In Asheboro, North Carolina, a 26-year-old mother was cleaning her home when she heard a gunshot. Rushing into the living room, she discovered that her three-year-old son had accidentally shot her boyfriend’s three-year-old daughter with a .22-caliber rifle the parents had left in the room, loaded and unlocked.Joel Landau, “Toddler shoots fellow 3-year-old with rifle in North Carolina Home,” New York Daily News, November 27, 2013, available at: http://nydn.us/1jLsPY8.
In Fayette County, Pennsylvania, a two-year-old toddler took his stepfather’s pistol out of his mother’s purse and shot himself in the head while the adults were in another room.WPXI, “Police: Boy, 2, accidentally shoots self after finding gun in mother’s purse,” February 22, 2013, available at: http://bit.ly/1cd0aNG. And in northeast Houston, when his mother stepped away for a moment, a five-year-old boy picked up a loaded rifle and accidentally shot his older brother in the back.Mike Glenn, “5-year-old accidentally shoots brother, 7, with rifle,” Houston Chronicle, May 7, 2013, available at: http://bit.ly/NAPfCg.
American children are sixteen times more likely to be killed in unintentional shootings than their peers in other high-income countries.
In all three incidents, adults left loaded and unlocked guns easily accessible to children. Miraculously, the children survived their injuries. But in far too many unintentional shootings they do not.
Federal data from the Centers for Disease Control indicate that between 2007 and 2011, an average of 62 children age 14 and under died each year in unintentional shootings.Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Fatal Injury Reports, National and Regional, 1999-2011,” available at: http://1.usa.gov/1ni8EV8. The CDC classifies fatal shootings as unintentional if “a preponderance of evidence indicates that the shooting was not directed intentionally at the decedent” and includes in this categories the deaths of “a person as a result of celebratory firing that was not intended to frighten, control, or harm anyone” and “a person who received a self-inflicted wound while playing with a firearm.” CDC, “Surveillance for Violent Deaths—National Violent Death Reporting System, 16 States 2010,” available at http://1.usa.gov/1dbN5h9. This report uses the same standard. By this measure, American children are sixteen times more likely to be killed in unintentional shootings than their peers in other high-income countries.Children’s Defense Fund, “Protect Children Not Guns 2013,” July 24, 2013, at 34, available at: http://shar.es/FK6qw.
But our analysis of publicly reported gun deaths in the twelve months after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, shows that the federal data substantially undercount these deaths:
- From December 2012 to December 2013, at least 100 children were killed in unintentional shootings — almost two each week, 61 percent higher than federal data reflect. And even this larger number reflects just a fraction of the total number of children injured or killed with guns in the U.S. each year, regardless of the intent.
- About two-thirds of these unintended deaths — 65 percent — took place in a home or vehicle that belonged to the victim’s family, most often with guns that were legally owned but not secured. Another 19 percent took place in the home of a relative or friend of the victim.
- More than two-thirds of these tragedies could be avoided if gun owners stored their guns responsibly and prevented children from accessing them. Of the child shooting deaths in which there was sufficient information available to make the determination, 70 percent (62 of 89 cases) could have been prevented if the firearm had been stored locked and unloaded. By contrast, incidents in which an authorized user mishandled a gun — such as target practice or hunting accidents — constituted less than thirty percent of the incidents.
While our analysis finds these tragedies to be far more common than previously reported, it also gives reason for optimism. First and foremost, it shows that unintentional child gun deaths can be prevented: if fewer gun owners left their guns loaded and unlocked, fewer children would lose their lives.
Second, we provide the first detailed analysis of a twelve-month period of unintentional child deaths across the country — including how the shooters obtained the guns; where the fatal shootings occurred; who pulled the trigger; whether the deaths resulted in criminal charges; and, crucially, whether the deaths could have been avoided if guns were stored safely.
Finally, based on these findings and the existing scientific research, the report presents several ways that we can reduce the number of children killed in unintentional shootings — including enhancing responsible firearm storage by educating gun owners; deterring irresponsible storage practices through child access prevention laws; and fostering new technologies.
