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Shawn Vestal: Gun storage requirements could prevent accidents involving children

Parents have been charged with crimes for leaving their kids in fatally hot cars.

They’ve been charged for failing to get medical care for children. For leaving kids unattended to die in fires or drown. For failing to put their kids in their car seats.

Should they be charged for leaving a loaded gun within reach of a child who is later killed or injured with that gun? Should states legally require gun owners to store their weapons safely?

Almost none do, despite the fact that an American child or a teen is shot about once an hour, according to a Yale School of Medicine report.

It’s hard to imagine a deadlier error of parental supervision than letting a loaded pistol fall into the hands of a child. And yet it happens all the time, and it happens to people who are supposedly well-versed in gun safety. A couple of years ago, a Spokane police officer’s 10-year-old daughter got her hands on his Glock and accidentally shot herself after he left it sitting on a nightstand. This week in Arizona, astonishingly, a 9-year-old girl accidentally shot her gun safety instructor with an Uzi.

Last weekend in a Hayden mobile home park, a 7-year-old boy was critically injured while playing with a loaded gun. It’s not clear how the child got the gun. But we don’t need to know anything at all about how the child got the gun to know the child should not have gotten the gun. That boy’s parents are going through an unimaginable kind of hell right now, but it’s fair to ask: Will a criminal investigation be a part of this case?

Too little is known, at least publicly, to say whether it will or whether it should. Lt. Stu Miller of the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department said that he could not release information this week about how the child obtained the gun, as the investigation is ongoing. Investigators understandably are deferring to the family’s need to be with their son in the hospital right now.

Miller said it’s possible – speaking hypothetically, and not about this case particularly – that criminal charges could be brought against a parent whose negligence contributed to a child’s injury under the state’s injury-to-child law.

But as for a law that specifically makes it illegal to fail to keep a weapon locked away from a child, Idaho doesn’t have one and neither do many states. You won’t be surprised at one of the reasons: the noxious gun lobby objects to such laws, arguing that child injuries and deaths are overstated and that locking up a gun limits its usefulness for self-defense.

Here’s the way the American Bar Association categorized the current legal status on this question: “In 47 states, a parent can leave a loaded, unlocked gun on a dining room table or a nightstand and face no legal rebuke for leaving that gun within a child’s reach.”

Many more states have laws that make it a crime to allow kids access to guns in cases where injury or death results. And other states have different statutes that might make it possible to pursue charges, such as Idaho’s injury-to-a-child law. However, few states have so-called “safe-storage laws” that require gun owners to lock away their unloaded weapons when they’re not in use – as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends.

Most Americans support such laws, though we’re far past the point now where the opinions of most Americans matter much when it comes to reasonable gun safety.

“One poll found that 75 percent of Americans believe that in (child shootings), a child’s parents should be charged with a crime for failing to prevent the child from handling the gun,” according to the ABA article from April of this year. “Another poll found that over 67 percent of Americans favor laws like the one in Massachusetts that requires gun owners to lock up their guns or secure them with a trigger lock when not in use.”

There’s good reason for this support. Almost a third of American households have at least one gun and one child, according to an ABC News report this spring. A federal study in 1997 estimated that one in three handguns is kept loaded and unlocked. A pediatrics journal survey in 2006 concluded that almost three-quarters of children under age 10 living in homes with guns knew where their parents kept their firearms, and 36 percent had handled the guns. Thirty-nine percent of the parents surveyed who said their kids did not know where they kept their guns were contradicted by their children.

Troubling news, but perhaps not surprising. Guns are among the leading causes of death for children, and accidents with guns more common than self-defense shootings, according to a 1997 survey of shootings in four cities that concluded: “For every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.”

It’s also true that most of the time when kids commit suicide or go out and shoot others, they do so with guns they got at home. None of this is very new, unfortunately. Kids and accidental shootings are a routine occurrence – by one estimate, 100 children died in gun accidents in the U.S. between December 2012 and December 2013.

Would it help to more strictly and specifically require safe storage and penalize violators? It seems that it already has, in some states, and very well could in others, like Idaho and Washington.

Just one example: Florida, which was the first state to adopt a “child access prevention” law, saw accidental gun deaths among kids drop by half in the first eight years of implementation.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.