Smokey Merkley

Smokey Merkley

When I was 12 years old and my cousin Jimmy was 10 years old, we were visiting our grandparents in Blackfoot. My grandfather Andersen had built a screened-in porch with a closet that contained all his hunting and fishing equipment onto the back of his house.

Jimmy and I were pretty curious kids, so we opened the closet to see what was in it. We found an old .30-40 Krag Jorgensen rifle, like the ones used in the Spanish American War.

We really wanted to look at that rifle, but we knew from our own training that we had to ask Grandpa if we could get it out and look at it.

We asked him if we could see it and were gently scolded for getting into the closet, then complimented for coming to him and asking if we could look at the old rifle.

My grandfather knew that both Jimmy and I had been trained by our fathers to handle and shoot firearms safely, and he wanted to see what we had learned, so he took us back to the closet and instructed me to get the rifle out of the closet.

I carefully lifted the old firearm out and immediately opened the bolt without a cartridge being ejected and opened the side-mounted magazine to check for cartridges. Then I stuck my little finger into the breech to make sure that the rifle was unloaded. Satisfied that the rifle was indeed unloaded, I examined it carefully, keeping it pointed up, then handed it to Jimmy to look at.

My grandfather was pleased but not surprised that we knew how to handle firearms and didn’t miss a trick, even though we were really excited to see that rifle.

He winked at me and asked, “Why did you check to see if it was loaded? Don’t you trust me?” I explained to him that I did trust him, but if I hadn’t checked first to make sure it wasn’t loaded, my father would have ruined the rest of my day with a lecture.

I have thought about that experience and other similar experiences I had growing up. Not all adults in the 1950s kept their firearms locked up. It was common for people to keep their guns in closets or under the bed or even in accessible gun racks hanging on the wall in the house.

My friends and I were at least as curious as children today are. However, my brother and sisters and I, as well as most of my friends, lived in homes with guns, and we had been taught to handle guns safely with parental supervision. If we had not, the stage would have been set for someone to get hurt.

Today, there doesn’t seem to be as many really knowledgeable parents teaching children to handle firearms responsibly.

In 1988, the National Rifle Association introduced the Eddie Eagle Gun Safety Program to teach children through kindergarten to “Stop. Don’t Touch. Leave the Area. Tell An Adult,” if they see a gun. The program has since been presented to 28 million children in the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada. The Eddie Eagle program was updated in 2015 and its purpose is still focused on the safety of children if they see a gun.

The Eddie Eagle Program has been a big success in teaching children that guns can be dangerous in the wrong hands and that they need adult supervision when handling firearms.

By itself, the Eddie Eagle Program doesn’t go far enough in teaching gun safety to children. The program needs to be supplemented by adult supervision in handling and shooting firearms. The program doesn’t remove the curiosity of children, it only teaches them, “Stop. Don’t Touch. Leave the Area. Tell An Adult.” In other words, it teaches children to fear firearms and to run away and tell an adult.

If the curiosity of children about firearms isn’t addressed, those children will get a little older and eventually give in to the curiosity. Before that occurs, children need to be taught by a knowledgeable adult exactly what a firearm is, how they work and the safe handling, and they should be given the opportunity to shoot firearms. As a child’s curiosity is replaced by knowledge and experience, their confidence, skill and a respect for firearm safety practices will be instilled.

Smokey Merkley was raised in Idaho and has been hunting since he was 10 years old. He was a member of the faculty of Texas A&M University for 25 years. There he taught orienteering, marksmanship, self-defense, fencing, scuba diving and boxing. He was among the first DPS-certified Texas Concealed Handgun Instructors. He can be contacted at