It concludes with several recommendations:
- States should adopt stronger laws to prevent children from accessing unsecured guns, by authorizing criminal charges if an adult gun owner stores his or her gun negligently, a child gains access to the firearm, and harm results.
- Congress should appropriate funds for research to improve public health surveillance of unintentional child gun deaths and to develop effective educational materials for promoting safe storage.
- Congress should earmark funding for the Consumer Product Safety Commission to evaluate and set standards for emerging technologies that promote gun safety, such as biometric gun safes.
- Doctors should be allowed and encouraged to promote gun safety, and efforts to gag physicians should be opposed.
- Greater awareness of the issue should be promoted through a national public education campaign enlisting law enforcement, corporate, and non-profit partners.
Background: Unsecured Guns and Unintentional Shootings
Public health research has demonstrated a clear relationship between household firearm ownership, unsafe storage practices, and unintentional shootings.
About a third of American children live in homes with firearms, and of these households, 43 percent contain at least one unlocked firearm. Thirteen percent of households with guns contain at least one firearm that is unlocked and loaded or stored with ammunition.Mark A. Schuster et al., “Firearm storage patterns in US homes with children,” American Journal of Public Health, 90, no. 4 (2000): 588-594, available at: http://bit.ly/1cxGGDU. In all, more than two million American children live in homes with unsecured guns — and 1.7 million live in homes with guns that are both loaded and unlocked.Mark A. Shuster, Todd M. Franke, Amy M. Bastian, Sinaroth Sor and Neal Halfon, “Firearm storage patterns in U.S. Homes with Children,” American Journal of Public Health 90(4), April 2000; Okoro et al., Prevalence of Household Firearms and Firearm-Storage Practice In the 50 States and the District of Columbia: Findings From The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 2002, Pediatrics 116(3): e370-e376 (Sept. 1, 2005).
Children in these homes are at elevated risk of being injured or killed in unintentional shootings.Grossman DC, Reay DT, Baker SA, “Self inflicted and unintentional firearm injuries among children and adolescents: the source of the firearm,” Archives Pediatric Adolesc. Med. 1999;153:875–878. Studies have shown that a majority of unintentional gun deaths of children occur in the home, and that the highest numbers of unintentional child shootings take place in the late afternoon hours, when children are home from school but their parents may still be working.See Guohua Li et al., “Factors Associated with the Intent of Firearm-Related Injuries in Pediatric Trauma Patients,” Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine 150, no. 11 (1996): 1160-1165; see also Garen J. Wintemute et al., “When children shoot children; 88 unintended deaths in California,” Journal of the American Medical Association 257, no. 22 (1987): 3107– 3109.
Parents underestimate the extent to which their children know where their household guns are stored and the frequency with which children handle household guns unsupervised. A Harvard survey of children in gun-owning households found that more than 70 percent of children under age 10 knew where their parents stored their guns — even when they were hidden — and 36 percent of the children reported handling the weapons. Thirty-nine percent of parents who thought their child was unaware of the location of the household’s gun were contradicted by their children, and one of every five parents who believed their child had not handled the gun was mistaken.Frances Baxley and Matthew Miller, “Parental Misperceptions About Children and Firearms,” Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine 160, no. 5 (2006): 542-547.
As a consequence of the high prevalence of unsecured firearms in the U.S. and the risk this imposes on American children, the country has one of the highest reported rates of unintentional child gun deaths in the world. Data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that 311 children age 14 and under were killed in unintentional shootings between 2007 and 2011 — an average of 62 per year.Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Fatal Injury Reports, National and Regional, 1999-2011,” available at: http://1.usa.gov/1ni8EV8. And an estimated 660 children are hospitalized each year with non-fatal, unintentional firearm injuries.John M. Leventhal et al., “Hospitalizations Due to Firearm Injuries in Children and Adolescents,” Pediatrics 113, No. 2 (2014): 219-225. Data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System suggests that the total number of child gun injuries may be even higher.
