Anthony Galella knows that guns kill and accidents happen. If he ever came across a gun, he said, he would "call the cops and tell them."
But when Galella, 15, stumbled across a gun at a YMCA in Yonkers, N.Y., last year — disabled and placed there, unbeknownst to him, by ABCNEWS as part of a hidden-camera experiment — he found that sounding the alarm and calling for an adult did not come so easy.
"Something in my head was just telling me to touch it and play with it," he explained.
Galella picked up the gun, then put it back — not once or twice, but nine times. Instead of calling someone, he ended up stashing the weapon out of sight, to help him resist picking it up again.
An Irresistible Urge
More than 50 teenagers participated in the same PrimeTime experiment and many, including those who had recently received warnings to stay away from guns, responded similarly, agonizing over whether to tell an adult, playing with the gun, and aiming it at one another.
The experiment, which took place last year, suggests what some clinical studies have shown: Teenagers who claim to understand the danger of guns and say they would do the right thing if they found one are in fact so seduced by the sight of a gun that they cannot resist the urge to touch it.
Even warning and educating kids about the danger of guns can have absolutely no effect on their behavior, the ABCNEWS investigation shows. One teenager whose friend was recently killed in a shooting didn't even hesitate before grabbing a gun.
With a fatal accidental shooting taking place nearly every day in the United States, the consequences could have been tragic if the guns these teens discovered had been functional weapons capable of firing a bullet.
A Sense of Invulnerability
Even though the kids had been schooled about the dangers and professed their intent to steer clear of such weapons, something more powerful took hold of them in the presence of an actual gun.
"They have a very strong sense of invulnerability," said Marjorie Hardy, assistant professor of psychology at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. This sense of invulnerability, so common in teenage boys, translates into recklessness, she said.
Some of the 13- to 18-year-old boys who took part in PrimeTime's experiment seemed to undergo an immediate transformation in the presence of the gun. They became furtive, putting on gloves so as not to leave fingerprints, for example. They also played with the guns, checked the chambers and loaded ammunition clips.
Hardy expressed no surprise at such behavior. "That's what he's seen time and time again. What else do you do with a gun? You shoot someone," she said.
"Their egocentricity and needing to be in the spotlight," she said, "plus their recklessness and sense of invulnerability, is going to lead them to engage in dangerous behaviors with a weapon."
'A Symbol of Power'
The discrepancy between the boys' knowledge of how dangerous guns can be and their negligent behavior when this knowledge was put to the test is rooted early in childhood, said Hardy.
"From the time kids are big enough to pick them up, for the rest of their lives, they're just fascinated with [guns]," she said. "They are a symbol of power."
While some experts suggest that education is the key to preventing accidental shootings, Hardy is less optimistic.
"Knowing that something is dangerous and respecting it are two different things," she said. "There's no evidence to suggest that education works to keep them from doing an awful lot of illicit behaviors."