Special Needs Kids and Guns

gvb2000-image-1I had a chance to talk on the phone with the inimitable Kathy Jackson today, and we had a terrific chat. One of the things we talked about was a problem that’s vexed me for some time: How to use a firearm for self-defense, and how to empower our children to be able to defend themselves, when our kids have developmental or mental health challenges.

As I’ve alluded to previously on the blog, my daughter “Nutmeg” was adopted from the foster care system. She had a great many things happen to her early in life that should not, in my opinion, ever happen to a child. (I’m going to leave it at that out of respect for her privacy.) But the result of those early traumas is that Nutmeg has some challenges in the areas of impulse control, judgment, and decision-making.

Obviously, those traits could be dangerous when combined with the presence of a firearm. However, they also manifest themselves in behavior choices on Nutmeg’s part that increase her risk of victimization. So, what’s a parent to do? After chatting with Kathy about the issue, here are some things I came up with:

  • Recognize that a gun is not a solution to every problem. More than that, though, a gun isn’t a solution for every person either. I remain hopeful, with time and added maturity (and additional therapeutic intervention), that Nutmeg’s skills will continue to improve. That may happen, or it may not. She may join the ranks of gun owners someday, or not. 
  • Be extra attentive to safety if you have guns in the house. I have a friend whose 12-year-old daughter is super-responsible and trustworthy. I’d have no concerns whatsoever about leaving her alone in a house with an unlocked firearm. Even though Nutmeg is older, I would not leave a firearm around and unlocked if she was here alone. If you have kids whose capacity to exercise judgment and make good decisions is limited, either by age and maturity or by developmental challenges, you need to be extra careful about keeping your guns on your body, locked up, or otherwise inaccessible.
  • Be realistic about your child’s capability. Self-delusion lies at the root of many tragic occurrences, and self-delusion can be downright deadly where guns are concerned. Ask yourself questions like these, and be honest about the answers: Is my child responsible enough to have access to a firearm? Is she trustworthy enough to be left home alone when guns are around? Can I trust her to follow directions on the range? If the answers to these questions, or ones like them, are “no”, you need to respond accordingly – even if that means making choices you wish you didn’t have to make.
  • Focus on teaching situational awareness. I’m reluctant to teach Nutmeg to shoot given her challenges, but I recognize that she still needs to learn how to keep herself safe. And to me, the largest part of personal safety comes from situational awareness. Knowing how to fight our way out of danger is an important skill, to be sure, but avoiding the danger in the first place is much better. So I rarely pass up an opportunity to teach and reinforce Nutmeg’s awareness of her surroundings. This is the core of personal safety for me, and it’s the core of what I’m teaching her.
  • Consider a martial arts class. Martial arts provide a tool to ensure safety when access to a weapon isn’t possible, and also pay dividends in terms of physical fitness, self-esteem, discipline and character. I’m not sure if Nutmeg is interested in pursuing this option, but I certainly think it’s worth encouraging.

What do you think? If you have a child with special needs, I’d especially be interested in hearing what you decided to do in this regard.

Photo credit: gunvault.com


  1. Steve W says:


    My son is adopted and came from a similar situation with similar “issues”. I have made it a point to not teach him anything about a gun being a solution to a problem however, I have started to involve him in shooting sports in a low impact sort of way. We participate in a ‘tactical rifle’ match and a .22 only Steel Challenge held at a local range.

    His ability to focus has improved quite a bit although he hasn’t made the jump from shooting focus to task focus quite yet. I have him do accuracy drills and transition drills on paper and then we find something reactive to shoot. This usually consists of spent shotgun hulls, a bowling pin and empty soda cans that are refilled with water. Part of the deal is that all the trash has to be picked up before we finish for that session. In my mind that helps instill a bit of work ethic along with cleaning up his mess.

    It might be worth looking into a shooting sport for ‘Nutmeg’ that emphasizes accuracy and focus as opposed to teaching defensive skills. Not all shooting has to be training for defense.

    Best regards,

    • Thanks for this, Steve! That’s a good suggestion, and one I’ll definitely consider. It’s a concern to me that the nature of Nutmeg’s challenges means I cannot reliably count on her to follow range safety commands…but that’s something we’re working on.

      Thanks for reading, and for your comment!

      • Steve W says:


        What works for us may not work for you the same way. I’ll throw out a few things that I’ve done that might be worth trying.

