While new details emerge about the possible motives in Monday’s school shooting in Ohio, another question remains: Will there be legal consequences against the owner of the handgun used to kill three people and injure two others?
As Ohio state law stands today, the answer is likely no.
Officials say T.J. Lane, a 17-year-old high school sophomore, confessed to the killings at Chardon High School, located about 30 miles east of Cleveland. County prosecutors say they plan to try Mr. Lane as an adult, resulting in a possible maximum sentence of life in prison.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Lane stole the gun, a Ruger .22-caliber Mark III target pistol, from an uncle who legally purchased the weapon in August 2010 from a gun shop in Mentor, Ohio. Lane’s grandparents noticed the gun missing this week from a barn they owned.
It is not yet certain if the handgun was properly stored, had its ammunition removed, or was secured with locks preventing its use — all factors that that gun safety advocates say are critical in preventing gun access by children.
According to a 2000 study by the US Secret Service, 65 percent of school shootings up to that point involved a gun obtained from the juvenile shooter’s home or that of a close relative.
“There is a widespread misconception that if you talk to your child about guns they will know enough about how to act around a gun. The problem is, they are still children and studies show, over and over, they will not act as an adult will around a gun,” says Laura Cutilletta, a senior staff attorney with Legal Community Against Violence, a public interest law center dedicated to preventing gun violence, located in San Francisco.
More problematic is that Lane attended an alternative school for students who are evaluated as a high risk for “substance abuse/chemical dependency, anger issues, mental health issues, truancy, delinquency, difficulties with attention/organization, and academic deficiencies,” according to the school's website. All are red flags that should have made the family weapon more difficult to obtain, says Jennie Lintz, acting executive director of The Center to Prevent Youth Violence in New York City.
“If you have a child perceived at risk, then we need to take special precautions. We encourage parents of teenagers to remove things from their house like guns or medication and if that’s not possible than they have to do a very, very good job to make them not accessible,” Ms. Lintz says.
Twenty-eight states have Child Access Prevention laws that make adults liable if it is determined that children were able to access their firearms, although the liability depends on certain factors that vary by state. For example, only six states — Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Texas — makes adults liable whether or not the child uses the firearm to cause injury, while eight other states punish adults only if the firearm is used. Other states impose liability if the weapon is not stored property.
Ohio has no laws governing child access to guns on its books and as recently as this month state lawmakers debated a bill that would allow concealed guns in schools. The proposed bill would extend a provision to the state’s conceal-carry law, signed last year by Gov. John Kasich (R), that allows concealed firearms into bars, restaurants, shopping malls, nightclubs, and sports arenas.
The number of Ohioans carrying concealed weapons almost tripled in the state over the past three years, from 56,691 in 2009 to 153,853 in 2011, according to the Ohio Attorney General. To date, about 265,000 Ohioans have permits allowing them to carry a concealed firearm.
There are not yet signs the shooting in Chardon will force a reassessment of the state’s gun laws. US House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio told reporters Tuesday at a Washington press conference that he felt sympathy for the victims of Monday’s shooting and added that “there are about 250 million guns in America, so they are out there, but people should use them responsibly.”