James Hayman: Most parents will tell you teenagers are stupid. Even smart teenagers are stupid. Maybe it’s because, as I’ve read, adolescent brains and emotional circuitry are not yet fully formed. Or maybe its just because they haven’t yet had enough experience to give them the maturity to make the critical decisions demanded by adult life. But the simple fact is that teenagers do stupid things both to themselves and to others. They act impulsively and over-react to slights either real or imagined. They get too angry. The bullies among them are too prone to bully the weak. The weak are too easily convinced that they somehow deserve the bullying and the emotional rejection of their peers.
Thank God, my two kids survived the stupidities of their teen years and are now smart, successful adults. Unfortunately, too many other teenagers don’t survive.
A couple of days ago I read a piece written by Sabrina Tavernise in the New York Times about a seemingly well-adjusted seventeen-year-old Wyoming boy named Kameron Reichert who committed suicide by shooting himself with a gun that was kept in his parents house. Apparently it was a treasured family possession.
“Guns are like a grandmother’s diamonds in the Reichert family,” Tavernise wrote, “heirlooms that carry memory and tradition. They are used on the occasional hunting trip, but most days they are stored, forgotten, under a bed. So when Kameron used one on himself, his parents were as shocked as they were heartbroken.
“I beat myself up quite a bit over not having a gun safe or something to put them in,” Mr. Reichert said. But he said even if he had had one, “There would have been two people in the house with the combination, him and me.”
The article went on to cite some statistics I found chilling. Nearly 20,000 of the 30,000 gun deaths in the US in 2010 were the result of suicides. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers. And when it comes to suicide “Guns are particularly lethal. Suicidal acts with guns are fatal in 85 percent of cases, while those with pills are fatal in just 2 percent of cases, according to the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.”
Some people will argue, as someone wrote in response to the article in the Times, that if a person truly wants to end their own life, it should be their legal right to do so. With the elderly or terminally ill I don’t necessarily disagree with that point of view. But I don’t think anyone can cogently argue that that philosophy should apply to seventeen year olds.
A teenager experiencing a momentary feeling of despair is not mature enough to be even remotely capable of making the decision whether or not to end his or her own life. But too many do.
Others will argue, correctly, that guns are not the only way teenagers kill themselves.. But, of all the ways I can think of to end one’s own life, a gun is certainly the easiest, the most effective, and all too often the most readily available. If a gun is stored under a bed, using it to kill yourself requires almost no forethought or planning. It can be accomplished easily, the gun used impulsively and without due consideration. I feel depressed. I feel rejected. My boyfriend hates me. My girlfriend dumped me. I’m too stupid ever to make a success of my life so I just can’t bear the thought of living a moment longer. There’s a gun right over there under the bed. Boom boom. Bang bang . End of life. End of story.
Because we know that teens are not ready to make certain decisions we try as an adult society to restrict their access to dangerous things. We have passed (admittedly imperfect) laws that make it more difficult for teenagers to get access to cigarettes or to buy or drink alcohol or to drive cars without certain restrictions. We have passed other laws that make it a serious crime for adults to prey on younger teens sexually even when the sex is consensual, as it often is. Even when the adult mistakenly believes the child is of age, statuatory rape is still a crime punishable by imprisonment.
I believe society has a moral obligation to protect its children. And I believe teenagers are and should be considered children at least until they are old enough to vote or drink or serve in the military. Or to consent to having sex with an adult.
As we discuss gun control, I believe we should also pass laws that require parents and other adult caretakers to effectively restrict teens’ access to guns in the home or anywhere else. Laws that would require gun locks on all weapons and also require parents to keep their guns in a gun safe. Laws that also make it a crime (accessory to murder? I don’t know I’m not a lawyer) to do what Kameron Reichert’s father suggested he would have done: Given his son the combination to the lock.
Of course, some teens would still find a way to kill themselves or others. By taking pills or by slashing their wrists or by jumping off a bridge. Or, like a friend of mine from high-school days did, by hanging himself in his parents’ closet. Others would find a way to obtain guns illegally just as they do now.
But making sure guns in the home are securely locked away would slow depressed or angry children down, give them time to get over it and make it less likely to act impulsively in a way that can never be taken back. If such action saves even one life, it will have been worth the effort.