What is Detroit doing to address child shootings?

A prosecutor in Detroit has filed multiple charges against the relatives of two children who shot themselves in separate incidents. The shootings are among eight other shootings in Detroit where children have shot themselves or others in the past 17 months.

Todd McInturf/The Detroit News/AP
Wayne County Assistant Prosecutors Abigail McIntyre, Parisa Kiani, Chief of Trial Jerry Dorsey, IV and Carin Goldfarb (l. to r.) stand with Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy (c.) and Robert Spada (c.-l.), deputy chief of the Special Victims Unit, as Ms. Worthy announces charges against individuals involved in the gun violence deaths of children in Detroit.

A prosecutor in Detroit has filed charges against grandparents of a 5-year-old girl who fatally shot herself in the neck with a firearm she found under her grandmother’s pillow earlier this month.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy has also filed charges against the mother and great-grandfather of a 4-year-old who shot himself in the hand with his great-grandfather’s gun, months before the girl’s shooting.

There have been eight cases in Detroit in the past 17 months in which children have shot themselves or others, including a total of five children between Easter holiday and May 11, 2016.

"This is a public health issue and not just a crime issue," Ms. Worthy said at a news conference. "These incidents are preventable if adults simply do what they know they should do, and it takes seconds to secure and unload a firearm."

Nationwide, there have been 96 such shootings since the beginning of the year, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-safety group funded by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. In 2015 there were 278 cases of child shootings.

"How many more deaths do we need before strong, swift action is taken?" Worthy asked following the girl's shooting, the Detroit Free Press reported. "We need more accountability, mandatory gun safety classes that must be repeated within certain time periods, laws that punish more if a child gets your unsecured gun."

"‎I realize more than most, that the trend now is to decriminalize," she added. "Really, is the death of innocent children and how we deal with it really in this category? Get real."

Michigan is one of the states that doesn’t have Child Access Prevention (CAP) law. The laws, which seek to impose criminal liability on adults who give children unsupervised access to firearms, have been adopted by 27 states nationwide.

The states that have adopted these laws have seen a reduction in the number of gun accidents involving children as well as in gun suicides, Jon Vernick, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a telephone interview.

"There's no question that parents and gun owners should be held accountable," Jonathan Lowy, director of the Legal Action Project at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told The Christian Science Monitor’s Amanda Paulson in 2013. "Gun owners should – and most do – store their guns safely. When you don't and bad things foreseeably happen, of course you should be held accountable. With rights come responsibilities."

But opponents of CAP laws have refuted studies that attribute the reduction of the number of child shootings to these laws, arguing that the laws would make it harder for gun owners to defend themselves. In 2014, NRA news host Cam Edwards criticized Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, after she called for strict state laws that would punish parents who are negligent with their firearms.

"If I was drinking and driving and hit my son, I would immediately go to jail. But if I left my firearm on the top of the refrigerator and he found it and shot himself, everyone says, what a horrible accident," Ms. Watts told USA Today.

"We don't have a negligent storage law for alcohol," and, "We don't have a negligent storage law for automobiles, and so I'm not quite sure what she is talking about," said Mr. Edwards, Media Matters for America reported.

If "you are careless with a firearm and one of your own children accidentally kills themselves that that horror would not be enough to prevent it from happening again. You would need to go to jail in order to learn your lesson, I think is what she is saying," he added saying that child accidents are common and aren't mainly caused by guns. He cited CDC statics of the main causes of child injuries and deaths including, drowning, suffocation, and poisoning.

But even in the states that have these laws, the government is often reluctant to prosecute grieving parents or relatives in the death of a child, Mr. Vernick says, adding that even when there is a prosecution, the cases often result in misdemeanor charges rather than felonies, giving prosecutors fewer incentives to go after these cases.

In Detroit, Frederick Davis and Patricia McNeal, the grandparents of the 5-year-old girl, are being charged with involuntary manslaughter, three counts of second-degree child abuse, and one count each of felony firearm. The grandparents were babysitting 5-year-old Mariah Davis at the time of her death.

And the laws don't have to applied vigorously to have an impact, Vernick tells the Monitor, saying that they should exist as a social norm to tell people what is expected of them. Studies have shown that children as young as 3 years old know where their parents keep firearms and can easily access them, according to Slate. If these laws were in place, Vernick says, they would make parents more cautious about storing their firearms.

"If the law is well publicized then that tells people what is expected of them. It is what public health people will call a social norm. The law has this punitive function but it also has a function of telling people what society expects of them. And if an occasional case is prosecuted and there's publicity associated with that prosecution, it can make a difference."

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