How to Talk to Your Kids About Guns

Hint: It's the same way you should talk to them about kidnapping.


Here are two true statements:

1. The number of privately held firearms in America has nearly doubled in the last two decades while the number of gun murders per capita was cut in half.

2. The number of kids abducted by strangers in 2011 was 105, out of approximately 73 million children in the United States. That's down slightly from 115 two decades ago.

After Stephen Paddock killed 58 people and injured hundreds more by firing into a crowd from the 32nd floor of his Las Vegas hotel in October, America dove headfirst into our now-traditional national shoutfest about gun laws.

One side sees its argument as self-evident: The moment when dozens of people lie dying in the street of gunshot wounds is the right time to pass laws restricting private gun ownership. The other side, by and large, frames its argument in the language of rights and freedoms: You may not like what some people do with some guns, but the Second Amendment exists for a reason.

Too often absent from both sides of the debate are well-parsed statistics. Restrictionists will cite the approximately 33,000 annual gun deaths in America, but that number reveals almost nothing about the question the public really wants answered after Vegas or the Orlando nightclub shooting before it: How likely am I to die in an incident of random violence?

Two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides, as statistician Leah Libresco explained in The Washington Post shortly after the Vegas shooting, and "almost no proposed restriction would make it meaningfully harder for people with guns on hand to use them." Next are "young men aged 15 to 34, killed in homicides" that are often gang-related, and after that "the 1,700 women murdered per year, usually as the result of domestic violence."

The number of people killed in mass shootings is far smaller—there were fewer than 90 incidents that fit the FBI's formal definition of "mass killing" with a gun in the last three decades, most of them with just four victims—yet the center of gravity in the gun control debate isn't suicide hotlines, drug legalization, or domestic violence shelters. Instead, politicians and pundits perseverate on reducing firing speeds, excluding mentally ill people from the right to buy a gun, and building lists of people with ties to terrorist groups: interventions aimed at minimizing the odds of already-rare deaths from mass shootings.

A frenzy of attempts at preventive policy making follows each high-profile incident but actually creates the conditions for future failure. Gun prohibition produces the same problems as drug or alcohol prohibition; attempts to restrict harmless sale and possession in order to catch a minority of misusers yield all kinds of unintended consequences.

Black markets make the purchase of prohibited items riskier and more expensive, and make the transactions untraceable. Bans are likely to be disproportionately enforced among black and Muslim gun owners, increasing racial disparities. Narrowly tailored restrictions will push product development teams at big firearms manufacturers and garage tinkerers alike to find workarounds that circumvent the letter of the law. And any mass confiscation of illegal weapons or accessories will lead to more violence, as die-hard gun rights believers inevitably fight back against law enforcement.

Take a misunderstanding of the scope and nature of a problem, combine it with a desire to "do something" in the face of national anguish, and you get a recipe for both bad law and cultural conflict.

A nearly identical problem plagues another heated national conversation: Are our children in danger? How likely is my kid to be grabbed by a kidnapper? Underlying much of the invective about helicopter parents, millennial snowflakes, and trophies for everyone is the question of what risks American kids realistically face.

In a country where violent crime has been largely declining for decades, and where crimes against children have declined even faster, there is nonetheless an overwhelming conviction among parents and the press that the world is more dangerous than it was for previous generations. But the FBI says reports of missing children are down 40 percent in the last two decades, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that teen homicide rates have fallen by more than 40 percent; homicides of kids under 14 are at a near-record low; and overall child mortality rates have declined almost by half.

As Lenore Skenazy and Jonathan Haidt explain in "The Fragile Generation" (page 18), the result is a cultural and legal landscape where attempts to protect kids from imagined or exaggerated risks generate new—and very real—threats to their well-being. Oversupervision and reflexive appeals to authority for conflict resolution push ordinary kid squabbles and teen misbehavior into the principal's office or even prison, instead of giving kids the chance to resolve disagreements on their own. As parents opt to keep children indoors, opportunities to practice independent decision making and to make mistakes in low-stakes situations with friendly strangers disappear. Obesity is on the rise, and physical fitness—an aid to self-determination and independence, according to J.D. Tuccille (page 14)—is suffering.

Parental paranoia also conspires with legal paternalism to keep teens out of the grown-up world. On page 54, check out a map of all the ways the law is delaying adult milestones and sending mixed messages about when adolescents can be trusted to make decisions about marriage, work, driving, smoking, and more. In her interview with Reason's Robby Soave on page 56, advice columnist turned Atlantic essayist Emily Yoffe describes a campus culture where women in particular are neither trusted nor expected to know their own minds when making decisions about sex and alcohol, and where young men are subjected to flawed adjudications where adult authorities determine their fate, sometimes without ever getting a chance to defend themselves.

Raising kids to believe in personal responsibility and autonomy is tough in a world where the politicians and bureaucrats respect neither. In the 21st century, when a child is taken from his parents by people he barely knows, it's likely to be the result not of a snatching by a stranger but of busybody neighbors calling Child Protective Services because they disagree with someone's parenting choices.

Mass shootings, kidnapping, and child abuse all happen, of course, and they are horrible. But demagoguing those small-but-real threats to push through intrusive laws is dangerous in its own way.

Unfortunately, citing statistics rarely changes hearts and minds. Each mass shooting seems to ratchet up the panic over private gun ownership. Each kidnapping calls for wall-to-wall coverage while parents enroll their children in yet another supervised extracurricular.

One reason Americans are more inclined to panic over shootings or kidnappings these days is, perversely, that these incidents are so rare. They are the last isolated cases in what was once an epidemic of commonplace violence. Because kids do not go missing as a matter of course, we freak out more on the rare occasions when they do. As even schoolyard fistfights become unusual, we treat each one like a national security incident instead of a learning experience. Our culture has changed, mostly for the good, with wealth, a robust rule of law, and an ever-expanding circle of empathy driving the drop in violence.

Legislation is a blunt instrument, and carving ever-changing mores into the legal code means pushing well-meaning adults to behave in nonsensical ways. Police, social workers, and a large number of teachers, doctors, and other trusted figures are increasingly required by law to behave as if the sidewalk in front of the school, the Publix parking lot, and the Las Vegas strip are risky environments, when in fact they're safer than they have ever been. The law is nearly always a lagging indicator of changing social practices and expectations, not a leading one.

Would-be restrictionists of all kinds thrive in a world where ordinary people believe they are constantly in deadly danger—even when that danger is grossly exaggerated.