Inside Report: Gun program aims to stop child deaths

Louisiana ranks second in the nation in accidental gun deaths, behind only Alaska, so Baton Rouge law enforcement officials are trying to combat the problem by providing children with information about guns and by using an unusual prop, a watermelon.

Officers use a Shoot Tank, and it’s been hauled all over the state to fairs, schools and community events for almost a year, for live-fire demonstrations on the damage one bullet can do.

For the demonstration, an instructor places a watermelon inside a tank made of bulletproof glass and iron and shoots the fruit with a revolver affixed on the opposite side of the tank.

The impact of the small-caliber shell, splits the watermelon in two, sending small chunks flying and leaving red smears on the glass.

“It’s a very solemn moment,” said Capt. John Lawton, of the Baton Rouge Constable’s Office, on when they fire the shot. “The kids during the presentation are very active, very happy-go-lucky and we cut up and play, but when we shoot the watermelon, it’s usually just silence.”

Lawton said he feels the program is making a difference because he’s noticed fewer reports of accidental shootings in the areas where officers have destroyed watermelons since the program began.

Lawton is one of the program’s primary instructors, along with others in the Baton Rouge Police Department, East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office and U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baton Rouge, to name a few.

“We’re not pro-gun; we’re not anti-gun,” Lawton said. “Our point is that guns are in our society, and our children have a lot more knowledge than we may realize they do about guns, where they are at, even how they function.”

One of the first things instructors explain to the children is that people cannot duck and dodge bullets like in the movies, bullets travel extremely fast — some can go about three football fields in one second — and there is no reset button with the guns, Lawton said.

In the roughly 30-minute presentation, the instructors work to dispel several incorrect theories children have about guns. They touch on how hard it is to differentiate a real gun from a fake gun and how it’s virtually impossible to tell if a gun is loaded just by looking at it.

“Children are very fascinated with them and tend to have a lot of bad information,” Lawton said. The demonstration “puts good information out there in a very realistic manner.”

The target audience is children from kindergarten to fifth grade, Lawton said. Gun accidents rank as the third highest cause of childhood death in the country, the Constable’s Office reports.

Parents also are allowed to watch the presentation and Lawton said many are stunned at how much their children know about guns, including how easily guns can be found.

“A lot of the parents realize that their kids know where they have the guns put up,” Lawton said. “One of the shocking things that tends to get parents rattled are when I ask the children, ‘How many of you know where guns are hidden in your neighbors house?’ It’s amazing how many children are able to raise their hand.”

The officers have visited all the elementary and middle schools in St. Landry Parish, all schools in East Feliciana Parish and schools in Ascension Parish and Lake Charles, in addition to schools in Baton Rouge, Lawton said.

They perform the demonstration at least once, sometimes twice a week, and are booked for the rest of the school year.

The program has had such an impact that the Jefferson Parish School Board made the presentations mandatory for all 82 schools in the district next school year.

There also are plans in the works to build similar tanks for use in the north Louisiana and New Orleans areas, Lawton said.

Ryan Broussard covers public safety issues for The Advocate. He can be reached at rybroussard@theadvocate.com.