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Guns and kids
Over the past five years, at least 36 Kentucky children accidentally shot themselves or another child with a loaded gun that adults either gave them or left within their reach. Most of the time, police quietly closed their investigations of the shootings without bringing criminal charges. “How is nobody legally responsible for this?” one anguished father asks.
A bill meant to reduce child-related shootings by making it a crime in Kentucky to leave loaded guns unsecured around minors has stalled in the House Judiciary Committee.
House Judiciary Chairman Joe Fischer, R-Fort Thomas, said Monday that he is unfamiliar with House Bill 31 and he has not read it, although it was assigned to his committee Jan. 2, the first day of the 2018 legislative session. Tuesday was the 24th day of the 60-day session.
“I don’t automatically oppose the idea of it, but I just don’t know anything about it,” Fischer said. “I simply haven’t read the bill.”
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, said it’s more important than ever to address the subject of children’s access to guns since a 15-year-old student at Marshall County High School shot and killed two of his fellow students and wounded 14 others on Jan. 23.
Kentucky State Police have declined to say where the 15-year-old boy got the handgun that he used at his school, although one news report quoted a woman who said the shooter’s mother told her he took it from his parents’ closet. Minors in Kentucky are not legally allowed to possess handguns.
“This bill is about gun safety,” Wayne said. “Whether it’s deliberate shootings or accidental shootings, any time a child gets hold of a loaded gun, there is terrible danger. We’re asking parents and grandparents and any other adults who keep guns to please safely store those guns so children who are in your home do not get access to them.”
The Herald-Leader reported last year that it’s rare in Kentucky for parents to be prosecuted after an accidental child shooting involving an unsecured firearm, despite at least 36 children being shot — 15 fatally — in the preceding five years in accidental child shootings.
Police and prosecutors told the newspaper they are reluctant to pursue felony charges like wanton endangerment because they sympathize with the parents, or they are not certain that such serious charges would apply to someone guilty of careless gun storage. At present, it is not illegal in Kentucky to leave a loaded gun where children can get it.
Wayne’s bill would require Kentucky gun owners with children in their homes to store their firearms temporarily disabled by a trigger lock. Wayne said he plans to amend his bill to add the option of using a gun safe instead of a trigger lock.
Improper firearm storage would be a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail, only if a child gets access to the weapon. The charge would rise to a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail, if a minor uses the weapon to hurt or kill someone.
“We’re not setting out to punish people,” Wayne said. “We’re not going to sneak into people’s homes and take away their guns. What we want to do here is promote gun safety so that more children don’t get hurt or killed when we could be doing something to prevent it.”
Wayne said his bill is supported by a Louisville coalition of local elected officials and anti-violence advocates, several of whom have lost young relatives to gunfire. One of them, Luther Brown, was already a gun-safety activist in 2016 when his 8-year-old grandson was accidentally shot and killed by a man who dropped his loaded gun on the ground, causing it to fire.
“The legislature has to decide if the safety of children is a priority,” said Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell, one of Wayne’s allies on the bill. “There is a natural curiosity for children to want to know what their parents find important and to sneak around and go through their parents’ drawers and closets, and if guns are stored in there, the children are going to find them.”
Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have passed so-called “child-access prevention” laws, with some success at saving children’s lives, studies suggest.