But public health research and investigative reporting suggest that the actual total of unintentional child firearm deaths is even higher. When a young child perpetrates a shooting their intent may be difficult to determine, and state coroners and medical examiners — who are responsible for classifying and counting gun deaths before submitting them to the CDC — tend to err towards classifying these as homicides. In 2003, a review of pediatric firearm deaths in Miami-Dade County found that many unintentional deaths were not classified as accidents by the medical examiner.Schaechter J. et al., “Are ‘accidental’ gun deaths as rare as they seem? A comparison of medical examiner manner of death coding with an intent-based classification approach,” Pediatrics 111, No. 4 (2003) 741-744. A Seattle Times analysis of unintentional gun deaths in Washington State in 2012 concluded that “official totals of accidental shootings undercount the problem” and that half of accidental child shooting deaths that year were misclassified.Brian M. Rosenthal, “Shooting accidents soar; state gun laws remain unchanged,” Seattle Times, March 15, 2014, available at: http://bit.ly/1iVPxxp. And in 2013, a New York Times review of child gun deaths in eight states found that more than half of unintentional deaths had been misclassified as intentional homicides rather than unintended shootings.Michael Luo and Mike McIntire, “Children and Guns: The Hidden Toll,” New York Times, September 28, 2013, available at: http://nyti.ms/17dyeEw. The Times study compared federal accidental death reports with records from five states where death certificates were available as public records: GA, MN, NC, and OH (records from 1999-2012) and CA (records from 2007-11). In these states, the Times concluded that more than half of accidental incidents were misclassified.
Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America conducted a national census of publicly reported unintentional child gun deaths from December 15, 2012 to December 14, 2013. Our analysis confirms that the official data significantly undercount the scale of the phenomenon. The actual number of children killed in unintentional shootings during the study period was more than 61 percent higher than official data reflect.
A Census of Unintentional Child Gun Deaths
We examined every publicly reported incident involving a child 14 and under killed in an unintentional shooting in the twelve months following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Reports of unintentional shooting deaths were obtained from subscription-based news databases and publicly available news reports. Whenever possible we identified how the shooter got the gun; where the fatal gunshot occurred; who pulled the trigger; whether the gun was legally owned; and whether criminal charges were brought after the deaths. In cases where information was not specified in public accounts or an investigation was ongoing, we contacted local officials to learn further details.
We identified 100 unintentional child gun deaths. The incidents took place in 35 states across every region of the country — in major cities, suburbs, and sparsely populated rural communities.
This data likely undercounts the true national total because it does not include deaths that were not reported in the papers, and deaths in which authorities said the gun may have been fired accidentally but could not say so definitively. It also excludes numerous cases in which a child accidentally shot and killed an adult.
Among the heartbreaking incidents we identified were the following:
- Just hours after enjoying a Christmas dinner of chicken and macaroni and cheese, a father in Conway, South Carolina turned to make a phone-call and his two-year-old boy picked up his loaded handgun from the living-room table and accidentally shot and killed himself.
- Visiting his aunt’s home in Prichard, Alabama, after attending church on Easter Sunday, a four-year-old boy came across a loaded .22-caliber pistol and fatally shot himself in the chest while his seven-year-old brother looked on in horror.
- On Mother’s Day, an 11-year-old boy in Lake City, Florida discovered his 2- and 4-year-old siblings playing with a gun, and as he tried to take the gun away, it accidentally discharged, hitting him in the neck and killing him.
Narrative descriptions of all 100 identified deaths are located in an appendix to this report. In isolation they are tragedies. But seen as a group, patterns emerge — as do opportunities for prevention.
Patterns in Unintentional Child Gun Deaths
Of the child shooting deaths in which there was sufficient information available to make the determination, 70 percent (62 of 89) could have been prevented if the firearm had been stored locked and unloaded. (The remaining shootings included incidents in which an authorized possessor mishandled a firearm — for example, unintentional shootings that occurred on hunting trips or during target practice.)
Properly locking guns out of children’s reach could also prevent some incidents in which children take their parents’ unlocked guns to school — incidents that occur with troubling frequency, and often with deadly consequences. A separate analysis of school shootings in the 14 months following Newtown identified at least 20 that were perpetrated by minors. Of those shootings where the source of the firearm was known, three- quarters obtained their guns from home.Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, “Analysis of School Shootings, December 15, 2012 – February 10, 2014,” available at: http://bit.ly/1l5e4PE.
