Posted on August 1, 2013
Child access prevention (CAP) laws impose criminal liability on adults who give children unsupervised access to firearms. Researchers have found that millions of children live in homes with easily accessible guns. Approximately one of three handguns is kept loaded and unlocked and most children know where their parents keep their guns.1 In one 2006 study, 73% of children under age 10 living in homes with guns reported knowing the location of their parents’ firearms, and 36% admitted they had handled the weapons; 39% of parents who reported that their children did not know the storage location of household guns and 22% of parents who reported that their children had never handled a household gun were contradicted by their children’s reports.2
The presence of unlocked guns in the home increases the risk of both unintentional gun injuries and intentional shootings. A 1999 study found that more than 75% of the guns used in youth suicide attempts and unintentional injuries were stored in the residence of the victim, a relative,or a friend.3 At least two studies have found that the risk of suicide increases in homes where guns are kept loaded and/or unlocked.4
In July 2004, the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education published a study examining 37 school shootings from 1974-2000. That study found that in more than 65% of the cases, the attacker got the gun from his or her own home or that of a relative.5
For more information about the storage of firearms, see our summary on Safe Storage & Gun Locks.
Child access prevention laws have been shown to be effective at reducing unintentional firearm deaths among children.
- One study found that in twelve states where such laws had been in effect for at least one year, unintentional firearm deaths fell by 23% from 1990-94 among children under 15 years of age.6
- A 2004 study evaluating the association between CAP laws and suicides among youth found that such laws were associated with an 8.3% decrease in suicides among 14-17 year olds.7
- A 2005 study found that the practices of keeping firearms locked, unloaded, and storing ammunition in a locked location separate from firearms serve as a protective measure to reduce youth suicide and unintentional injury in homes with children and teenagers where guns are stored.8
There are no child access prevention laws at the federal level, and federal law does not generally require gun owners to safely store their guns. Federal law does, however, make it unlawful for any licensed importer, manufacturer or dealer to sell or transfer any handgun unless the transferee is provided with a “secure gun storage or safety device”,9 and immunizes the lawful owner of a handgun who uses a secure gun storage or safety device from certain civil actions based on the criminal or unlawful misuse of the handgun by a third party.10 For further details, see our summary on Safe Storage and Gun Locks. Federal and state laws imposing a minimum age for the purchase and possession of firearms are discussed in our summary on the Minimum Age to Purchase and Possess Firearms.11
Twenty-seven states and D.C. have enacted child access prevention laws.
States with Child Access Prevention Laws
Description of State Child Access Prevention Laws
Child access prevention laws take a variety of forms. The strongest laws impose criminal liability when a minor gains access to a negligently stored firearm. The weakest merely prohibit persons from directly providing a firearm to a minor. There is a wide range of laws that fall somewhere between these extremes, including laws that impose criminal liability for negligently stored firearms, but only where the child uses the firearm and causes death or serious injury. Weaker laws impose penalties only in the event of reckless, knowing or intentional conduct by the adult. States also differ on the definition of “minor” for purposes of preventing access to firearms by children.
1. Laws Imposing Criminal Liability when a Child Gains Access as a Result of Negligent Storage of a Firearm: Fourteen states and the District of Columbia, have laws that impose criminal liability on persons who negligently store firearms, where minors could or do gain access to the firearm. Typically, these laws apply whenever the person “knows or reasonably should know” that a child is likely to gain access to the firearm.
State Laws Based on Negligent Storage
District of Columbia
There are a number of variations in these types of laws, including whether the child must use the firearm, and whether the firearm must be loaded. The most significant variations are described below:
a. States Imposing Criminal Liability for Allowing a Child to Gain Access: The broadest laws apply regardless of whether the child even gains possession of the firearm. California, Massachusetts, Minnesota and the District of Columbia impose criminal liability in circumstances where a child may (Massachusetts) or is likely to (California, Minnesota, District of Columbia) gain access to a firearm. The laws in Hawaii,40 Maryland, New Jersey, and Texas apply whenever a child gains access to an improperly stored firearm. In these states, it is not necessary for the child to use the firearm or cause any injury.
