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Kids and Gun Safety

Sejal H. Patel


  • In most states, parents can leave loaded and unlocked guns accessible to children without legal consequences, leading to a significant risk of accidents and fatalities.
  • Some states have enacted smart gun laws, such as requiring locked containers or trigger locks for firearms when not in use, resulting in a decrease in unintentional child firearm deaths.
  • Comprehensive safe-storage laws should require certified locking devices for all firearms, that owners keep their firearms disabled with a locking device when not in use, and that jurisdictions maintain rosters of approved devices.
  • Child-access prevention laws should impose criminal and civil liability for negligent storage and define "minor" appropriately.
Kids and Gun Safety
M-Production via Getty Images

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. The danger of children accessing loaded, unlocked guns is very real. According to a January 13, 2014, report by Diane Sawyer entitled Kids and Guns: By the Numbers, 31 percent of U.S. households in 2012 had at least one child and one gun in the home, and 1.7 million kids in 2002 lived in homes with a loaded, unlocked firearm. The American Academy of Pediatrics adds sobering statistics around the issue of gun access and child safety.  Guns cause twice as many deaths in young people as cancer, five times as many deaths as heart disease, and fifteen times as many deaths as infections. 

Several states have taken steps to protect children from tragic gun accidents. Massachusetts has the strongest law in the country, requiring guns to be stored in a locked container or disabled with a trigger lock anytime they are not in use. California, Minnesota, and the District of Columbia also passed strong laws criminalizing the act of leaving a gun where a child may access it. Five other states impose criminal liability on an adult only if a child actually gets his or her hands on the weapon because of the adult's negligent storage of the firearm. Even more states impose liability on an adult if a child gains access to a firearm and then uses the gun to hurt someone. Statistics and research prove that these laws are effective. States that have enacted these laws substantially decreased the number of unintentional child firearm deaths.

Despite evidence that these laws save young lives, many state legislatures have not adopted smart gun laws. Safe-storage laws and child-access prevention laws are critical to preventing child gun deaths. This article outlines the current information, research, and resources on smart gun laws and child safety.

Consensus on Gun Violence and Gun Safety

On September 28, 2013, the New York Times ran a piece called "Children and Guns: The Hidden Toll," which reported how the media undercounts firearm shootings of innocent child victims because of how authorities classified the deaths. Nationwide, hundreds of child mortalities resulted from a child discovering an unlocked and loaded device and pointing it at himself or herself, at a friend, or at a sibling. Gun industry lobby groups resist these statistics, saying that the data are overblown, that guns are an essential part of their local or family culture, and that locking guns prevents them from being used for self-defense.

However, the vast majority of Americans disagree. In fact, Americans overwhelmingly support safe-storage laws and laws criminalizing incidents where a child gains access to a gun owned by his or her parents and uses it to shoot someone. One poll found that 75 percent of Americans believe that in such circumstances, a child's parents should be charged with a crime for failing to prevent the child from handling the gun. 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. However, popular support for these measures still has not prompted many legislators to act.

Physician voices also strongly denounce child gun access. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) concludes that the best way to keep a child or teen safe from gun injury or death is to never have a gun in the house, especially a handgun. For those who choose to keep a gun in the home, the AAP offers this alternate protocol: Keep the gun locked; keep the gun unloaded; store the ammunition locked; store the ammunition in a separate place from the gun. The statistics support the conclusion that contrary to pro-gun concerns, guns stored in the home are far more likely to be used in a fatal or nonfatal unintentional shooting, criminal assault, or suicide attempt than for self-defense.

In that vein, a study released in Pediatrics on October 9, 2013, entitled "Gunshot Injuries in Children Served by Emergency Services" concludes that gunshot injuries cause a disproportionate burden of adverse outcomes in children. Gun injuries resulted in major surgery, death, and high per-patient costs compared with other child injuries. The study cites gun injuries among children as a "major public health issue" and concludes by recommending more rigorous research, partnerships with national organizations, and evidence-based legislation to reduce injury and fatality. A separate study by the Yale School of Medicine reported that on average, a child or teen is shot almost every hour. 

Doctors in the field empirically support these published studies in their day-to-day encounters with young patients. Dr. Lisa Patel, a University of San Francisco pediatric fellow, says, "As physicians, the evidence about guns lines up with what we encounter in hospitals and emergency rooms on a tragically regular basis: innocent children who suffer catastrophic consequences of living in a society with close to no regulations regarding gun ownership." Dr. Ripal Patel, who is an attending emergency room physician at Memorial Hermann Hospital System and a clinical instructor of emergency medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, adds, "The horrors of gun violence, especially among the youth, is a tragedy we encounter frequently in the emergency room."

