Last week, a 6-year-old boy in Indiana accidentally shot and killed his father with a .38-caliber revolver left unattended on a nearby table.
He ran out of the house, distressed and sobbing. “I didn’t mean to!” he said. “I’m sorry! It was an accident!”
Within a period of a few weeks, similar tragedies have occurred. In mid-February a 9-year-old girl was accidentally shot and killed by her 3-year-old brother in Alabama.
A 15-year-old Tennessee boy faces reckless homicide charges after he accidentally shot and killed a 16-year-old friend.
In Maryland, a 4-year-old son of a county police officer found his father’s gun and killed himself while playing with it.
Unintentional firearm injuries and deaths involving children are a common occurrence in the U.S. In 2016 at least 43 shootings have occurred where a person age 17 or under has unintentionally injured or killed someone with a gun. Despite the frequency of child firearm incidences policies addressing child gun access vary greatly across states.
“Accidental shootings can happen anywhere…they do happen,” said Shira Goodman, executive director of the advocacy organization CeaseFirePA.
Two-thirds of unintentional child shootings take place in a home or vehicle that belongs to the victim’s family, often with guns that were legally owned, but improperly stored.
One-half of all U.S. handgun owners keep their guns loaded at least some of the time, and 40 percent of gun owners store guns in a bedroom or a closet; not in a locked case, cabinet or vault.
Despite the prevalence of easily accessible guns, “a 60 to 70 percent reduction in unintentional or self-inflicted injury and death a can result from safe firearms practices,” said Ali Rowhani-Rahbar, public health researcher and professor at the University of Washington.
Currently there is no federal policy on safe firearm storage. Federal law does, however, make it unlawful for any licensed importer, manufacturer, or dealer to sell or transfer any handgun without a “secure gun storage or safety device.”
The lack of an overarching federal policy has led to vast variation in state firearm storage policy. Existing state policies have implemented child access prevention laws and gun-locking device standards.
Child access prevention laws are laws that impose criminal liability on adults who give children unsupervised access to firearms. Related policies address gun-locking requirements, where gun dealers are required to sell only weapons with an “integrated mechanical safety device,” designed to prevent a gun from discharging until the safety device has been deactivated. In states with gun-locking policies, older guns that lack such safety features must be sold with an external safety lock.
Fourteen of the strongest state policies have laws that impose criminal liability on those who negligently store firearms where minors could gain access to the firearm. Thirteen states prohibit persons from intentionally, knowingly, and/or recklessly providing firearms to children. The weakest state laws merely prohibit directly providing a firearm to a minor; a wide range of moderate laws exist between these extremes.
California imposes civil liability on the parent or guardian of a minor for damages resulting from a minor’s discharge of a firearm. New Jersey has implemented the KeepSafe program that provides an instant rebate to firearms purchasers who purchase gun-locking devices.
In Pennsylvania, locks must accompany dealer sales, but only for handguns. Massachusetts requires that all firearms be stored with locking devices in place to prevent accidental discharge.
Many gun advocates believe policies requiring gun-locks or other safety measures are attempts to limit gun ownership and are counterintuitive to owning a gun for self-defense use in a high-pressure situation.
“It’s not about having a gun or not, that’s a Constitutional right….no question about that,” Rowhani-Rahbar of the University of Washington said. “It’s about storing a gun. It’s called harm reduction. The question is can we talk to gun owners and can we promote this idea of responsible gun ownership…at least keep it safely. And that’s the idea.”
With strong opinions on both sides of the gun debate laws are continually shifting. A recent Georgia Senate bill proposed by Sen. Elena Parent (D-Atlanta) aims for all guns sold to have safety lock precautions on them. Another package of bills aimed at gun storage implementation was presented earlier this month in the Wisconsin Senate by Sen. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison).
Amidst constantly evolving laws and safe firearm storage proposals, the effectiveness of state policy interventions remain juxtaposed against the actual practice of firearms storage, whether it impacts lives, and whether the laws that promote it are effective, Rowhani-Rahbar said.
“The reality is that looking at the law and the effect of the law is always more challenging,” Rowhani-Rahbar said. “You have the state-level data and you want to attribute any change or changes in death to that law, and it’s hard because you have many other things happening at the same time, but work has been done, and evidence does point to the laws.”
Devon Ziminski, Master in Social Policy candidate, attended The College of New Jersey. Her policy areas of interest include education, gun violence, and consumer behavior/business practices. Devon has been published in the Journal of Service Learning and Community-Based Research and most recently presented her research on distracted driving at the 2015 Marketing and Public Policy Conference.
This story has been published in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2). In the run up to the 2016 Presidential Election, the school launched “SP2 Penn Top 10, a comprehensive multimedia initiative in which renowned SP2 faculty members analyze and address the most pressing social justice and policy issues.”
Part of the project is the creation of stories produced by “SP2 Penn Top 10 Fellows,” graduate students from the School who are trained in solution-based journalism using the Journalism for Social Change curriculum.