Distortion sold as reality. Gun Un-safety through Behavioral Science.

In the clip from Dateline’s series, My Kid Would Never Do That, in the episode about child gun safety, Dr. Ray Miltenberger (PhD., Board Certified Behavior Analyst) was the behavior analyst interviewed – called Dr. Ray. In the abbreviated public clip to promote his methods for child gun safety, there is a serious distortion. (The first link, below) One vignette shows three boys approaching the table. They then run away to tell an adult. That looks like success, but that isn’t the full story.

If you watch the full vignette, something interesting happens after the “experiment” ends. The adult, a production assistant, mistakenly places the gun back on the table while the boys are still free to do what they want. (The second link) They return to the gun. Two of them pick it up. They make a fantasy out of the event and try to figure out a way to put fake blood on one of them. They want to trick an adult into thinking someone was shot. During their fantasy, the gun is moved from one table to another – plenty of handling to cause a discharge. That is an obvious fail. If the gun had been real these children would have been at serious risk of serious injury or death – precisely because of the training they got from a well respected scientist. That is not perceivable in the shortened promo.  You have to watch the rest of the videos to find this fact.

It appears that the three boys did what Dr Ray taught them – see a gun, , dont’ touch it, report it to an adult. They actually did that. However, as there was no aversive stimulus connected to actually picking up the gun, they merely did the steps taught by Dr. Ray. They learned the three steps perfectly and also learned the “end of behavior” – because the positive reinforcement was presented at a time analogous to when Dr. Ray ended it during classroom instruction. 1) Find a gun 2) Go get an adult 3) Get praised – and the unmentioned fourth – go play.

In another example of failure, a child quite clearly picks up the gun. The father is watching from another room and is horrified. Later, when a father asks his child, “Why did you pick up the gun” the child guilelessly answers, “I wanted to.” The father answers, “I love you. I’m glad you’re safe. If this was a real gun that could have been very scary.” How will that response affect the child’s behavior in the future? Of course the kid picked it up because he ‘wanted to’. That’s what kids do. The father’s very sensitive words will do nothing to change that.

When questioned, Dr. Ray says that behavioral skills training (BST) isn’t effective all the time. He says it’s about 50/50. That means that of ten children trained with BST, five are still at risk of blowing someone’s head off. How do the horrible side effects of punishment for touching a gun compare to a bullet wound? What if contingent punishment can achieve a near 100% avoidance to “gun touching.” There is no doubt that contingent punishment works. Children don’t touch cactus needles. They don’t touch hot pots or pans. They run to momma when they skin their knee and learn to ride a bike because of contingent punishment for losing their balance or steering into a tree. If one crafted a gun that caused similar pain, the “run to momma” response would already be installed and functional. You can look around at the life of any child and see that contingent punishment blocks behaviors and creates lasting inhibitions and can trigger the behaviors Dr. Ray needs to make his program most effective –  both running away from something and finding an adult. Apparently crafting an analog to existing, common child responses to aversive control is not a function of BST or ABA.

Let’s See the Evidence:
So, where is the “evidence” that using punishment to stop kids from touching guns doesn’t work? Where is the study that took a cheap window and door alarm and hooked up a booby trap to set off an alarm when the gun was moved? ($10 at Home Depot/ If you really want to protect your child, you’ll get an exploding powder-bomb used for air-soft combat. If you put it behind a couch, the report will scare the bejezis out of the kid and the powder flying around the room adds to the shock.) What if the alarm (an Sd for punishment analogous to the word “NO”) was followed by an adult proceeding to the child and sticking a 22 ga. needle in his arm? OMG, what a cruel suggestion! Only a brute would do that. The problem with this knee-jerk response is that the child was routinely pierced with needles as an infant and again while growing up. His doctor did that when he was a baby to inoculate the child against potentially lethal diseases. If we did have a signal that marked the bad behavior and followed it with a painful needle stick, what effect will that have on the operant “gun-touching”? It would stop it, just like touching a cactus needle stops “cactus needle touching”.  If a needle stick is acceptable to prevent the child’s death from small pox, why is it not acceptable to prevent the child’s death from a gunshot? OK, so you are too 21st Century to use a needle to save a child’s life. I understand that. However, you know the principle would work because if you examine your past you know that you learned inhibitions in this very same way.

