifle, practice shooting it, qualify with it using targets at a 300-meter military range, clean the firearm, and then return it for inspection at the end of the program. Swiss kids are quite knowledgeable about gun safety, and harbor no illusions about their rifles turning them into big-screen action heroes. Switzerland enjoys one of the lowest violent crime and murder rates in the Western world. I believe that this program is instrumental in keeping Swiss firearm deaths at their extraordinary low level, in spite of the nation's incredibly high firearms ownership rate per capita.

Most children's gun safety training programs, of course, are far less extensive, teaching children not how to use guns, but, well, how not to use them. It is unfortunate that even this kind of education has become a political football. The NRA's Eddie Eagle program, judged by dozens of states and the FBI to be the best children's firearms safety program in the country, has been under attack by the anti-gun coalitions, particularly the Violence Policy Center in Washington, DC. Ignoring the fact that the sole message of Eddie Eagle is to instruct kids to "stop, don't touch, leave the area, tell an adult," when they encounter a gun, the VPC cynically and baselessly denounces the program as a means for the NRA to desensitize kids to guns. No matter that it works, no matter that it saves lives; as far as the VPC is concerned, the program's very connection with their arch-enemies is enough to cast it in a sinister light. We can only pray that some day common sense will prevail.

Until then, I would like to take this opportunity to thank Robert and Linda Ryker for taking the high ground, and putting the country straight about how gun safety can save lives, and about the importance of teaching our kids about firearms in a realistic fashion. But most of all, I thank them for bringing their sons up right, and instilling in them a sense of responsibility that goes beyond the concern for their own comfort and safety. Such values are becoming rare in this day and age. Mr. and Mrs. Ryker, wherever your lives may lead in the future, know that you have now provided your community with a service that cannot be repaid.