CHICAGO -- Two summers ago, my husband and I took our sons to a shooting range for multiple days of firearms training with a certified instructor. Our logic was simple: In our low-income community with lots of gang activity, it was laughable to imagine that our boys wouldn't someday find themselves in a situation where a pal had brought a gun to school or asked them to come see his parents' gun.
Did we want them to clumsily handle a deadly weapon -- seduced by the excitement of seeing a real, live gun for the first time -- or did we want them, as experienced shooters, to be able to step away from the situation with full knowledge of the danger involved? We opted for the latter and I sleep better for it.
That said, I can easily imagine either of my boys, now 11 and 14, innocently picking up a pint-size, colorful rifle and squeezing the trigger under the assumption that such an item couldn't possibly be anything other than a toy.
In fact, as we discussed the terrible incident in which a 5-year-old boy shot his 2-year-old sister in the chest with a .22-caliber firearm marketed under the name "My First Rifle," it came out that in teacher-led discussions at school about the incident, my sons' peers still could not understand that the gun in question was not actually a toy.
During our firearms training, the most important thing our instructor drilled into us was our whole reason for being there: to ensure that our kids learned that "guns are not toys."
How, exactly, do you teach that to a 5-year-old wielding a small, brightly colored gun that looks exactly like a toy? It seems practically impossible.
In the case of the Kentucky 5-year-old, it would be very easy to be satisfied with thinking, as the local coroner told a reporter, that this incident was "just one of those crazy accidents." But that's just plain lazy.
You could blame the parents -- according to news reports, the weapon was left loaded and sitting in a corner of their home. When the parents accepted this birthday present on behalf of their son, they appeared to not understand the respect it deserved.
Proper firearms training instills safety habits such as never keeping loaded weapons out in plain view, where the untrained might stumble upon them and harm themselves or others.
But in a country where even requiring a background check for the purchase of firearms sends some people into convulsions, it's ridiculous to consider a day when certified training would be required for the purchase or ownership of guns. It's easier to just call accidental firearm deaths -- 851 in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- "crazy accidents."
These "accidents" are preventable.
How in the world can it be that pellet-shooting replica guns -- generally known as Airsoft or BB guns -- are governed by federal regulations stating that they must be sold with clearly visible markings, but firearms merchants are not prohibited from selling real weapons that look like toys?
Do a Google image search. In addition to the rainbow, blue and fire engine red weapons from "My First Rifle," you'll find photos of real, hot pink Glocks, Louis Vuitton-inspired guns and blinged-out rifles. The Baltimore Police Department released a bulletin displaying pictures of real Rugers, AKs, KEL TECs and Colts that have been painted up in bright colors to look like toys.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal this past March, toy store owner and gun enthusiast Rhett Power lamented, "Let me get this straight: Children are not allowed to have toy guns that look like the real thing, but adults are allowed to have the real thing that looks like a toy? That has got to change. This isn't about 'gun control,' it's about something closer to simple decency."
Obviously, criminals are going to customize their guns to evade law enforcement. But in terms of responsibility, is this that far removed from legitimately selling real firearms that look like toys to adults -- or worse, are expressly designed for children's little bodies?
Parents are within their rights to teach their children how to shoot and care for guns responsibly at any age they feel is appropriate. But not with toy-like weapons that violate the visual and tactile safety tenet that real guns are not playthings. Get these "first" weapons off the shelves.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.