If you don’t approve of using a needle to save a child’s life, how about spanking? What if swatting the child’s butt would create an inhibition against touching a gun? Is that off the table because someone told you that spanking was horrible? Tens of millions of people are alive in this country who were spanked for unacceptable behavior. None of them are in graveyards as a result of the spanking. Plenty of young children are in grave yards because they were never punished for touching a gun. So, my appeal is to say that if you take someone’s word for protecting your child based on a 50/50 success rate, you might want to find someone who can do better than that. A non-sentient cactus can give you 100%.



Note: Dr. Ray starts kids at 4 years old. The higher risk ages are 2-4 and 10-12. Meaning Dr. Ray’s 50/50 doesn’t cover the 2-4 age group at all. In essence, Dr. Ray starts his BST after the more serious risk has passed. http://everytown.org/documents/2014/10/innocents-lost.pdf

A Logical Analysis:
Now we get to the meat of the matter. Contingent punishment stops behavior. Positive “role playing” doesn’t. Behavior analysts know this. It has been a part of their sacred literature since 1938 and reflects the common knowledge of humanity for hundreds of thousands of years. Contingent punishment is the tool used by bullies and thugs to keep their victims passive. It is the force that teaches us not to touch hot irons or car radiators. It’s a fact. It isn’t going to go away. So, let’s look at the sacred documents for a second and see what the literature of behavior analysis has to say about how to prevent a child from touching a gun.

“One kind of reinforcing stimulus…apparently produces a decrease in strength of the operant. If pressing the lever is correlated with strong electric shock, for example, it will eventually not be elicited at all.” B. F. Skinner, Behavior of Organisms

This was still known, 45 years later…

“Punishment can reduce a behavior’s frequency below its operant level to a zero level of occurrence. If such complete response suppression is produced, it is clear that the behavior will not recover unless a special effort is made to reestablish it.” Dr. Ron Van Houten: The Effects of Punishment on Human Behavior, Axelrod and Apsche, Academic Press, 1983, Chpt 2, pg 32

Now I will rewrite Skinner’s words and we will know what modern behavior analysts do not want people to know.

“One kind of reinforcing stimulus…apparently produces a decrease in strength of the operant. If touching a gun is correlated with strong electric shock, for example, it (gun touching) will eventually not be elicited at all.”

Now ask the bigger question. Is a strong electric shock at all on the level of a gunshot wound in terms of harmful side-effects? (How strong would it have to be to stop a 2-year-old? Not very.) The lesser question is why a BCBA, PhD behavior analyst didn’t breath a word about the real, known way to get 100% protection. Beats me.


2 thoughts on “Distortion sold as reality. Gun Un-safety through Behavioral Science.

  1. So would you agree that in any instance where a child touches a gun the best available option during the younger ages is a spanking? I understand 2-4, reasoning isn’t all there at that point, but at 10-12 couldn’t you reason with the child with a stern talking (not positively reinforcing) showing disappointment?

    I am not against spanking, but it’s use should be utilized in the correct manner.

  2. Brandon, If you use the four criteria I have established for creating inhibitions, the specific modality isn’t the issue. This isn’t a matter of reasoning. Can a 2 year old learn to avoid a cactus needle? If so, the brain is already functioning at the level needed to teach an inhibition to touching guns – the ability to make a respondent association. Miltenberger needs to have children who are verbal to be able to make his BST program ‘kinda work’, even though they are already out of the prime danger zone. Meaning he crafted his program based on a template of what he knows how to do rather than what would be most likely to work to protect those most at risk. Much like a witch doctor who chants and rattles beads. It’s voodoo with a PhD attached.

    As for spanking, it is harmless and potentially life-saving. It has thousands of years of evidence to prove those statements. If learning how to use it is an issue, one would think that 70 years of behavioral science would have actually done that by now. So, abusus no tollit usum. The abuse of a tool is not an argument against its proper use.

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