When a 5-Year-Old Shoots a 2-Year-Old, Should Their Parents Be Prosecuted for Negligence?

Boys pose for a photo holding Bushmaster rifles during the 142nd annual National Rifle Association (NRA) convention at the George R. Brown Convention Center May 4, 2013 in Houston, Texas.

Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

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On Friday, I wrote about the five-year-old Kentucky boy who accidentally shot and killed his two-year-old sister with a child-size rifle he had received as a gift. (The gun was marketed to children under the slogan “My First Rifle.”) One of the most baffling aspects of the entire baffling story was that the boy’s parents reportedly stored the rifle “in a corner,” rather than, say, in a gun safe, a locked closet, or anywhere else that a child couldn’t reach it.

Given their seemingly lackadaisical attitude towards firearms storage, might the parents be held criminally liable for their daughter’s death? According to the New York Times, the answer is no. A May 5 story reports that Kentucky “does not hold adults liable when a child gets hold of a firearm and causes an injury or death.”

In this case, putting the boy’s parents in jail would only serve to deprive him of his mother and father as well as his sister. But the fact that a criminal prosecution isn’t even an option in Kentucky indicates the threadbare state of the various laws that are supposed to help prevent child gun violence in this country.

Child access prevention laws—that is, laws that impose penalties on adults who let children access firearms—are remarkably inconsistent from state to state. (There are no federal child access prevention laws.) According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 27 states (plus the District of Columbia) have child access prevention laws on the books, and these laws vary widely in scope. Some states, like Massachusetts and Minnesota, hold adults liable for negligently storing firearms where a child “may” or “is likely to” get hold of them, whether or not they actually do. In other states, criminal penalties only apply when a child actually uses or possesses a gun. Some states, including Kentucky, impose a lesser standard of criminal liability for parents who provide their children with firearms. In those states, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, liability is only triggered when the parents or guardians “know of a substantial risk that the minor will use the firearm to commit a crime.”

The fact that every state sets its own laws is what makes America great. Or, at least, it’s what makes America America. But I do think it’s unfortunate these particular laws aren’t stronger. No matter what you think about gun control, it seems obvious that if you’re going to have guns in a house where children are around, you should store those guns somewhere where children can’t get to them. Laws to that effect would minimally inconvenience the gun owners, and would be a small but effective step toward reducing the number of accidental gun deaths in this country.