Hold Parents Accountable

It’s their responsibility to themselves, their kids, and society to keep guns out of kids’ hands.

Large 44 Magnum Pistol Profile Isolated

It’s irresponsible—and should be illegal—to leave guns in places where children can access them.

Photo by Thinkstock

On Saturday, Dec. 7, a 3-year-old Indiana boy died after unintentionally shooting himself in the head with a gun he found in his home. According to local press accounts, police believe the gun had been left loaded and unattended on a kitchen counter. “I’ve known [the boy’s family] had guns; they’ve carried them in public on their side, they’ve got permits for them, and I just thought they always were a little bit more responsible than that,” said a neighbor.

I just thought they always were a little bit more responsible than that. When you report on unintentional child shooting deaths, you hear that sentiment a lot. Sometimes it’s in reference to the dead child’s family, sometimes it refers to the dead child himself. He had been around guns all his life, they say. They were a real gun family. We always assumed they knew what they were doing.

Since the beginning of May, I have been writing about unintentional child shooting deaths in America—tracking their frequency, suggesting legislative remedies, and, more than anything, trying to understand how and why these so-called accidents happen. They do not happen often, in absolute terms. Mother Jones’ Mark Follman recently estimated that just 84 children aged 12 and under have died in gun accidents since the Sandy Hook shooting last year. When they do happen, though, the pattern always seem the same. Again and again, kids shoot themselves or other kids with their parents’ guns, guns that were left in the corner, or on a nightstand, or under a pillow. These firearms were put away loaded, or with a forgotten round in the chamber. The kids shouldn’t have been able to access these guns, but somehow still did. They die in red states and in blue states. They die in rural and urban areas. They die as toddlers and as teenagers.

As much as anything else, these children are victims of faulty assumptions, all of which stem from the idea that the state has no business establishing and enforcing coherent gun safety standards.

There are a few simple rules that, if followed, would almost entirely eliminate unintentional child shooting deaths. Always keep your gun on your person or at arm’s length. If it is not on your person, it should be in a gun safe, preferably unloaded. When you are unloading the gun, check to see if the chamber is clear. Never let your children use a gun unsupervised.

These are not controversial rules. They’re common sense. But rather than make them explicit, we tend to assume that gun owners understand them.

That’s the first faulty assumption. It begets others.

Parents assume that young children will not be able to find or operate their guns—and, thus, that it’s OK to leave loaded guns on tables, or in corners. They assume that older children know better than to do something stupid with a gun—and, thus, that it is unnecessary to supervise these kids when guns are on the premises.

The gun lobby has its own set of gun safety assumptions, and those are just as flawed. The NRA and other interest groups argue that gun owners already understand safety protocols, and that it is condescending and unnecessary to codify those rules. They believe that parents whose kids die in unintentional shootings are outliers, and not representative of the broader gun-owning population. They say that individual gun owners are better equipped than the state to determine the best way to store and secure their guns.

And when a child dies in an unintentional shooting, onlookers and government officials jump in with their own set of faulty assumptions. Just one of those crazy accidents. That’s what the coroner of Cumberland County, Ky., said this spring after a 5-year-old boy unintentionally shot and killed his 2-year-old sister with a loaded, child-sized rifle his parents kept propped in a corner of their home. You hear that sort of thing a lot—that when a child dies in an unintentional shooting, it is an accident, rather than the natural consequence of an ad hoc gun safety regime that chooses to leave best practices implicit rather than explicit. When we use the word “accident” in, say, the context of a car crash, it doesn’t necessarily mean that absolutely no one is at fault. But in the context of a child shooting death, it’s almost always used to absolve the parents or guardians from blame. 

These assumptions—that every child shooting is an accident, and that gun safety laws couldn’t possibly have helped—have been validated by state legislatures that have shown little interest in promoting and enforcing meaningful child access prevention laws. This is where we are today. Regulatory bodies assume that children will avoid gun accidents rather than taking steps to ensure that they will. How did it get to this point? And how might that start to change?

* * *

At the end of June, a Kentucky man named William Wyatt was cleaning his handgun while two of his grandchildren looked on. At some point, Wyatt turned away for just a few moments, long enough for his 4-year-old grandson to grab the gun, point it at his 6-year-old sister, and pull the trigger. The pistol was still loaded. The girl died at the hospital that night. As a local television station put it, the whole thing was “a tragic accident.”

