Objectives. To determine how boys behave when they find a handgun in a presumably safe environment and to compare parental expectations of their child's interest in real guns with this observed behavior.
Methods. A convenience sample of 8- to 12-year-old boys was recruited from families that completed a survey on firearm ownership, storage practices, and parental perceptions. Parents were asked to rate their child's interest in real guns on a scale from 1 to 5: 1–2 = low interest, 3 = moderate interest, and 4–5 = high interest. Parents of an eligible child were asked to bring to the exercise 1 of their son's playmates and/or a sibling in the same age range. After informed parental consent was obtained, each pair or trio of boys was placed in a room with a 1-way mirror and observed for up to 15 minutes. Two water pistols and an actual .380 caliber handgun were concealed in separate drawers. The handgun contained a radio transmitter that activated a light whenever the trigger was depressed with sufficient force to discharge the firearm. After the exercise, each boy was asked whether he thought that the pistol was real or a toy. Before leaving, each child was counseled about safe behavior around guns.
Results. Twenty-nine groups of boys (n= 64) took part in the study. The mean age of participants was 9.8 years. Twenty-one of the groups (72%) discovered the handgun (n = 48 boys); 16 groups (76%) handled it (n = 30 boys). One or more members in 10 of the groups (48%) pulled the trigger (n = 16 boys). Approximately half of the 48 boys who found the gun thought that it was a toy or were unsure whether it was real. Parental estimates of their child's interest in guns did not predict actual behavior on finding the handgun. Boys who were believed to have a low interest in real guns were as likely to handle the handgun or pull the trigger as boys who were perceived to have a moderate or high interest in guns. More than 90% of the boys who handled the gun or pulled the trigger reported that they had previously received some sort of gun safety instruction.