Are Boys Natural Gunslingers?

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The National Rifle Association has long held that the combination of gun safety education and parental involvement is key to keeping kids safe around firearms. Now, a new study from a controversial researcher suggests that those generally acknowledged defenses are not enough to stop young boys from picking up, examining and even firing guns they stumble upon.

The study, run by Arthur Kellerman, head of pediatric emergency medicine at Emory University in Atlanta, monitored the behavior of 64 boys, aged 8 to 12, who were asked to wait in an observation room with a desk — in which researchers hid a pair of water pistols and one .38-caliber semiautomatic handgun. (The real weapon was empty — although rigged to feel loaded — and was wired to gauge whether the force placed on the trigger was enough to fire the gun). The boys, who were paired up with one or two friends, were told they should wait there for their parents. Researchers also told the boys they could leave the room at any time to ask questions or call for help.

Left alone in the room and watched by their parents and researchers through a one-way mirror, 75 percent of the boys found the real gun in the desk drawers, and most of those who found it picked it up and handled it. Among the boys who found the real gun, one third pulled the trigger with enough force to fire the weapon. Almost all the boys who handled the gun had some gun safety training, which emphasizes the importance of leaving guns alone and finding an adult to put the gun away.

Twenty-one of the 64 boys came from families who own guns, but those boys were no more or less likely to pick up the real gun when they found it. Parents who watched the results were reportedly caught off guard by their childrenís behavior; most underestimated their boysí interest in firearms and incorrectly predicted their childís reaction to the gun. In the twist that surprised researchers the most, 11 of the 31 boys who pulled the trigger on the gun were described by their parents as having little interest in firearms.

What does it all mean? Gun-control advocates interpret this study as a sign that guns and kids simply donít mix, and that perhaps guns should be fitted with child-resistant triggers. Gun-rights groups, on the other hand, insist the study was flawed because the sample group was so small, and because the hospital-like setting may have given the boys a false sense of safety. The NRA has been harshly critical of Kellerman in the past, arguing that his studies are barely-veiled public relations exercises for gun control.

To Meri Wallace, a New York-based child and family therapist who has written multiple books on parenting, the message is clear. "This study shows that if there is a gun in the home, kids will gravitate towards it," Wallace told TIME.com. "Parents can say no, no donít touch that, and warn the kids about the gun, but it wonít matter. This kind of study really supports the notion that there is inherent danger in having a gun in the home."