Unintentional Child Shootings Are an Outrage. Here’s How to Prevent Them.

Murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Dec. 12 2013 7:24 PM

Hold Parents Accountable

It’s their responsibility to themselves, their kids, and society to keep guns out of kids’ hands.

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I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that gun-owning parents somehow intrinsically understand and adhere to ideal safety practices. Indeed, the consistent pace of unintentional child shooting deaths, across demographic boundaries, suggests that the opposite might be true—or, at the very least, that there is more confusion over these rules than the gun lobby cares to admit. With gun sales apparently rising in America, it would surely be wise for states to make gun safety standards explicit: to codify gun storage laws for gun owners who have children in their homes, and to specify meaningful penalties for violating those laws.

This is a monumental task. Almost every gun safety idea that advocates have suggested has been revealed to be unproductive or legislatively unfeasible. Some people believe that educating children about guns and what to do when they encounter them, as taught in courses like the NRA’s Eddie Eagle program, is the best way to promote child gun safety. But these programs are not rigorously designed, and some academics believe that, while well-intentioned, they are almost wholly ineffective.

What about licensing gun owners, and making that license contingent on safety training and testing? That’s a good idea in theory, but widespread gun licensing is a political nonstarter. And there’s no guarantee that adult firearms training leads to safer storage behavior. In a 2000 paper for the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Jon Vernick and Stephen Teret noted that “one study found that adults who had received some form of firearm training were actually less likely to safely store their firearms locked up and unloaded.”

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Could there be a technological fix? Some have urged government and private industry to invest in “smart guns” that could not be fired by anyone other than their owners. This technology is promising, but its widespread adoption would likely be contingent on some sort of federal mandate, which is unlikely to happen.

For now, I believe that passing and enforcing child access prevention laws is the best of a set of imperfect legislative strategies.

CAP laws provide criminal penalties for parents and guardians who unlawfully allow children to access their guns without supervision, either under direct permission or through unsafe gun storage practices. These laws vary in scope and severity from state to state. In Massachusetts, for instance, a person can be held liable for negligent firearm storage even if the gun is unloaded. In Mississippi the law is only triggered if a parent or guardian “knowingly” allows a minor to possess a restricted weapon.

CAP laws get little attention from gun control advocates. They are no one’s top legislative priority. As far as I can tell, there are no organizations exclusively devoted to lobbying in their favor. And yet they still manage to attract a surprising amount of support. Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia have some form of CAP law, and some of these states—including Oklahoma and Utah—are among the reddest on the map. In a nation where it is difficult to pass any firearms restrictions whatsoever, CAP laws are among the most palatable gun policy solutions around.

Do these laws work?

The jury is still out. There hasn’t been much research on the long- and short-term efficacy of CAP laws, and it would be premature to draw any definite conclusions. For what it’s worth, though, I have reviewed much of the research on CAP laws, and have found only one study that concludes they are ineffective in preventing unintentional child shooting deaths: a 2001 paper co-authored by American Enterprise Institute scholar John Lott, who is perhaps best known for his book More Guns, Less Crime.

The rest of the research is much less bleak. A 1997 Journal of the American Medical Association study found a 23 percent decline in unintentional child shooting deaths from 1990 to 1994 in states with active CAP laws. A 2000 paper in Pediatrics found that the CAP law in Florida, which allowed for felony prosecution if negligent storage led to injury or death, was associated with a 51 percent decline in that state’s number of unintentional child shooting deaths. (Other states, offering only misdemeanor penalties, did not see any significant decline.) A 2005 JAMA article concluded that “storing household guns as locked, unloaded, or separate from the ammunition is associated with significant reductions in the risk of unintentional and self-inflicted firearm injuries and deaths among adolescents and children.” In 2006 a telephone survey conducted by Harvard School of Public Health researchers found that in “gun-owning households with children, living in a CAP law state was associated with a lower likelihood of storing firearms in an unsafe manner.” A 2013 paper in the Southern Economic Journal found that “CAP laws are associated with reductions in nonfatal gun injuries among children under age 18.”

We need more data. But the data we have make me cautiously optimistic that CAP laws can help reduce unintentional child shooting deaths—under a few conditions.

Legislators must insist that CAP laws allow for felony prosecution of violators whose negligent storage practices lead to injury or death. Though there has not been much research on the long-term efficacy of child access prevention laws, the studies that do exist make it quite clear that the laws are most effective if they provide felony penalties for violators. (It is my understanding that California, Connecticut, and Florida are the only states that do so.)

Legislators must also insist that the CAP laws apply not only when a child does access a firearm, but also when a parent or guardian stores that firearm such that a child may or is likely to access it. These stipulations are critical. Without them, the CAP laws are unlikely to be very effective, and Mother Jones’ list of child shooting deaths since Newtown bears this out. Of the 84 children who died in accidental shootings this year, 51 of them lived in states with active CAP laws. But only nine of those 84 lived in states that allowed felony prosecution where negligent storage led to injury or death. And only two of them lived in states with “may or is likely to” CAP laws. The more stringent these laws, the more effective they are. Once the laws have passed, states need to both promote them and make it easy for people to comply with them, perhaps by subsidizing the purchase of gun safes.

Most importantly, states need to enforce their CAP laws once they’re on the books. Any analysis of the efficacy of CAP laws is hampered by the fact that prosecutors nationwide are extremely reluctant to use them. “The common reaction of prosecutors is, ‘Oh, the family has suffered enough,’ ” a gun control activist named Bryan Miller told the Newark Star-Ledger­ in April, after a 4-year-old boy unintentionally shot and killed his 6-year-old neighbor with his father’s gun. Miller is right. In its recent article, Mother Jones reported that “[w]hile charges may be pending in some of the 84 accidental cases, we found only 9 in which a parent or adult guardian has been held criminally liable. And in 72 cases in which a child or teen pulled the trigger, only four adults have been convicted.”

That’s pathetic. If CAP laws are going to reduce unintentional child shooting deaths, then prosecutors need to set aside their sympathy for the grieving parents and, if appropriate, hold them responsible for their negligent behavior. Criminal prosecutions function as both a direct punishment for illegal activity and a broader societal deterrent. By regularly prosecuting culpable adults under CAP laws, the state sends a powerful and necessary message: Gun safety cannot be left up to implicit, common-sense recommendations. Rather, it is society’s prerogative to establish explicit safety standards, to encourage compliance with those standards, and to enforce penalties for violating them.

Lax enforcement of CAP laws sends a different message—that accidents will happen. That’s just one more faulty assumption. When it comes to kids and guns, there is no such thing as an accidental shooting. If you want to reduce the number of unintentional child shooting deaths in this country, then the best thing you can do is to focus on making that point clear: to your friends and family, to elected officials, and to anyone else with an open mind.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.