One morning, I opened my computer to find an all-too-common type of news article. The story reported that a law enforcement officer had left her firearm in a public restroom, where it had been found by a 5-year-old child.
Cue the gnashing of teeth and wailing – but first, hear the rest. The child who found the gun was not harmed, nor did she put anyone else in danger. That’s because the little girl’s parents had taught her what to do in case she ever ran across a gun. “We make [our children] understand, bad things can happen when you play with it like a toy, because it’s not a toy,” the mother said.
The little girl stopped when she saw the gun. She did not touch it. She left the area immediately, and she told an adult what she had seen. Textbook success!
Here’s the kicker: the person to whom the gun belonged had already left the restaurant. And the little girl quite rightly trusted the other adults around her – gun owners or not – to know what to do about the gun she found in a public place.
Before we dismiss this question as irrelevant (“That never happens!”), let’s explore the possible ways that a firearm may end up in the hands of a non gun owner. By looking at some of the causes and possible settings, it will be somewhat easier to explore ways to solve the problem with a minimum of fuss or danger to others.
In addition to the possibility of finding a gun in a public restroom – which happens far, far more often than it should – people have found guns in city parks, in used and rental cars, in newly-purchased homes, and in hotel rooms.
Embarrassingly, many of these forgotten guns come from law enforcement officers, but not all do. That’s not surprising, given that nearly 50% of American households legally own at least one firearm. There’s some reason to believe there may be many more gun-owning households than that, given the number of otherwise honest people who would happily lie to an anonymous pollster. And of course this statistic does not include illegal and hidden guns.
So a few rules to remember.
First, don’t panic. Guns do not “go off” by themselves. As long as no one is touching the gun, it is really nothing to worry about. It is just an object. It may be a scary object, but it is only an object. It cannot do anything dangerous on its own. You don’t have to hurry to find a solution, because the gun will simply sit there while you carefully consider what to do. It won’t suddenly jump up and run off to commit mayhem if you take too long. You have time to think.
Think about your options. If no one else can enter the area, you may want to simply leave the gun right where it is. Leaving the gun alone is probably the best choice you can make in nearly all circumstances.
However, simply leaving the gun alone is not a good choice if you must leave in order to report what you found and there is no way to lock the room behind you when you leave. It’s not a safe choice if there are people around who know even less about firearms than you do, and who can’t be trusted to leave the gun alone. And it is especially not safe if there are children around who may be fascinated by the sight of an unsecured firearm.
So if you are unable to call help from where you are, and also unable to safely leave the gun where it is when you leave to get more-knowledgeable help, you may need to take the gun with you or move it to a more secure location. Carefully think through your choices before you act.
If the gun doesn’t need to be moved, don’t touch it. A gun found in a hotel room can simply be left in the hotel room, safely behind a locked door, as you march to the front desk to report your find. In a private home, you might lock the room where you found the gun while you decide what to do.
Public restrooms are more problematic, since you may not be able to lock others out of the room when you leave. Of course, there’s always the cell phone option: stay right where you are and leave the gun untouched as you pick up the cell phone to report what you found. If you have no cell service but do have a friend with you, you can ask your friend to alert others while you stay with the gun to be sure nobody touches it or picks it up.
If you absolutely must move the gun, follow these rules.
- Assume the gun is loaded and ready to fire. Never assume that a found gun isn’t loaded. It probably is. Treat it respectfully and with appropriate caution.
- Move slowly. You’re not in a hurry. You have time to think and to move carefully. The gun won’t do anything on its own and there’s no big rush. Take all the time you need. Pay attention to what you are doing with your hands at all times.
- Never touch the trigger. The trigger makes the gun fire. You don’t want the gun to fire. So keep your fingers – all of them! – away from the trigger. Avoid touching the trigger guard area, too. The trigger guard (the loop of metal that goes underneath the trigger) is there to help you avoid touching the trigger, like a wire fence to keep you from falling into the lion’s cage. It’s best if you avoid leaning against that fence! So when you pick the gun up, put your index finger above the trigger guard, far away from the trigger and instead touching the upper part of the gun (the frame) if you can.
- Pick it up by the handle. It might be tempting to pick it up with just two reluctant fingers to hold at arm’s length, as if it were a stinky, soiled diaper that you did not want to touch. But that’s not a safe way to move a gun. If you absolutely must pick it up, pick it up by the handle so you can control it securely. Then keep it pointed away from yourself at all times.
- Point the gun at the ground, not at the sky and not just straight ahead. In most cases, the ground will be your safest bet, at least as long as your toes aren’t in the way. Avoid doing the “Charlie’s Angels” pose with it pointing at the sky. Don’t let it dangle loosely from your hand where it might inadvertently point at your knees or feet. Instead, deliberately keep it pointed about the ground about two feet in front of you. That way, if you do accidentally touch the trigger, the bullet will not hit your feet, and it will not bounce back up at you.
- Put it down gently. Avoid dropping it or throwing it down. Just set it down carefully with the barrel pointed away from you.
- Never handle the gun more than you need to in order to put it in a safe location. Avoid dithering with the gun in your hand. Simply move it from the unsafe place to the safer one, then put it down and leave it alone.
- One more rule, and this one’s very important: If someone else is already handling the gun in ways you consider unsafe, leave the area. Do not argue with the person or try to tell them what to do. Do not stick around to see whether they improve. Do not walk past them to retrieve your belongings. Just get your precious and irreplaceable body out of the area as quietly and as quickly as you are able.
- Although it’s unlikely you’ll ever come across a gun that doesn’t belong to you, it’s not impossible. With just a little forethought and some basic knowledge of firearms safety, you can stay safe and help keep others safe. Think about it now so you’ll know what to do then.
NRA “Eddie Eagle” Safety Materials: http://eddieeagle.nra.org/program-resources/program-materials