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The Globe and Mail

The parenting divide: If we aren't over-protecting our tots, we're giving them rifles

Here's a stroke of marketing genius: Calling a children's rifle "Davey Crickett," and manufacturing the stock in eye-catching pink or camouflage to appeal to the trendy younger buyer.

The Davey Crickett .22 calibre single-shot rifle is selling for $120 (U.S.) on one website that describes it as "a fun firearm to get your young shooter started with." Its name conjures a warm nostalgia, a time when kids could disappear into the woods on their own to go huntin' varmints. It's not meant to evoke the accidental shooting of tiny siblings.

A five-year-old boy in rural Kentucky accidentally shot his two-year-old sister to death this week, reportedly with a Crickett rifle he'd received as a gift the year before. Their mom had briefly stepped outside their home when the accident happened. They live in a part of the U.S. "where some children get their first guns even before they start first grade," as the Lexington Herald-Leader put it.

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Southern Kentucky is almost a continent away from Mountain Village, Alaska, where an 8-year-old boy, playing with a .22 that police said "he used the day before to go hunting," accidentally shot dead his five-year-old sister. The two shootings happened a day apart.

It's an alien world where guns are marketed at children. Well, not marketed at children, of course, because children don't buy them. Their parents do, or their grandparents, because it's part of a culture they want to share. You can find their arguments in the online magazine Gunblast: "One of the most important things that we can do as shooters and hunters is to pass along the gift and right of gun ownership to our children and grandchildren."

The United States really is a country of two halves – not divided by red and blue or rural and urban, but by the way it treats its children, either by wrapping them in cotton wool bought at the local Paranoia Mart or leaving them alone with loaded firearms. Think of it as attachment parenting versus detachment parenting.

In many ways, we've made the world much safer for children – too safe, some would say. Brooklyn's Park Slope mothers shudder at the sight of a plastic bottle that contains BPA. The accident-charting outfit Safe Kids tracks children's product recalls, dozens in the past month alone: 5,000 pairs of shoes recalled because of a "fall hazard," 19,000 disco lights that might give electric shocks. Safe Kids lists the dramatic decrease in the number of children's accidental deaths over the past 20 years, with one glaring omission: Gun deaths aren't included.

God forbid you'd put your child in a room with a rogue disco light, but it's fine to give them firearms a decade before they're old enough to drive or buy a beer at the store. "My first rifle" is the how the Crickett's manufacturer, Keystone Sporting Arms, sells kids' guns, complete with testimonials about how awesome and wicked they are.

The company's Crickett website was taken down in the wake of the Kentucky shooting, but you can find the gun, and similar kiddie artillery, in numerous other places. Buy the Marlin XT-22 Youth Series rifle, for example, and you're buying a way of life: "Pass on your love of shooting and hunting to the next generation," reads the online sales pitch, "and give them the right start with this new line of rifles."

One girl, opening her pink Crickett on a YouTube video, talks about how her parents just bought the gun for her at Wal-Mart. (There's a minimum age for buying long guns in the U.S. but not for possessing them, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.)

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In parts of the States, you get hand-wringing over whether kids should even be allowed to play with toy guns, or whether this will exacerbate the phallo-patriarchal-military-industrial complex. "I'm a police officer and there's no way I'd let my child play with toy guns," one mother writes on a parenting blog. The well-meaning forehead-furrowers at PBS provide "six things a parent can do to ensure that a child's interest in toy guns doesn't get out of hand."

Then, only a click away – in the same country, but separated by an ideological and cultural universe – you'll find a video called "options for your child's first firearm." Standing at the counter of a gun shop, the proprietor shows off "the Mighty Mouse," which is "a great little gun for a kid." Another is "a great gun you can grow into."

The message of the video is hardly subtle: Buy up, mom and dad! It's your patriotic duty. "You're creating more gun enthusiasts and more sportsmen," says the guy in the video. "Overall, that's what our country needs, is more people interested in guns."

Or maybe the problem is that there are already too many people interested in guns, and some of them aren't old enough to cross the road. A child or teen dies or is injured by guns every 30 minutes in the U.S., according to the Children's Defense Fund – 18,270 of them in 2010 alone. It might be that those numbers are unfathomable, as they fall and echo into a great empty divide.

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