Children Shooting Children
In a majority of unintentional child gun deaths, the shooter was also a minor. The shooter was 14 or under in 73 percent of incidents.
Gender of Shooters and Victims
Boys were killed in unintentional shootings more than three times as often as girls. And boys were more than 10 times as likely as girls to pull the trigger in an unintentional shooting.
Girls were victims in a third of incidents (19 of 57) in which someone other than the victim pulled the trigger. Girls were the victim in only 11 percent ofincidents (4 of 35) in which the victim pulled the trigger him or herself.
Where the Fatal Shootings Took Place
The overwhelming majority of shootings occurred in a place likely thought of as safe. Eighty-four percent of deaths occurred in the home or car of the victim’s family, or in the home of a friend or relative.
Type of Gun Used
Handguns were used in 57 percent of the shootings, more than twice as many as those inflicted with long guns. In 19 percent of the cases the type of gun could not be determined.Owners of handguns are far more likely than long gun owners to store their firearms loaded and unlocked. The most recent national survey of private firearm ownership found that nearly a third of all handguns — 30 percent — were stored loaded and unlocked, whereas only 7 percent of long guns were stored this way. Cook & Ludwig, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Nat’l Inst. Of Justice, Guns in America: National Survey on Private Ownership and Use of Firearms (1997).
Who Pulled the Trigger
In 58 percent of cases, the victim was killed by someone else, and in 36 percent the victim shot him- or herself. Toddlers were more likely to die in self-inflicted shootings, whereas older children were more likely to be shot by someone else.
Children appear to be at greatest risk when they are toddlers (ages two to four) and older children (ages twelve to fourteen). As noted above, toddlers were more likely to fatally shoot themselves and older children were more likely to be shot by someone else. This is consistent with social science research demonstrating that older children are at higher risk of other-inflicted unintentional shootings, while children four and under are more likely to be killed in self-inflicted unintentional shootings.Garen J. Wintemute et al., “When children shoot children; 88 unintended deaths in California,” Journal of the American Medical Association 257, no. 22 (1987): 3107– 3109.
Geographic Distribution of Incidents
A majority of incidents took place in towns with populations less than 50,000 people, whereas only 10 percent of incidents occurred in cities with more than 500,000 people.
Who Owned the Firearm
Of the 66 shootings where the firearm’s legal owner was reported, 41 percent belonged to a parent and 35 percent belonged to other family members.
Two-thirds of incidents involved legally owned guns, whereas 16 percent of incidents involved unlawfully owned guns. (In another 17 percent of cases, the legality of gun ownership could not be confirmed.)
The legal consequences — whether the shooter or gun owner was charged criminally — differed dramatically depending on the legal status of the gun’s ownership. In cases where guns were legally owned, charges were brought in only about a quarter of cases. By contrast, in nearly nine of ten cases involving guns that were unlawfully owned, charges were filed against the gun owner or shooter — for illegal possession, negligent homicide, child endangerment, or similar charges.
Preventing Unintentional Child Gun Deaths
The findings detailed above illustrate when, where, and how unintentional child gun deaths occur, and highlight opportunities for preventing these tragedies. Together with existing social science research, they provide evidence that unintentional child gun deaths can be prevented by educating parents; deterring irresponsible storage practices; and fostering new safety technologies.
In more than two-thirds of cases where there was sufficient information to make a determination, unintentional child gun deaths occurred because a gun owner — most often a parent or other family member — left a legally-owned firearm unsecured. The easiest form of prevention is educating parents and other gun owners about the importance of storing firearms responsibly.