Was it, though? Might it be the case that “virtually any mishap that occurs while cleaning guns is not really an ‘accident,’ but a failure to apply safety rules”? And isn’t it also obvious that gun owners ought to “store guns so they are not accessible to untrained or unauthorized persons”? And that “once children are mature enough to begin handling guns, they must do so only under qualified adult supervision”?

These are quotes from the NRA Home Firearm Safety Manual, the handbook the organization gives to people who take its four-hour home firearm safety class. Say what you will about the NRA’s lobbying efforts, but the organization does more to promote firearms training than any other group in the country. The NRA certifies firearms instructors. It holds safety classes. It publishes instructional materials. The NRA does a lot to promote safe behavior around guns. And this handbook has a lot of great advice.

But the NRA is committed to making sure that its safety recommendations remain just that—recommendations. In a 2002 paper for the academic journal The Future of Children, James Forman Jr. wrote, “Although pro-gun advocates are divided on the efficacy of trigger locks and other safe-storage mechanisms, they are unanimous in their condemnation of any legislation mandating such devices.”

The group’s aversion to gun safety legislation continues today. In a recent video posted on the NRA’s website, firearms enthusiast and pundit Colion Noir derided calls for gun safety as a “placebo” advanced by disingenuous liberals whose real goal is to revoke gun owners’ Second Amendment rights. “Somewhere between screaming for gun control, and then being called out for actually wanting gun confiscation, the anti-gunners decided to change the phrase ‘gun control’ to ‘gun safety,’ ” says Noir. He then asserts that all this gun safety rhetoric is not only disingenuous, but superfluous: “All trained gun users learn that there are four rules of gun safety that will prevent any and all unintentional death, injury, or damage caused by improper possession, storage, or handling of firearms.”

Do they? A nationwide survey by Johns Hopkins found that “more than one-third of respondents did not know that a pistol can still be fired even if its ammunition magazine has been removed.” In 2000 the American Journal of Public Health published a study about firearms storage practices in American households where children were present. Among other things, the authors found that 55 percent of homes with both children and firearms present “were reported to have 1 or more firearms in an unlocked place.” A 2006 study of firearms storage practices reported that “[m]ore than one third of the parents in this sample said there was a gun in their home that was stored loaded, unlocked, or both.”

I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that gun-owning parents somehow intrinsically understand and adhere to ideal safety practices. Indeed, the consistent pace of unintentional child shooting deaths, across demographic boundaries, suggests that the opposite might be true—or, at the very least, that there is more confusion over these rules than the gun lobby cares to admit. With gun sales apparently rising in America, it would surely be wise for states to make gun safety standards explicit: to codify gun storage laws for gun owners who have children in their homes, and to specify meaningful penalties for violating those laws.

This is a monumental task. Almost every gun safety idea that advocates have suggested has been revealed to be unproductive or legislatively unfeasible. Some people believe that educating children about guns and what to do when they encounter them, as taught in courses like the NRA’s Eddie Eagle program, is the best way to promote child gun safety. But these programs are not rigorously designed, and some academics believe that, while well-intentioned, they are almost wholly ineffective.

What about licensing gun owners, and making that license contingent on safety training and testing? That’s a good idea in theory, but widespread gun licensing is a political nonstarter. And there’s no guarantee that adult firearms training leads to safer storage behavior. In a 2000 paper for the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Jon Vernick and Stephen Teret noted that “one study found that adults who had received some form of firearm training were actually less likely to safely store their firearms locked up and unloaded.”

Could there be a technological fix? Some have urged government and private industry to invest in “smart guns” that could not be fired by anyone other than their owners. This technology is promising, but its widespread adoption would likely be contingent on some sort of federal mandate, which is unlikely to happen.

For now, I believe that passing and enforcing child access prevention laws is the best of a set of imperfect legislative strategies.

CAP laws provide criminal penalties for parents and guardians who unlawfully allow children to access their guns without supervision, either under direct permission or through unsafe gun storage practices. These laws vary in scope and severity from state to state. In Massachusetts, for instance, a person can be held liable for negligent firearm storage even if the gun is unloaded. In Mississippi the law is only triggered if a parent or guardian “knowingly” allows a minor to possess a restricted weapon.

CAP laws get little attention from gun control advocates. They are no one’s top legislative priority. As far as I can tell, there are no organizations exclusively devoted to lobbying in their favor. And yet they still manage to attract a surprising amount of support. Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia have some form of CAP law, and some of these states—including Oklahoma and Utah—are among the reddest on the map. In a nation where it is difficult to pass any firearms restrictions whatsoever, CAP laws are among the most palatable gun policy solutions around.

