A Wisconsin Boy Shot His Sister. Their Father Is Facing Charges. Other States Should Take Note.

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Sept. 20 2013 1:49 PM

A Wisconsin Boy Shot His Sister. Their Father Is Facing Charges. Other States Should Take Note.

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A rack of shotguns.

Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

I just wanted to take a minute and applaud authorities in Jackson County, Wis., who this week charged a local man for his role in an unintentional child shooting that happened last month. (Thanks to the reader who sent me this story.) On August 30, a 6-year-old boy shot his 4-year-old sister in the face with a loaded shotgun his father had left unattended somewhere in the house. (The girl survived.) Though the boy originally claimed that the gun had accidentally discharged, he later admitted that he had deliberately pulled the trigger as part of a game, and that his father had instructed him to lie about what happened. Now, Fred B. Maphis is facing misdemeanor charges of leaving a loaded firearm near a minor and obstructing an officer. Good.

I’m glad that this guy is facing charges, though you have to wonder whether he would’ve been charged with anything if he had just had his son tell the truth in the first place. (If you lie to the cops, and they find out about it, you will get no mercy.) There are a couple other interesting and relevant aspects of this story as well. First, the Wisconsin state law that makes it a crime to leave a loaded firearm near a child under 14 is sensible and just, and every state ought to have one like it. I’ve written a lot about these sorts of child access prevention laws, and how they can help protect kids from gun-related injury or death by incentivizing parents to properly store their firearms. And yet, according to data compiled by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 23 states have no such laws on the books, omissions I can only ascribe to inertia or ignorance. It’s hard to see how any state legislature could rationally object to something like the Wisconsin law, which is relatively moderate as these statutes go, and which only applies when a child accesses the gun without permission and either takes it out in public or uses it to cause bodily harm to someone else. Nothing here is controversial. If your state doesn’t have any laws like these, you might consider calling your representative and asking her to explain why.

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Second, the La Crosse Tribune reports that the 6-year-old boy “has been shooting firearms since age 3 and has a .22-caliber rifle he’s allowed to shoot with parental supervision.” I’m not going to judge the wisdom of this particular parental decision, though it does appear to have been prohibited under Wisconsin state law, which says that children younger than 12 are only allowed to possess and control a firearm in the context of a professionally supervised hunter education class. But here’s the point: This kid was about as experienced with firearms as any 6-year-old can be, and he still screwed up and shot his sister in the face. This just goes to show that no matter how responsible or experienced a kid might seem, he’s still a kid, prone to mistakes and accidents because of his youth. It is irresponsible to assume that a child’s familiarity with guns necessarily implies some sort of mastery of guns. And it’s inexcusable to let safety standards slip just because you assume your kid knows better than to get into trouble.

I’m not saying that’s what Fred B. Maphis assumed in this case. According to the Tribune, Maphis said he usually secured and unloaded his guns, and that his failure to do so here was a one-time mistake. But you don’t make that mistake if gun safety is your foremost concern. When it comes to kids and guns, you have to assume the worst, and take every necessary precaution to prevent the worst from happening.

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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.