Protecting children is one of the few values most Americans wholeheartedly share.
Except when it’s too hard, such as when an adult leaves a loaded, unlocked gun within a child’s reach.
When that happens, as John Cheves detailed last Sunday in a story that’s painful but important to read, the results are often tragic but, in Kentucky we do little to assure it won’t happen again.
Preaching and teaching gun safety are critical, and groups from the NRA to the Brady Campaign do both. But too many adults won’t get serious about keeping loaded firearms out of kids’ hands until they know they could face prosecution if they don’t.
Most adults always knew it was dangerous for everyone but especially young people to drink and drive but alcohol-related auto fatalities among young people plummeted only after states raised the drinking age to 21, and enacted and enforced strict DUI laws. While too many people still die as a result of mixing alcohol and driving, the incidence of alcohol-related deaths has been cut in half in the U.S., with the greatest drop among drivers under 20.
We should do the same to reduce gun deaths involving even younger children.
Tragically, the legislature this year never even gave a committee hearing to a very brief, concise bill aimed at protecting children from hurting themselves or others with loaded guns left out carelessly by adults. As Cheves’ reporting shows, we’ve got to do better.
In the last five years, Cheves reported, at least 36 Kentucky children shot themselves or another child with a loaded gun left within their reach. Fifteen resulted in deaths, of which five were siblings of the child shooter; 21 were wounded, sometimes severely. The average age of both shooter and victim was 9.
Despite the fact that adults, often parents, left loaded, unlocked weapons where children could reach them, in almost every incident Cheves examined the carnage was chalked up as an accident and no one was prosecuted.
Prosecutors often feel that the family has suffered enough. They may also believe it would be hard to get a conviction in a state where many, many people own guns.
And they may be right.
In Kentucky, adults who allow children access to loaded guns could be charged with wanton endangerment — showing extreme indifference to human life — or recklessly allowing a minor to get access to a handgun. “They’re tricky cases,” Christian County Commonwealth’s Attorney Lynn Pryor told Cheves.
Pryor decided not to bring charges when in 2013 a man cleaning a handgun in a house with his grandchildren left the loaded revolver on a coffee table when he left the room. His 4-year-old grandson picked up the gun and shot his 6-year-old sister in the face, killing her. “In my reading of the law,” Pryor said, “it would require someone actually providing (a gun) to them, as compared to just leaving it where they could come across it.”
The bill Sen. Gerald Neal introduced last session offers more clarity. Only eight lines long, it says a person is guilty of “unlawful storage of a firearm,” when he or she “recklessly stores” it “in a manner which allows a minor to have access to a firearm which is not secured by a trigger lock.” It would be a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by $500 and up to one year in prison, if the child’s use of the gun resulted in serious injury or death.
Called child access prevention measures, laws similar to that proposed by Neal are on the books in 18 states and the District of Columbia. A study found that in states with effective child access prevention laws, unintentional shooting deaths among children younger than 15 fell 23 percent.
Just as laws have made us all much safer on streets and highways, passing and enforcing a child access prevention law can make Kentucky children safer in their homes. It’s time for the General Assembly to act.