States Imposing Criminal Liability When a Child “May” or “Is Likely To” Gain Access to the Firearm
District of Columbia
States Imposing Criminal Liability for Allowing a Child to Gain Access to the Firearm, Regardless of Whether the Child Uses the Firearm or Causes Injury
District of Columbia
b. States Imposing Criminal Liability Only if Child Uses or Carries the Firearm: Seven states require that the child carry or use the firearm in some way before criminal liability attaches. In Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, and Rhode Island, the statute applies when the child uses the firearm to cause death or serious injury. Iowa, Florida, New Hampshire and North Carolina also impose criminal liability when the minor takes the firearm to a public place, and/or uses the firearm in a threatening manner. The New Hampshire and North Carolina statutes also impose criminal liability when the child uses the firearm in the commission of a crime.
States Imposing Criminal Liability Only if a Child Uses or Carries the Firearm
c. States Imposing Criminal Liability for Negligent Storage of Unloaded Firearms: Hawaii, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia impose criminal liability even if the firearm is unloaded. In the case of handguns only, California imposes criminal liability when the child carries a loaded or unloaded handgun off-premises. All other states only impose criminal liability if the firearm is loaded.
States Imposing Criminal Liability for Negligent Storage of Unloaded Firearms
District of Columbia
d. Common Exceptions: States allow several exceptions to their child access prevention laws. The most common exception applies where the firearm is stored in a locked container (California, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina,42 Rhode Island, Texas). Another common exception applies where the minor gains access to the firearm via illegal entry of the premises (California, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Texas). Other exceptions include cases where the firearm is used for hunting, sport shooting or agricultural purposes, where the minor uses the gun in defense of self or others, where the firearm is used to aid law enforcement, or where the child has completed a firearm safety course.
2. States Preventing Persons from Intentionally, Knowingly and/or Recklessly Providing Firearms to Minors: Several states impose a weaker standard for criminal liability when a child is allowed to access a firearm. Thirteen prohibit persons from intentionally, knowingly, and/or recklessly providing some or all firearms to children.
State Laws Prohibiting Intentional, Knowing or Reckless Provision of Firearms to Minors
d. Lesser standard for parents or guardians: Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah impose a lesser standard on parents and guardians, providing that parents may be guilty for providing firearms to children only where they know of a substantial risk that the minor will use the firearm to commit a crime.
3. Definition of “Minor”: The age which triggers a state’s child access prevention law varies, ranging from children under 14 to those under 18.
Under 18: California, Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah
Under 17: Texas
Under 16: Connecticut,50 Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island
Under 14: Illinois, Iowa, Virginia, Wisconsin
4. States Requiring that All Firearms be Stored with a Locking Device in Place: Massachusetts requires that all firearms be stored with locking devices in place to prevent accidental discharge. This type of law is another important means to protect children from gaining unauthorized access to firearms and causing death or injury.51 Additional information about these kinds of laws is contained in our summary on Safe Storage & Gun Locks.
5. States Imposing Civil Liability on Persons Who Fail to Store Firearms Properly:52 California imposes civil liability on the parent or guardian of a minor for damages resulting from the minor’s discharge of a firearm, where the parent or guardian permitted the minor to have the firearm or left it accessible to the minor. Connecticut imposes strict liability in civil actions on persons who fail to store firearms securely, where a minor gains access and causes injury or death. In Illinois, when a minor under the age of 21 legally acquires a firearms license by obtaining the permission of a parent or guardian, that parent or guardian becomes liable for civil claims for damages resulting from the minor’s use of firearms or ammunition. In Nevada, a parent or guardian is jointly and severally liable with the minor for civil damages caused by permitting the minor to possess a firearm, where the parent or guardian knows that the minor has a propensity to commit violent acts or has been previously adjudicated delinquent or has been convicted of a criminal offense, or knows or has reason to know that the minor intends to use the firearm for an unlawful purpose.53
The features listed below are intended to provide a framework from which policy options may be considered. A jurisdiction considering new legislation should consult with counsel.