Studies show that parents who are counseled by their pediatricians are more likely to adopt responsible gun storage practices. A study of 127 family practice patients who reported gun ownership found that those who were counseled by a doctor about safe firearm storage were 2.2 times as likely to improve their practices as those who were not. Seventy percent of patients reported that they were not bothered by the questions, and eight percent commented that it was a “good idea,” they were “glad their doctor was interested,” or thought it was “an important issue.”Teresa Albright and Sandra Burge, “Improving Firearm Storage Habits: Impact of Brief Office Counseling by Family Physicians,” Journal of the American Board of Family Practice 16, no. 1 (2003): 40-46. A nationwide, randomized controlled trial found that patients who were counseled by their pediatrician about gun safety — and who were offered free firearm cable locks — were 22 percent more likely to report following the recommended gun storage practices six months later.Shari L. Barkin, et al., “Is office-based counseling about media use, timeouts, and firearm storage effective? Results from a cluster-randomized, controlled trial,” Pediatrics 122, no. 1 (2008): e15-e25
The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American College of Physicians, the American College of Surgeons, and the Society for Adolescent Medicine all recommend that doctors inform parents of the risks of gun injuries and how to prevent them.See Anne C. Gill and David E. Wesson, “Prevention of Firearm Injuries in Children,” UpToDate.com, 2013; Alexis Macias, “When States Practice Medicine: Physician Gag Laws,” Bulletin of the American College of Surgeons, February 1, 2012, available at: http://bit.ly/1jVjm2E. But despite the risks posed by unsecured guns and the potential of doctor counseling to limit unintended shootings, the gun lobby has vigorously opposed such counseling.
With prompting from the NRA, state legislators in at least thirteen states have introduced laws that would discipline doctors who ask patients whether they have guns in their homes, prohibit doctors from recording information about gun ownership in medical files, or bar doctors from using questions about gun ownership to determine what patients they will treat.Bills restricting what doctors can ask patients about guns or what gun data they can record in medical records have been introduced in Alabama, Florida, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia; the bills were signed into law in Florida and Montana. So far in 2014, such bills have been introduced in at least four states: Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia. The NRA also added an amendment to the Affordable Care Act that prohibits doctors from collecting data on gun ownership. See Protection of Second Amendment Gun Rights, Affordable Care Act, 42 USC § 300gg-17(c) (2012).
In 11 of 13 states where these bills were introduced, they have not passed the legislatures. But in 2011, Florida’s legislature passed — and Governor Rick Scott signed — a law that subjected doctors who asked patients whether they owned guns to disciplinary action.Florida H.B. 155 (2011). In 2013, Montana enacted a law that prohibits doctors from using questions about gun ownership to decide what patients they will treat.Montana H.B. 459 (signed April 19, 2013).
Florida’s law was challenged on First Amendment grounds shortly after it was signed into law. The federal trial court in Miami struck the law down after concluding that it impermissibly restricted doctors’ free speech rights by prohibiting them from providing truthful, non- misleading information about guns to their patients — while doing nothing to interfere with Floridians’ right to own, possess, or use firearms.Wollschlaeger v. Farmer, 880 F. Supp. 2d 1251 (S.D. Fla. 2012). But Governor Scott vowed to fight the court decision, and the state appealed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit heard the appeal in July, 2013, and a decision is expected soon.See Curt Anderson, “Court hears Florida appeal in ‘Docs vs. Glocks’ case,” Naples News, July 18, 2013, available at: http://bit.ly/1b8p0bR.
Even if the courts refuse to allow NRA-sponsored doctor gag laws to be enforced, political support for such policies can chill doctors’ speech and discourage efforts to engage medical professionals in public education efforts to promote gun safety, putting children at risk.
Deterring Irresponsible Storage
There is evidence that well-tailored child safety laws can reduce the number of children killed or injured in unintentional shootings — and also substantially reduce child gun suicides. The approach parallels that taken towards drunk driving — in which administrative license suspensions and mandatory jail terms were found to reduce recidivism in DWI offenders and deter such behavior in the broader population.Donald S. Kenkel, “Drinking, Driving, and Deterrence: The Effectiveness and Social Costs of Alternative Policies,” Journal of Law and Economics 36, no. 2 (Oct. 1993): 877-913. Particularly promising are laws that deter irresponsible storage by imposing criminal liability when gun owners do not store their firearms responsibly and harm results — so-called “Child Access Prevention” or “CAP” laws. Florida was the first state to enact a CAP statute, in 1989, and now more than half the states have some type of CAP law on the books. Under Florida’s law, if a gun owner fails to secure a firearm in a locked box or with a trigger lock and a child accesses the gun, the owner can be charged with a misdemeanor if the child exhibits the gun in public or uses it in a threatening manner. If a child causes injury or death, a negligent gun owner can be charged with a felony. Studies provide evidence that such laws can reduce child gun injuries and deaths.
