April 10, 2009 -- An ordinary garage full of junk is an unlikely place to go to learn about America's fascination with guns. But that's exactly where ABC News went in constructing an unusual scenario examining the attitudes of college-age young adults who've grown up in the wake of Columbine, Virginia Tech and other incidents of widely publicized gun violence in the past 10 years.
The experiment comes after others conducted years earlier by Diane Sawyer, focusing on young children and adolescents. In those settings, we tested kids who had been taught by their parents never to play with a gun.
To underscore the lesson, a police officer lectured them about firearm safety and made sure to remind them that if they ever found a gun, they should leave it alone and tell an adult.
The kids were later put in locations where we had hidden guns. The youngsters had no idea the guns were disabled so they could not fire ... or that we were recording them on hidden cameras. As the kids discovered the firearms, however, the parents were shocked to see the youngsters not only handle the guns but play with them, aim them at one another and, in a few cases, even hide one in their pants pockets, planning to take it with them.
Gun Experiment With College-Age Youths
Considering all that has happened since then -- and that more 18-to-22-year-olds die from accidental shootings than any other age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control -- we decided to revisit the test with college-age kids.
We wondered whether, with all they've seen in the news plus their added maturity, they would be less fascinated with firearms than the younger children we saw earlier.
We placed ads offering a job to clean out a garage at a private home in New Jersey and set up appointments during the course of two days. A total of 24 young people, selected at random from the ad respondents, came to the garage.
When they arrived (some in pairs, some alone), the volunteers met one of our producers who was posing as the homeowner. As we showed them the garage, we made sure they got specific instructions to empty out a chest of drawers where we had hidden a Glock semi-automatic pistol and a Smith and Wesson .357 revolver.
Lateif Dickerson, who runs the New Jersey Firearms Academy, had disabled the firearms. Based upon his years of training young people, he predicted that most of our volunteers would do the right thing: leave the gun and notify the homeowner.
"Most young people who don't have experience with firearms and haven't been trained are pretty afraid of them so they aren't going to touch them," Dickerson said.
Teens React to 'Hidden' Guns
The packing began normally, but as we watched on hidden cameras, it did not take long for the volunteers to find the hidden guns in the drawers. Some were shocked. Some barely noticed.
But only three of them did what Dickerson predicted. The rest either packed the guns up in the boxes with the rest of the debris, or also played with the guns, handling them, staring down the barrel and actually cocking the gun and pulling the trigger.
One boy who picked up a gun said he was scared. Then, right out of the movies, his friend said, "You just put your prints on them," and the boy hurriedly wiped the gun off with his T-shirt.
But another boy wasn't scared at all. He picked up one gun, then the other. He held them and examined them closely, even pointing them toward his face. Then his cell phone rang. But he hardly missed a beat, cutting off the call to keep playing. Later, he admitted he was fascinated.
"I did a double take," he said. "I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. I took them out and played with them a little bit. It was a cool gun, I've never seen guns like this before."
When we asked if it was a mistake, he admitted it might have been: "Maybe I wasn't so smart about it, but nothing bad happened. It wasn't loaded so we will never know."
But as a 2008 case in Wisconsin illustrates, that kind of assumption can lead to tragedy. Evan Tolsma, 19, who said he had no interest in guns or hunting, shot and killed his best friend. It happened when Tolsma and the friend went to the home of another boy who was interested in guns.
That boy's father had many firearms out in the open around the house, including one he had recently purchased, an AK-47. The boy was excited to show the others the AK-47. The boys all took turns holding it plus the other various guns and, at one point, with Tolsma holding the AK-47, he pulled the trigger. He had no idea it was loaded. His friend was hit in the head and died immediately.
Tolsma, who was charged with homicide by negligent handling of a dangerous weapon, appeared to have been influenced by peer pressure. So, in our garage experiment, we sent another producer in to pose as someone else who answered the ad. He acted as foolishly as possible around the guns and we wanted to see if others would follow suit.
Peer Pressure and Gunplay
A pair of boys told him how stupid he was.
One said, "I wouldn't play with it, dude. ... I've taken a gun safety class and you're not supposed to do that."
But with others, he was much more influential. One boy who was loading the van on his own had been pretty careful with the guns when he discovered them by himself. But when the producer started asking a lot of questions about the guns, the boy not only stared down the barrel but also went to get a flashlight for a better look. He admitted later he would not have done that without the other person. He admitted it was a mistake because, "if you've got a gun, it's dangerous."
Another boy who handled the guns on his own took it to another level once the producer got involved.
They decided to load the gun with the loose ammunition in the drawer, even though they had no idea they were blanks. Then, under the influence of the producer, he eventually pulled the trigger numerous times. He told us afterward, "I probably wouldn't have done anything with it, but given the peer pressure ... I was scared to do it first, I didn't want to do it, but he was doing it so I had to."
"Just the fact that he was having fun with it," he said. "I just figured it'd be fun to play with."