How to Talk to Kids About Guns

Father and son talking at home while having a snack

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No matter what your stance is on gun ownership, and regardless whether you actually have a gun in your house, it’s important to talk to kids about guns. Kids have a natural curiosity about firearms and without appropriate education, their ignorance could be deadly.

On average, 19 children are killed or receive emergency treatment for gunshot wounds every day in the United States. Firearms are the second leading cause of injury-related deaths in children ages 1 to 17.

It’s estimated that one-third of Americans own a gun. So the likelihood that a neighbor, friend, or family member has a gun—possibly unsecured—in their house is pretty high.

It doesn’t matter how smart you think your child is at recognizing danger or if you don’t believe she would ever go exploring in someone else’s house. It means little that your firearms are always locked up—even if the ammunition is separate—or that hunting and target practice are an integral part of your family’s culture.

The best way to avoid firearm-related accidents is to talk to your kids about guns over and over again. Holding regular conversations will remove the mystery and help them understand what guns are, how they work, and how they can keep themselves safe.

Elementary Schoolers and Younger

Unfortunately, many parents trust their children to never touch a gun after they’ve been warned about gun safety. But multiple studies have found that even when kids have been told to never touch a gun, they are likely to touch a firearm when an opportunity presents itself. And the consequences can be fatal.

So while talking to your preschoolers and elementary schoolers about guns is vital, your child is still at the age where you need to do much of the work for him—and that means talking to the adults in the homes that you visit to find out if there are weapons in the house.

Asking about guns in the home might feel like an awkward conversation to have, like you’re accusing them of running an unsafe household, but try to move past that—it’s all in the name of your child’s safety. In fact, another adult will likely appreciate that you’re bringing up such an important subject.

In a matter of fact manner, say something like, “Before I let my children loose in your house, I just want to find out whether there are any things they could get into. Do you have any guns in your home?” If they do, insist that all firearms be unloaded, locked securely, and inaccessible to your child.

Educate Your Child on Gun Safety

But, of course, this can’t be your only line of defense. Little kids—particularly little boys—naturally have the impulse to pretend to shoot with guns, and research shows that children as old as 12 have a difficult time distinguishing between real and play guns. Therefore, it’s never too early to talk to your child about what to do if they come across a firearm.

Start by showing him photos of various types of guns, so he knows how to identify them. Explain that if he ever comes across one—even if he thinks it might just be a pretend gun—that he should immediately leave the area and find an adult.

Push the point home by quizzing them. Ask questions like, “What would you do if you saw a gun on a table at your friend’s house?” Offer heaps of praise when they answer correctly.

As your child gets older, expand the conversation. Discuss the difference between the use of guns in TV shows and video games, emphasizing that they’re make-believe situations, and what can happen if someone is actually shot—they don’t regenerate a life and get back up.

Middle Schoolers and Tweens

Once your child is in middle school, they will have likely heard about at least a few incidents of gun violence around the country—or potentially in your own community. Use the news as a jumping-off point to keep the dialogue open about how dangerous guns can be.

Continue talking about the importance of not touching guns, especially if he finds a gun in someone else's home. Make it clear that although your child may think he knows how to handle a gun safely, picking up a firearm could have deadly consequence.

Your child also runs the risk of having a friend who wants to show off the weapons that are in their house. Standing up to friends is a delicate subject, so brainstorm ways your tween can get out of the situation without causing any commotion.

Suggest they say something like, “This is boring. Let’s go do something else.” If your child has a friend who offers to show them a gun, coach them to say something like, “Maybe later. Let’s go do something outside.”

Your child doesn’t need to preach or lecture friends about gun safety. They just need to remove themself from the situation.

If you allow your child to hunt or to own a BB gun, make sure you are actively involved in teaching them safety basics. And create a clear rule that says he isn't allowed to use them unless you are supervising him.

High Schoolers

While in some areas of the country, teens are toting rifles to go hunting after school, in other areas, teens are carrying guns to intimidate others. Regardless of where you live or how guns are viewed in your community, it’s important to hold regular conversations with your teen about gun safety.

Teenagers can be impulsive so even if your teen knows how to handle a gun safely, a split-second decision is all it takes for an injury to happen. So it’s important to keep guns locked up even if you think your teen would never touch your firearms.

It may feel awkward to bring up the subject of guns with your teen. A good way to start a tough conversation is by asking questions like, “Do kids at school talk about guns?” or “Do you think any of your friends have ever carried a gun?”

It’s also important to bring up the issue of gun violence in school. Talk about what to do if another student brings a gun to school—namely, tell a teacher, guidance counselor or principal as soon as possible.

It’s worth mentioning that they can always tell an adult if another student simply suggests or threatens to bring a gun to school. Remind your teen that, by doing this, they could save lives and prevent a tragic situation.

Talk about any safety concerns your teen may have as well. Ask if there are times when they are afraid that someone may bring a gun to a party or that someone may have a gun at school. Talking about your teen’s concerns and helping them develop a plan that will keep them safe can calm some of their fears.

Gun Issues and Rules to Consider

Regardless of how you personally feel about guns, here are some issues you should consider:

  • Storing a gun: If you own a gun, keep it locked up. Don’t simply hide it in a "secret" place because there’s a good chance your child will eventually find it. Do hide the keys to the gun cabinet, however, and never leave your gun unattended when you’re handling or cleaning it.
  • Toy guns: Deciding whether to allow your child to own toy guns is a personal decision. Plus, note that even if you don’t purchase toy guns, there’s a good chance your child will pretend crayons, sticks, or a piece of celery is a gun, so consider how you want to respond to pretend gun play. You might set rules such as, “No pretending to shoot people.”
  • Violent media: Many video games and movies romanticize gun violence. So, carefully consider what your child is watching. Monitor your child’s media consumption and limit the amount of violence your child is exposed to.

A Word From Verywell

Guns and violence aren't easy topics to discuss with your child, no matter what their age. As a parent, you want to protect your child from all the scary things that are out there in the world. By keeping the conversation open about guns, though, that’s exactly what you’re doing—protecting your child.

Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.