A study of hospital discharge data in 21 states with CAP laws found they were associated with a 32 percent decline in nonfatal gun injuries among children 18 and under, and a 64 percent reduction in self-inflicted gun injuries. The authors estimated that CAP laws prevented 829 injuries in 2001, saving $37 million in avoided medical costs.Jeff DeSimone and Sara Markowitz, “The Effect of Child Access Prevention Laws on Non-Fatal Gun Injuries,” NBER Working Paper No. 11613 (2005), available at: http://bit.ly/1ifuUQX.
Another study concluded that, controlling for other factors, states that adopted CAP laws experienced an 8.3 percent decline in firearm suicides by 14- to 17-year olds. The authors estimated that CAP laws prevented 333 such firearm suicides during the period they observed (1989-2001).Daniel Webster et al., “Association Between Youth-Focused Firearm Laws and Youth Suicides,” Journal of the American Medical Association 292, no. 5, (2004): 594-601.
A third study focused on Florida’s adoption of a CAP law. Whereas laws with weak penalties that were adopted in other states were not associated with a statistically significant decline in child deaths, passage of a strong law in Florida was associated with a 51 percent decline in unintentional child shooting deaths between 1989 and 1997. The study’s authors hypothesized the decline was due in part to a major public education campaign that accompanied the law’s passage, the felony penalty imposed by the law, and the state’s high baseline rate of child accidental gun deaths.Daniel W. Webster and Marc Starnes, “Reexamining the Association Between Child Access Prevention Gun Laws and Accidental Shooting Deaths of Children,” Pediatrics 106, no. 6, (2000): 1466-1469.
Providing Storage Solutions
Because preventing children from accessing loaded and unlocked guns can prevent children from being injured or killed, the federal government and some states require that locking devices be included with at least some gun sales. A few municipalities and one state — Massachusetts — have gone further, and mandate that guns be locked if they are not being carried by or in the direct control of the owner.
At the federal level, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005Codified at 15 U.S.C. § 7901 et seqt. prohibits federally licensed dealers from selling or transferring handguns without including a “secure gun storage or safety device” — in essence, either a gun safe, trigger lock, or equivalent safety device.18 U.S.C. § 922(z); 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(34). But this requirement does not apply to unlicensed sellers, who are responsible for approximately 40 percent of all gun sales and need not include safety devices when they sell guns. Nor does the requirement apply to rifles and shotguns, which federal law allows anyone to sell without a lock or gun safe.
Eleven states — California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island — have adopted their own gun lock laws. Nearly all of these mirror the federal requirement that safety devices or safes be included along with gun sales. Some of these states go beyond federal law by requiring locks to be included with all gun sales, not just sales by licensed dealers. Some extend federal law by requiring locks or safes to be included with all gun sales, including rifles and shotguns along with handguns.See Cal. Penal Code §§ 16540, 16610, 16870, 23635-23690, 25135, 31910(a)(1), (b)(1), 32000; Cal. Code Regs. tit. 11, §§ 4093 – 4099; Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 29-33(d), 29-37b, 29-37i; 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/24-9.5; Md. Code Ann., Pub. Safety § 5-132; Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140 § 131K; Mich. Comp. Laws § 28.435; N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:58-2a(5 (d), (e); N.Y. Gen. Bus. Law § 396-ee; New York Penal Law § 265.45; N.Y. Comp. Codes R. & Regs. tit. 9, § 471.2; Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2923.25; 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 6142; R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-47-60.3.
