As an overprotective modern parent who gets nervous when my kids ride bicycles to a friend's house, I would not teach my children to hunt if I thought it were dangerous. Better they have a gun in their hands, than, say, a skateboard. Hunting and shooting have low accident rates precisely because we place so much emphasis on gun safety. Although hunting should be fun, teaching kids to be safe shooters doesn't call for much sense of humor. Treat the topic seriously, and children will respond to the gravity in your voice.
ASSIGNMENT NO. 1: DEMYSTIFY GUNS
Young boys, especially, find guns fascinating. Keeping guns forbidden and mysterious only increases their allure. Let your kids handle your guns with your permission and under your supervision. Show them how to check whether the chamber and magazine are empty. Let them point the gun in a safe direction. Teach them now that the only time they are ever to touch a trigger is when they want the gun to go off.
Take them to the gun club, where they will see targets smashed to bits. Show them the bloody holes your guns put into the animals you bring home. A friend likes to impress new shooters with the power of firearms by shooting a cantaloupe at 10 paces with a 12-gauge. The distinction between real and toy guns will be as clear as the difference between real and toy cars.
ASSIGNMENT NO. 2: GIVE THEM A BB GUN
Owning a BB gun can teach children good safety habits or bad ones. Kids of my generation roamed the woods with Red Ryders and no parental supervision. There's a better way. Give a child a BB gun a year or so before he or she is ready to start shooting .22s and 20-gauges. Store it with your guns and make a point of treating it like a real gun—which it is. Let your young hunter bring it along, unloaded, on short hunts with you. Insist that he carry it with the muzzle pointed in a safe direction. Pack a few BBs along for some safe target shooting at the end of the day.
ASSIGNMENT NO. 3: SPEND TIME AT THE RANGE
The more often you take your children shooting, the more practiced they'll become in handling guns safely. At the range, insist that muzzles point up, down, or downrange—always. Keep control of the ammunition yourself, and dole out shells one at a time. Kids will be scrupulously careful about muzzle control until they fire a shot. In the excitement of hearing the gun go off, they will turn to you, swinging the gun, or drop it down so it points at their toes. If the gun is empty, it's a teachable moment, not a potential tragedy. Insist on eye and ear protection, and emphasize its importance by always wearing it yourself.
ASSIGNMENT NO. 4: PICK FIRST HUNTS CAREFULLY
Your first real hunts should be for squirrels, waterfowl, deer, turkeys, or doves, sedentary hunts where the game comes to you. Leave your own gun at home. Sit right with your hunter, whispering advice and giving the go-ahead to take the safety off and shoot. Save upland hunting for last. It requires walking with a loaded gun for long periods as well as split-second shoot-or-don't-shoot decisions.
ASSIGNMENT NO. 5: LEAD BY EXAMPLE
You're trying to instill lifelong safety habits, and nothing you say speaks as loudly as your own actions when you and your child hunt together. Handle your own guns with extra emphasis on safety. While we're at it, boats, ATVs, tree stands, and motor vehicles can be just as deadly as guns if used carelessly. Your young hunter will learn all about them by watching you.