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.