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Legislative Approaches to Keeping Guns Away From Kids

By Anne Teigen  |  June 14, 2023

In 2019, there were at least 309 unintentional shootings by children, resulting in 120 deaths and 203 injuries, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun control advocacy group. Twenty-seven states have enacted child access prevention laws to help stop these tragedies. The laws allow for criminal charges to be brought against adults who intentionally, recklessly or negligently allow children to have unsupervised access to firearms.

But the laws vary widely in terms of what circumstances must exist for criminal liability. For example, laws in some states, such as Illinois, Iowa and North Carolina, have provisions that attach criminal liability if the person negligently allowed a child to have access to a firearm and they in turn caused serious injury or death. Other states, including California, Massachusetts and Texas, attach criminal liability regardless of whether the child uses the weapon. Some states include all firearms in their laws, while other states only prohibit an adult from providing or negligently allowing access to handguns.

Many states have exceptions if the firearm was stored in a locked container, if the young person illegally gained access to the home and the firearm, or if the young person used the firearm in self-defense.

State legislatures are also looking to safe storage laws to prevent firearms from getting in the hands of children. Colorado recently became the 13th state to require the secure storage of firearms in circumstances where children are likely to access them. The Colorado law requires firearms to be responsibly and securely stored when not in use. The law defines “responsible and secure storage” as safely keeping the firearm on one’s person; locking the firearm in a gun safe or other locked container whose key or combination is not accessible to children; or installing a physical or technological locking device on the firearm.

Research indicates that these laws may be effective in saving lives. The RAND Corp.’s Gun Policy in America project found that there “is supportive evidence that child-access prevention laws reduce all firearm self-injuries (including suicide attempts and self-injuries that were not the result of suicide attempts) among young people.” Additionally, RAND found that two or more studies indicate these laws may decrease firearm suicides among young people.

Opponents of these laws are not opposed to safely storing firearms out of the reach of children. In fact, the National Rifle Association provides information on safely storing firearms, and the National Shooting Sports Foundation suggests that responsible gun owners must “make absolutely sure that firearms in your home are securely stored out of reach of children and other unauthorized persons.” Rather, the NRA, the NSSF and other opponents argue that education about the safe use of firearms is a more effective way to reduce accidents than prosecuting after the incident has occurred. Further, they argue vague language in these laws could cause problems for law-abiding gun owners and be harmful to those owners in a self-defense situation.

Anne Teigen tracks firearms policy issues for NCSL.

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