        Start off with targets that provide instant gratification. A box of clay pigeons goes a long way and provides quite a bit of fun. They are also biodegradable.

        I started my son off with an M-6 Survival Gun. It is a combination single shot .22 rifle and .410 shotgun. As he moved up into shooting static targets when I shot sporting clays it helped that he didn’t have to change the manual of arms to swap from a .22 rifle to a .410 shotgun. The M-6’s are getting hard to find but there are other combination guns, some of which require the changing out of the barrel that are relatively inexpensive.

        Watch Nutmeg like a hawk. Be prepared to take control of the gun at any instant. When kids are easily distracted little things like muzzle awareness are not even on their radar.

        Don’t be afraid to end the shooting session if safety becomes an issue. It’s a harsh lesson but it sticks. Take the gun away and put it up, no more shooting for that day.

        Keep the sessions short. Make them interesting enough that Nutmeg is having fun but short enough to leave a desire to do it again. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are solid shooting skills.

        With safety in mind let Nutmeg progress at her pace initially. The catalyst I used was when my son started talking about wanting a deer rifle for his very own. I told him he would have to participate in matches at my discretion, show progress and improved gun-handling skills and stick with the same gun for at least one year. At the end of the year it was my decision as to whether he would be ready. So far, so good.

        Those are just a few ideas that seems to have worked. I’m pretty opportunistic when it comes to dealing with him, so it helps to be able to think on the fly. It also helps to not commit to a interest until it’s been expressed several times.

        Best regards,

      • Thanks for some great suggestions, Steve! Lots to think about.

  2. Another most excellent article and very timely. Awareness and the ability to assess a situation rationally and quickly are most certainly the keystone of anyone’s ability to function well, let alone defensively.

    I’d only add that the child who is not mature enough or responsible enough to be left alone in a home with a gun… is not really a good candidate to be left alone anywhere, with anything much. Guns are, of course, not the only thing that can hurt them, be used to hurt others, or cause nasty damage.

    And that isn’t limited to children, troubled, limited or otherwise. It applies to everyone. A person who cannot be trusted with a gun – even just a gun in the room – should not be left alone with access to anything else that could be used to hurt themselves or others.

    • I definitely agree with you – and that’s why, even though she’s much older than I was when my parents started trusting me to be home alone, Nutmeg never gets left home by herself. Recognizing limits – our own and others’ – is an important safety skill, I think.

  3. I am glad that someone else is discussing a topic that i have not yet publicly broached. My oldest daughter has Aspergers. She has been to the range with me on occasion to shoot the family .22 rifle. When she is focused she is great. But she can be quite aloof. Also can have quite a temper. Especially with sibling over absolute nothings. Due to ages (10-4) all of my firearms are under lock and key when not on person. My hope is that one day she will have enough to participate in shooting activities on her own.

    • “Due to ages (10-4) all of my firearms are under lock and key when not on person. My hope is that one day she will have enough to participate in shooting activities on her own.”

      It sounds like you’re making the necessary choices to keep your family safe, which is the most important thing. I have a family member who has Asperger’s, so I know what that can be like. I hope that with time and encouragement, your kids will all be able to enjoy shooting with you.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. I have a 26-year-old who is mentally retarded, with ADHD and autistic tendencies. Because he really does not understand the differences between offense and defense, he doesn’t “get” boundaries, and he doesn’t understand right (in the moral sense) from wrong, we have had to make the decision not to let him have anything that even resembles a firearm (no squirt guns, popguns, rubber-band shooters, etc.). (Sometimes it breaks my heart, such as when he puts his Legos in a gun shape and tucks it in his waistband. We emphasize when he does that that he’s never to point it at a person.)

    We are not about to give up our defensive firearms, though.

    We take him to gun shows – being fortunate to have at least one a month within range of us – where he gets to look but not touch, and have used that to reinforce the you-do-not-touch-guns rule we have in our house.

    We *think* it has taken. Not too long ago, spouse left his gun on the bed. Child went in to our room, and came out to tell Daddy he left his gun in there. Did not touch it.

    Not that we would leave a firearm where he could get to it, but it’s good to know at least that the “don’t touch” rule appears to be understood.

    It’s not easy. It’s like having a perpetual two-year-old around, one who constantly needs to be kept from things that could hurt him. But since he can’t defend himself, it’s good to know we can.

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