It’s always a delight to scroll through social media and see a video of a toddler having fun. A beaming kid can provoke vicarious smiles and chuckles, which is why videos of cute kids playing are one of the foundational pillars of the internet. But so is outrage, which happens to be a fairly reasonable reaction to the video of happy 4-year-old named Maverick playing with a modern bolt-action rifle at the national NRA conference recently posted by “huntress” Kendall Jones. Maverick is very happy. Adults concerned for the safety of children, not so much.
Me? I’m just mesmerized. There’s so much there to unpack.
The video shows Jones talking to a little boy giddily dry firing a rifle on the bottom rack of a lighted display. “Show me what you do with a gun,” she says. Little Maverick with a big grin stretched across his face, pulls back the rifle’s charging handle before ramming the bolt into the breach and dry firing the gun with a loud click. “Do it again!” Jones enthuses before telling the boy to remove and replace the magazine which he does while giggling.
Jones’s tweet for the video reads, “Parenting done RIGHT!” This is an odd sentiment because Jones is clearly not this child’s mother and for the other obvious reason.
This video is INCREDIBLE!! Parenting done RIGHT
Clearly, Maverick loves what he’s doing. What kid wouldn’t? There’s a deeply visceral pleasure in the action of a rifle. Gun makers know this. The specific sound of a bolt as it opens and closes the breech is pretty damn satisfying. Pulling a trigger, and hearing the firing pin click also plays into a 4-year-olds fascination with cause and effect. In short, the rifle, while not a toy, includes all the fun stuff that makes a toy fun to play with (there’s a reason Nerf takes great pains to make sure guns cock in cool and visceral ways).
The problem with the video is that it’s hard to separate little Maverick from the data. In 2017, a kid around Mavericks age shot another kid his age roughly once a week. None of those kids meant to murder their playmates. They were excited by cause and effect as well. Also, they were holding guns.
There’s no way to tell whether Maverick will become one of the statistics. If his parents are responsible gun owners and their rifles are locked up, unloaded, and never accessible to him, he’ll likely be okay. But encouraging him to play with guns only brings that likelihood down. The whole “Parenting done right” sentiment is about second amendment rights and politics and, if we give Jones some credit, the joy of children, but it’s not about responsibility or safety — both of which have a lot to do with parenting done right.
It would be one thing if gun-owning parents were better at ensuring their firearms are locked up. According to a study recent study from the journal Pediatrics, a full two-thirds of gun-owning parents, responding to a 2015 national survey, reported they failed to lock up guns or keep them unloaded. That’s a particularly damning statistic when placed alongside research from another Pediatrics study showing that between 2003 and 2012 children aged 0 to 12-years-old were more likely than older children to die in an unintentional shooting.
Based on that study, a full 60 percent of unintentional gun deaths occurred as a child was playing with a gun. Another 16 percent of those children died because the perpetrator believed the gun was unloaded or the safety was on. Additionally, children aged 0 to 12 who were unintentionally shot during between 2003 and 2012 were more likely to have been shot by someone their same age.
I guess I can give Johnson the benefit of the doubt. It’s possible this amazing parenting she thinks she’s seeing has something to do with teaching children responsible gun use. As a hunter and a mother herself, she’s likely had gun talks with her own daughter. But the problem is that even gun education fails to keep kids safe. A study looking into the effectiveness of the NRA’s own Eddie the Eagle gun safety program found that it worked well to get kids to repeat safety rules (don’t touch the gun and tell an adult) but when kids were put in a situation where there was a gun, they were just as likely as kids without the training to handle the gun. That’s part of the reason that the American Academy of Pediatrics insists that a gun-free home is the safest for children.
What’s chilling about watching Maverick himself gleefully pulling the trigger is that it’s clearly super easy for even a four-year-old to prepare a gun to fire, and then fire it. As much as I love to see happy kids I’d prefer it if I saw a child being frustrated by the inability to lock and load. It is, frankly, insane that we make guns so accessible to kids and so incredibly easy for them to fire while we simultaneously ban actual toys for kids that are statistically far less dangerous, like lawn darts and kinder eggs.
In the end, when watching the happy Maverick, I don’t see good parenting. Because good parenting is more than making sure a kid is happy, it’s also about making sure they are safe. What I see is a gun-rights advocate using a child as a political symbol in a way that is nihilistic, cynical and impossible to look away from.