- Criminal liability is imposed on persons who negligently store firearms under circumstances where minors could gain access to the firearm, regardless of whether the minor actually gains access to or uses the firearm (California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, District of Columbia)
- Criminal liability is imposed on persons who negligently store firearms even when the firearm is unloaded (Hawaii, Massachusetts, District of Columbia)
- Civil liability for damages resulting from the discharge of a firearm is imposed on persons who negligently store firearms when a minor gains access
- “Minor” is defined as a child under the age of 18 for long guns (Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah), and a person under the age of 21 for handguns, for purposes of the child access prevention law
- All firearms are required to be stored with a locking device in place (Massachusetts)
- Philip J. Cook & Jens Ludwig, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Nat’l Inst. of Justice, Guns in America: National Survey on Private Ownership and Use of Firearms, at 7 (1997). [↩]
- Frances Baxley & Matthew Miller, Parental Misperceptions About Children and Firearms, 160 Archives Of Pediatric & Adolescent Med. 542, 544 (2006). [↩]
- David C. Grossman, Donald T. Reay & Stephanie A. Baker, Self-Inflicted and Unintentional Firearm Injuries Among Children and Adolescents: The Source of the Firearm, 153 Arch. Pediatr. Adolesc. Med. 875, 875 (Aug. 1999). [↩]
- Matthew Miller & David Hemenway, The Relationship Between Firearms and Suicide: A Review of the Literature, 4 Aggression & Violent Behavior 59, 62-65 (1999) (summarizing the findings of multiple studies). [↩]
- U.S. Secret Service & U.S. Dep’t of Education, The Final Report & Findings of the Safe School Initiative – Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States 27 (July 2004), at http://www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/preventingattacksreport.pdf. [↩]
- Peter Cummings et al., State Gun Safe Storage Laws and Child Mortality Due to Firearms, 278 JAMA 1084, 1084 (Oct. 1997). [↩]
- Daniel W. Webster et al., Association Between Youth-Focused Firearm Laws & Youth Suicides, 292 JAMA 594, 596-98 (Aug. 2004). [↩]
- David C. Grossman et al., Gun Storage Practices and Risk of Youth Suicide and Unintentional Firearm Injuries, 293 JAMA 707, 711-13 (2005), at http://depts.washington.edu/hiprc/pdf/LockboxJAMA.pdf. [↩]
- 18 U.S.C. § 922(z)(1). A “secure gun storage or safety device” is defined under 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(34) as: (A) a device that, when installed on a firearm, is designed to prevent the firearm from being operated without first deactivating the device; (B) a device incorporated into the design of the firearm that is designed to prevent the operation of the firearm by anyone not having access to the device; or (C) a safe, gun safe, gun case, lock box, or other device that is designed to be or can be used to store a firearm and that is designed to be unlocked only by means of a key, a combination, or other similar means. [↩]
- 18 U.S.C. § 922(z)(3). [↩]
- Federal law prohibits federally licensed firearms dealers from transferring handguns to persons under age 21 and long guns to persons under age 18. It is also illegal for anyone to transfer a handgun to a person under age 18, with certain exceptions, such with the prior written consent of the minor’s parent or guardian. 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(b)(1), 922(x)(1). [↩]
- Cal. Penal Code §§ 25000-25225; Cal. Civ. Code § 1714.3. [↩]
- Colo. Rev. Stat. § 18-12-108.7. [↩]
- Conn. Gen. Stat §§ 29-37i, 52-571g, 53a-217a. [↩]
- Del. Code Ann. tit. 11, §§ 603, 1456. [↩]
- D.C. Code Ann. § 7-2507.02(b)-(d). [↩]
- Fla. Stat. Ann. § 790.174. [↩]
- Ga. Code Ann. § 16-11-101.1. [↩]
- Haw. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 134-10.5, 707-714.5. [↩]
- 430 Ill. Comp. Stat. 65/4(c); 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/24-9(a). [↩]
- Ind. Code Ann. §§ 35-47-10-3, 35-47-10-6. [↩]
- Iowa Code § 724.22(7). [↩]
- Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 527.110. [↩]
- Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law § 4-104. [↩]
- Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, § 131L. [↩]
- Minn. Stat. § 609.666. [↩]
- Miss. Code Ann. §§ 97-37-14, 97-37-15. [↩]
- Mo. Rev. Stat. § 571.060.1(2). [↩]
- Nev. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 41.472, 202.300(1) – (3). [↩]
- N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 650-C:1. [↩]
- N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:58-15. [↩]
- N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-315.1. [↩]
- Okla. Stat. tit. 21, § 1273(B). [↩]
- R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-47-60.1. [↩]
- Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 39-17-1319, 39-17-1320. [↩]
- Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 46.13. [↩]
- Utah Code Ann. § 76-10-509.6. [↩]
- Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-56.2. [↩]
- Wis. Stat. § 948.55. [↩]
- While Haw. Rev. Stat. § 134-10.5 appears to criminalize negligent storage when a child is likely to gain access to a firearm, Haw. Rev. Stat. § 707-714.5 only provides penalties if the child actually gains access to a firearm. [↩]
- North Carolina’s statute only applies to the negligent storage of firearms by persons who reside with a minor. [↩]
- In North Carolina, liability is imposed if the firearm is stored or left “in a condition that the firearm can be discharged.” [↩]
- Nevada makes it a crime to “aid or knowingly permit” a child to possess a firearm, except for hunting, target practice or other purposes, under the immediate supervision of an authorized adult. [↩]
- Utah’s law applies only to parents and guardians. [↩]
- In Delaware, the minor must use the firearm to cause death or serious injury. [↩]
- Wisconsin’s law applies only where the minor uses the firearm to cause death or serious injury, or exhibits the firearm in a public place. [↩]
- Virginia also prohibits any person from knowingly authorizing a child under 12 to use a firearm, except when supervised by an adult. [↩]
- Colorado prohibits providing firearms other than handguns to minors without parental consent. [↩]
- Mississippi’s statute applies only to parents and guardians. [↩]
- In 2013, Connecticut expanded its safe storage provisions to apply to persons other than minors. Now, a firearm owner must store any loaded firearm on premises under his or her control if he or she knows or reasonably should know that a resident of the premises: 1) is ineligible to possess a firearm under state or federal law; or 2) poses a risk of imminent personal injury to himself or herself or to other individuals. [↩]
- New York adopted a safe storage law in 2013, requiring that any owner or custodian of a firearm who resides with an individual who the owner or custodian knows or has reason to know is prohibited from possessing a firearm pursuant to specific possession prohibitions under federal law must securely store the firearm or render it incapable of being fired by use of an appropriate locking device. N.Y. Penal Law § 265.45. This law does not specifically apply to minors, however. [↩]
- In October 2005, as part of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), Congress passed and the President signed into law immunizing any person from a “qualified civil liability action” who is in lawful possession and control of a handgun and who uses a secure gun storage or safety device with the handgun. 18 U.S.C. § 922(z). “Qualified civil liability action” is defined as a civil action for damages resulting from the criminal or unlawful misuse of a handgun by a third party if: (A) the handgun was accessed by another person who did not have the authorization of the lawful possessor; and (B) at the time the handgun was accessed it had been made inoperable by the use of a secure gun storage or safety device. 18 U.S.C. § 922(z)(3). [↩]
- In addition, Hawaii imposes absolute liability on the owner of a firearm if the discharge of the firearm causes injury to any person or property. Haw. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 663-9.5. [↩]