Despite the evidence, gun lobbyists insist that children possessing guns is a minor matter that does not warrant regulation of adult gun possession and use. And in many states that logic has persuaded state legislatures to take no action.

Like the public-health issues of seatbelt laws and airbags in cars, proper gun-safety requirements are empirically proven to mean the difference between life and death for kids. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing the loss of life to gun violence by researching and advocating for smart gun laws, cites a 1999 study in which more than 75 of the guns used in youth suicide attempts and unintentional injuries were stored in the victim's residence or in a friend or neighbor's residence. A July 2004 study by the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education found that in 37 school shootings from 1974 to 2000, more than 65 percent of the guns used came from the shooter's own home or from the home of a relative. Safe-storage and child-access prevention laws prevent unnecessary deaths like these. In three separate studies about how smart gun laws affect gun violence in individual states, each study concluded that the laws resulted in substantial decreases in unintentional firearm deaths and injuries and in youth suicides.

Framework for Comprehensive Safe-Storage and Child-Access Prevention Laws

Protecting children is a matter of national consensus. The desire to protect children prompted legislation that young children must sit in car seats and wear seatbelts in motor vehicles. Though states may legislate particulars about how much a child must weigh or how tall the child must be before he or she can sit without a booster chair, public safety concerns have led to a basic agreement that adults must properly secure all young children. The regulated sales of alcohol or cigarettes to minors and childproof safety caps on drugs similarly arose from a national consensus that protecting our children with these laws was in our nation's interest. The issue of children's safety around guns can follow the same trajectory.

Children's rights advocates can energize public dialogue and effect change in children's access to firearms. Based on the extensive research and state-by-state analysis by its staff attorneys, the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, based in San Francisco, California, recommends that safe-storage laws, like the one in Massachusetts, are the best way to protect child safety. The first line of defense is to remove a weapon from a child's ready access. Safe-storage laws place an affirmative obligation on gun owners to prevent tragedies, rather than just holding them liable after something has already occurred. To that end, a robust safe-storage law should include these five features:

  • All firearms owners must keep firearms disabled with a locking device, except when an authorized user is carrying it on his or her person or has the firearm under his or her immediate control. Laws in Massachusetts and in several municipalities including Chicago, New York City, and San Francisco serve as models for this requirement.
  • All firearms manufactured, sold, or transferred in the jurisdiction must be equipped with a locking device. Laws in California, Michigan, and New York, and several other states requiring such locks to be sold with handguns only model this requirement.
  • States must set standards for locking devices, as required in California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York.
  • A certified independent lab tests and approves locking devices before the devices may be sold in the jurisdiction, as required in California.
  • Finally, the jurisdiction must maintain a roster of approved locking devices, as required in California and Massachusetts.

Child-access prevention laws, which hold adults liable after the fact if they negligently leave a gun in a place where a child may gain access to it, are less comprehensive than safe-storage laws but can still be an effective way to protect kids from guns. An ideal child-access prevention law should include the following four features:

  • The law should impose criminal liability on persons who negligently store a firearm under circumstances where minors may or are likely to gain access to the firearm, regardless of whether the minor actually gains access or uses it. The laws in California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and the District of Columbia model this requirement.
  • The law should also impose criminal liability on persons who negligently store firearms even when the firearm is unloaded, as is the case in California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia.
  • The statute should impose civil liability for damages resulting from the discharge of a firearm when a person negligently stores a firearm and a minor gains access to it.
  • Finally, the law should define "minor" as a person under 18 for long guns, and a person under 21 for handguns.

As of March 5, 2014, child-access prevention bills are pending in 13 states (Arizona, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Washington, and Vermont). Eleven states are considering legislation that would require locking devices, the safe storage of firearms, or both (California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island). For more on the legislation pending in the states, read the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence's legislative tracking summary.

Children's rights advocates can add their voices to the debate by supporting initiatives for safe- storage and child-access prevention laws and by talking to parents and children about gun safety as physicians do. Professionals can educate parents and policymakers around this issue at the individual, community, and national levels. Children's rights advocates, like doctors, teachers, social workers, religious leaders, entrepreneurs, and others, share a common interest in securing a child's right to both live and live safely. The good news is that there are sensible and effective solutions before us. The goal of keeping children safe is one that does garner national consensus, but the real work is in mobilizing agreement around how best to achieve that goal.