At least two large cities — New York and San Francisco — and the state of Massachusetts have adopted stricter laws that require not just that safety devices be included with gun sales, but that all gun owners actually store their guns locked or in a secure safe when the weapon is not being carried by or under the control of the owner.See Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, § 131L(a). A few other states require gun safes or locks to be used under certain circumstances: New York, for example, requires guns to be locked or stored in a safe if the gun owner lives with someone who has been convicted of a felony or domestic violence crime, has been involuntarily committed, or is currently under a restraining order.N.Y. Penal Law § 265.45. California requires the same if the gun’s owner resides with anyone who is prohibited under state or federal law from purchasing or possessing a firearm for any reason.Cal. Penal Code § 25135.
Fostering Innovative Safety Technologies
Unintentional shootings may occur when the person holding the gun mistakenly believes it is unloaded and pulls the trigger — often because the person has removed the magazine but left one round in the chamber. Shootings may also occur when a child or unauthorized adult handles a gun that they are unfamiliar with and accidentally causes it to discharge. Three technologies have the potential to reduce these risks, but gun manufacturers have not widely incorporated the features.
The first two features could help reduce incidents in which someone pulls the trigger thinking a loaded gun is unloaded. A “chamber load indicator” indicates by some visual means when a round is present in the chamber. A “magazine disconnect mechanism” prevents firearms with detachable magazines from being fired when the magazine is removed.
Despite the promise of these technologies, gun manufacturers have been reluctant to incorporate them into their products. In an effort to spur their adoption, California and Massachusetts have mandated one or both technologies. Since 2007, to be legally sold in California, handguns must include both a chamber load indicator and, if they have a detachable magazine, a magazine-disconnect mechanism.Cal. Penal Code §§ 16380 (defining chamber load indicator), 16900 (defining magazine disconnect mechanism), 31900 (mandating use of chamber load indicator and magazine disconnect mechanisms). Massachusetts prohibits sales of handguns that do not contain at least one of these two features.Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, § 131K; 940 Code Mass. Reg. § 16.05(3) (making it an unfair or deceptive practice for a handgun-purveyor to transfer or offer to transfer “any handgun which does not contain a load indicator or magazine safety disconnect”).
A third technology, used in so-called “smart” or “personalized” guns, relies on biometric, magnetic, or radio frequency identification to ensure that a gun can only be fired by its owner. Some smart gun designs rely on fingerprint or palm readers to verify that the owner or another authorized user is holding the gun. Others rely on features that only allow the gun to be fired when it is within inches of a watch or ring that communicates with the gun through radio frequency — so if the gun is knocked from the owner’s hand or discovered by a child while the owner is elsewhere, it cannot be fired.
Smart guns are designed to prevent children from accidentally discharging weapons and endangering themselves and others. The technology would also render stolen guns useless and, given that hundreds of thousands of guns are stolen every year, could eliminate a major public safety threat.See Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “2012 Summary: Firearms Reported Lost and Stolen,” June 17, 2013, available at: http://1.usa.gov/1aIuO14.
Smart gun models are not commercially available, but a series of products are reportedly on the cusp of widespread availability. Biometric technologies are already widely used in gun safes and gun locksSee, e.g., Francis Hilario, “Gun Lock Could Appease Both Sides in Gun Debate,” Philadelphia Business Journal, January 29, 2014, available at: http://bit.ly/1cz4Hs5; 8countnews.com, “Hi-Tech Gun Storage Safe for 2014,” January 23, 2014, available at: http://bit.ly/1b9fY1e. — to say nothing of other products, like iPhones — and the National Institute of Justice has certified that several smart gun models are ready to be commercialized.Mark Greene, “A Review of Gun Safety Technologies,” National Institute of Justice Research Report, June 2013: 24-27, available at: http://1.usa.gov/1iMOfIy. To accelerate their development, a group of Silicon Valley investors has announced a challenge grant of one million dollars for entrepreneurs to develop a marketable smart gun.See Daniel Terdiman, “Can smart guns slash gun violence? Silicon Valley says yes,” Cnet.com, January 28, 2014, at http://cnet.co/1egCiHq. And at least two manufacturers — a German company called Armatix and a Utah firm, Kodiak Industries — have developed models that they plan to market in the immediate future.See Chris Boyette, “Smart Gun Technology Could Set New Jersey Law into Motion,” CNN.com, November 23, 2013, at http://cnn.it/1fnWY0y.
