How to Keep Firearms Out of Children's Hands

Jonesboro, Ark., shootings have heightened debate on laws that punish adults who don't store guns properly.

In the aftermath of five shooting deaths at a Jonesboro, Ark., school, lawmakers are proposing new measures to keep America's 200 million privately owned firearms out of the hands of children - by holding adults accountable.

Meanwhile, growing numbers of parents who don't own guns are questioning how they can safeguard their youngsters in a nation where guns are present in an estimated 40 percent of homes, dramatically increasing the risk of child fatalities.

"Since Jonesboro, all of a sudden more people are willing to discuss the issue. There's been a lot of interest," says Marjorie George, director of outreach for Cease Fire, a Washington-based group.

Although one of the suspects in the Arkansas shootings allegedly had to break into his grandfather's house to get the guns, the issue of adult negligence in storing guns was targeted by a new bill introduced in the Senate last week. Under the bill, gun owners would be subject to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine if a child under age 18 finds an improperly stored gun with ammunition and displays it in public or uses it to injure or kill.

"It's a sad fact of life that some Americans are more concerned about locking up their silverware than their guns," says Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, a cosponsor of the bipartisan legislation, which is opposed by the National Rifle Association.

Gun-control critics argue that such laws dangerously erode a constitutional right to bear arms. They add that putting restrictions on the tools of violence doesn't address the societal causes of violence.

The push for more firearm controls coincides with a new wave of tougher parental-responsibility laws that make parents criminally liable for their children's delinquency. More than a dozen states have adopted such laws in recent years, which penalize parents for children's crimes ranging from theft and gang activity to bringing a gun to school.

The Senate bill announced Wednesday is similar to child-access-prevention (CAP) laws enacted in 16 states during the past decade. The maximum charge for adults under the laws is a felony in six states and a misdemeanor in the rest.

There are indications that CAP laws are working, at least in some states. A study published in the October 1997 Journal of the American Medical Association showed that in the 12 states where the laws had been in effect for at least one year, unintentional shooting deaths of children under age 15 fell by 23 percent.

Yet the results varied widely depending on the state penalties. Where felony prosecutions were allowed, unintentional deaths dropped. But they did not change significantly in states imposing only misdemeanors. "The data are not conclusive," says Katherine Christoffel, medical director of the Handgun Epidemic Lowering Plan (HELP) Network in Chicago.

Moreover, according to some experts, many gun owners are so fearful of crime that CAP laws are unlikely to sway them.

"There are a lot of people in this country ... who could care less what the law is. They will have their gun ready to kill an intruder," says Andrew McGuire, executive director of the Pacific Center for Violence Prevention in San Francisco. "[CAP laws] won't really get rid of the problem."

Parents concerned about their children's safety should not wait for legal remedies, gun-control advocates say. Indeed, in schools and communities around the country, parents are taking preventative action by raising the issue of guns in other peoples' homes.

"After Jonesboro, we broke though another layer and people are willing to discuss it," says Ms. George of Cease Fire. The group is working with PTAs in a dozen states and has distributed 100,000 brochures in an anti-handgun education campaign.

At Robert Frost Middle School in Montgomery County, Md., where parents were shocked last month to hear that a seventh grader had brought a gun to school, the PTA is arranging speakers on gun safety in order to "get the discussion going."

"People shouldn't be embarrassed or afraid to ask [about guns in another home]," says Rene Brodsky, co-president of the school PTA. Ms. Brodsky tells her own children that if they ever see a gun, they should leave the area, call her, and she will pick them up.

Lynn Dix, a mother and librarian in Berkeley, Calif., couldn't agree more. In 1994, her 14-year-old son, Kenzo, was shot and killed accidentally at a friend's home. The friend shot Kenzo when playing with his father's handgun, which he believed was not loaded.

"I ask everyone in the play group if they have guns and how they have them stored," says Ms. Dix. "I think that's a fair question. After all, it's your child's life."

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