Do these laws work?

The jury is still out. There hasn’t been much research on the long- and short-term efficacy of CAP laws, and it would be premature to draw any definite conclusions. For what it’s worth, though, I have reviewed much of the research on CAP laws, and have found only one study that concludes they are ineffective in preventing unintentional child shooting deaths: a 2001 paper co-authored by American Enterprise Institute scholar John Lott, who is perhaps best known for his book More Guns, Less Crime.

The rest of the research is much less bleak. A 1997 Journal of the American Medical Association study found a 23 percent decline in unintentional child shooting deaths from 1990 to 1994 in states with active CAP laws. A 2000 paper in Pediatrics found that the CAP law in Florida, which allowed for felony prosecution if negligent storage led to injury or death, was associated with a 51 percent decline in that state’s number of unintentional child shooting deaths. (Other states, offering only misdemeanor penalties, did not see any significant decline.) A 2005 JAMA article concluded that “storing household guns as locked, unloaded, or separate from the ammunition is associated with significant reductions in the risk of unintentional and self-inflicted firearm injuries and deaths among adolescents and children.” In 2006 a telephone survey conducted by Harvard School of Public Health researchers found that in “gun-owning households with children, living in a CAP law state was associated with a lower likelihood of storing firearms in an unsafe manner.” A 2013 paper in the Southern Economic Journal found that “CAP laws are associated with reductions in nonfatal gun injuries among children under age 18.”

We need more data. But the data we have make me cautiously optimistic that CAP laws can help reduce unintentional child shooting deaths—under a few conditions.

Legislators must insist that CAP laws allow for felony prosecution of violators whose negligent storage practices lead to injury or death. Though there has not been much research on the long-term efficacy of child access prevention laws, the studies that do exist make it quite clear that the laws are most effective if they provide felony penalties for violators. (It is my understanding that California, Connecticut, and Florida are the only states that do so.)

Legislators must also insist that the CAP laws apply not only when a child does access a firearm, but also when a parent or guardian stores that firearm such that a child may or is likely to access it. These stipulations are critical. Without them, the CAP laws are unlikely to be very effective, and Mother Jones’ list of child shooting deaths since Newtown bears this out. Of the 84 children who died in accidental shootings this year, 51 of them lived in states with active CAP laws. But only nine of those 84 lived in states that allowed felony prosecution where negligent storage led to injury or death. And only two of them lived in states with “may or is likely to” CAP laws. The more stringent these laws, the more effective they are. Once the laws have passed, states need to both promote them and make it easy for people to comply with them, perhaps by subsidizing the purchase of gun safes.

Most importantly, states need to enforce their CAP laws once they’re on the books. Any analysis of the efficacy of CAP laws is hampered by the fact that prosecutors nationwide are extremely reluctant to use them. “The common reaction of prosecutors is, ‘Oh, the family has suffered enough,’ ” a gun control activist named Bryan Miller told the Newark Star-Ledger­ in April, after a 4-year-old boy unintentionally shot and killed his 6-year-old neighbor with his father’s gun. Miller is right. In its recent article, Mother Jones reported that “[w]hile charges may be pending in some of the 84 accidental cases, we found only 9 in which a parent or adult guardian has been held criminally liable. And in 72 cases in which a child or teen pulled the trigger, only four adults have been convicted.”

That’s pathetic. If CAP laws are going to reduce unintentional child shooting deaths, then prosecutors need to set aside their sympathy for the grieving parents and, if appropriate, hold them responsible for their negligent behavior. Criminal prosecutions function as both a direct punishment for illegal activity and a broader societal deterrent. By regularly prosecuting culpable adults under CAP laws, the state sends a powerful and necessary message: Gun safety cannot be left up to implicit, common-sense recommendations. Rather, it is society’s prerogative to establish explicit safety standards, to encourage compliance with those standards, and to enforce penalties for violating them.

Lax enforcement of CAP laws sends a different message—that accidents will happen. That’s just one more faulty assumption. When it comes to kids and guns, there is no such thing as an accidental shooting. If you want to reduce the number of unintentional child shooting deaths in this country, then the best thing you can do is to focus on making that point clear: to your friends and family, to elected officials, and to anyone else with an open mind.