Effective smart gun technology has the potential to limit unintentional shootings. But legislative efforts to mandate its use have been controversial. Maryland law requires the state’s Handgun Roster Board to issue an annual report on the status of smart gun technology,Md. Code Ann., Pub. Safety § 5-132 and a New Jersey statute will make it illegal to sell firearms lacking smart gun technology beginning three years after the state Attorney General certifies that smart guns are commercially available for retail purchase.N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:58-2.3 et seq. The gun lobby has fiercely resisted the New Jersey law and sought to block smart gun makers’ efforts to market their products, fearing that once even a single smart gun is on the market, other guns will be banned.See Michael S. Rosenwald, “Maryland dealer, under pressure from gun-rights activists, drops plan to sell smart gun,” Washington Post, May 2, 2014, at http://wapo.st/1kpE4Ft. To ease resistance to the development and marketing of smart guns, and speed their introduction into the market, the majority leader of the New Jersey Senate offered to revoke the smart gun law if the NRA would “make a public commitment to not stand in the way of the manufacture, distribution, or sale” of smart guns.See Brian Montopoli, “N.J. Democrat: We will reverse smart gun law if NRA plays ball,” MSNBC.com, May 2, 2014, at http://on.msnbc.com/1jpdq2L. The NRA did not accept the offer.
The gun lobby continues to resist smart guns, and for the time being the technology remains largely in the hands of developers, not gun owners. Further refinement of smart gun technology may be required before it is widely accepted by gun owners, but this development should be encouraged, and efforts to make guns commercially available should be accelerated.
Policy makers in the states and Congress should adopt legislation in three key areas:
- States should adopt stronger laws to prevent children from accessing unsecured guns. States without child access prevention laws should adopt them, and the states with weaker laws should strengthen them. States like Florida, Iowa, and North Carolina authorize criminal penalties if a gun owner stores a gun negligently, a child gains access to the firearm, and some harm results — other states should follow suit. Additionally, states should consistently and uniformly apply these laws when preventable shootings occur.
- Congress should increase funding for public health research on children injured and killed in unintentional shootings. A public health approach to motor vehicle injuries, with technical and policy responses informed by epidemiological research, has resulted in dramatic reductions in traffic fatalities. The CDC and other federal agencies should approach firearm injuries and deaths with similar rigor.
- Congress should earmark funding for the consumer product safety commission to evaluate and set standards for emerging technologies used in gun safety devices, such as biometric gun safes and locks. Although the gun lobby succeeded in prohibiting the Consumer Product Safety Commission from establishing safety standards for firearms or ammunition,15 U.S.C. § 2052(a)(5)(ii)(E). there is no such prohibition on the CPSC testing or setting standards for gun safety devices like trigger locks or biometric safes. At least five states — California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York — already set standards for safe storage equipment or maintain a list of approved devices, and in January 2013, President Obama signed an executive order calling on the CPSC to evaluate gun safety devices and voluntary industry standards. This is particularly important as new technologies emerge in the marketplace.
Eliminating unintentional child gun deaths will also require public campaigns to increase understanding of how these tragedies occur and how they can be prevented. Ultimately, talking about the risks of gun accidents and storage practices to prevent them must become the norm. A wide range of stakeholders — including public health professionals, elected officials, educators and non-profits, law enforcement, gun manufacturers, and the media — should be engaged:
- Doctors should be further engaged in efforts to promote gun safety, and efforts to gag physicians should be opposed. Pediatricians are well positioned to talk to children and parents about gun safety. Efforts to restrict how doctors do their jobs should be rejected — as should other attempts by the gun lobby to seal off information related to gun safety and injury.Mayors Against Illegal Guns. “Access Denied,” available at: http://everytown.org/access-denied.
- Greater awareness of the issue could be promoted through a national public education campaign enlisting law enforcement, corporate, and non-profit partners. The Ad Council’s “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” and “You Could Learn a Lot from a Dummy” are two classic public service campaigns that helped reduce alcohol-related fatalities and increase safety belt usage, respectively, over the past three decades. A similar campaign, with the support of corporate and non-profit partners, could raise public awareness of responsible gun ownership.