Too Many Accidents: How to Prevent Children from Accessing Guns

Posted on May 9, 2013

On April 29, the nation was saddened by the death of two-year old Caroline Sparks, who was shot and killed by her five-year-old brother Kristian in rural Kentucky.  The mother of the two children had left a rifle sitting in a corner of the house and had not known it was loaded.  She only left the room for a moment when she heard the gun go off.

Unfortunately, these kinds of shooting occur all the time.  Over the past ten days: a five-year old Alaska girl was fatally shot by her eight-year old brother;  a four-year old Alabama boy was accidentally shot in the head; a 13-year-old Florida boy shot his six-year old sister; a four-year-old in Indiana shot himself in the hand; and a three-year-old in Florida accidentally killed himself with his uncle’s gun.

Our hearts go out to these victims and their family members.  These kinds of shootings are the result of our nation’s insufficient attention to the more generalized problem of access to guns. Over the last few months, our nation’s leaders have begun to address how our background check system could, and should, prevent dangerous criminals and individuals with severe mental illness from accessing guns.  They should also address the parallel problem of child access to guns.

Far too many children can obtain firearms without adult supervision.  A 2005 study on firearm storage practices found that over 1.69 million children and youth under age 18 are living in homes in the U.S. with loaded and unlocked firearms. The presence of unlocked guns in the home increases the risk of both gun accidents, like those described above, and intentional shootings, like those that can occur when a violent or suicidal teenager has access to a firearm. See Statistics on Youth Violence and Gun Access for further data.

Almost half the states have no law penalizing individuals who provide children unsupervised access to firearms.  In addition, as described in our Child Access Prevention policy summary, some states with existing laws only penalize the responsible adult after a child has actually gained access to the firearm and someone has been shot.  A stronger approach generally requires gun owners to keep their guns locked whenever they are not in use. Massachusetts is the only state that has adopted this approach so far. Other jurisdictions should consider this approach, which could prevent many of the tragedies listed above, and which has been upheld by the courts.

Massachusetts’ safe storage law is one of many innovative strategies to prevent gun violence that legislators ought to consider.  If we don’t do anything, we’ll continue to read about terrible accidents involving kids and guns.