States rejecting bills intended to keep guns away from kids

Published by USAToday/AP and numerous local media markets – May 25, 2017

Children under age 12 die from gun accidents in the United States about once a week, on average. Almost every death begins with the same basic circumstances: an unsecured and loaded gun, a guardian’s lapse in attention. 

CFSA Co-Director/Founder Beth Joslin Roth is featured below for her work in Tennessee on MaKayla’s Law.


In state after state, proposals that would create or toughen laws intended to keep kids from getting ahold of unsecured guns have stalled — caught up in a debate over whether they are effective prevention measures or just government overreach.

Child access prevention laws allow prosecutors to bring charges against adults who fail to safely store their loaded guns, especially when they are obtained by minors and used to harm.

Public health experts say the laws could significantly reduce unintentional shootings that kill and injure hundreds of children every year, particularly if they allow for felonies against violators and are paired with educational campaigns to raise awareness.

But legislative efforts in dozens of states have run into opposition from lawmakers aligned with the National Rifle Association. Critics say the laws trample on the rights of gun owners who should be able to store their firearms however they want, and unfairly single out guns. Swimming pools and prescription drugs also can cause accidental deaths of children, they say.

Even in states that have such laws, they are rarely used when unsecured guns contribute to the death of a child. An AP-USA TODAY Network analysis found the laws were invoked in 14 out of 152 deaths of children under age 12 over the last three years. Five of those came in Texas, where the offense is a misdemeanor, although grand juries later declined to issue indictments in two of them.

In Tennessee, MaKayla’s law — named for an 8-year-old killed by a neighbor who got hold of his father’s gun — would have made it a felony for gun owners to store weapons in a way that allowed children access to them.

 Sponsors were outraged that the 11-year-old who shot MaKayla Dyer will be jailed until he is an adult while his father remains free. The boy was convicted of murder for killing the girl after she refused to let him play with her puppy.

They argued that the state’s high rate of shootings involving children needed to be addressed. Gun-rights activists claimed the measure would allow government to tell law-abiding adults how to store their guns, and a Republican-controlled committee voted 7-2 against it.

Sponsors addressed that criticism and returned this year with a simpler version allowing adults to be charged with reckless endangerment if children obtain their guns and use them to kill or injure. But in March, the proposed MaKayla’s law met a similar fate. It was rejected 6-3 in committee.

This time, lawmakers argued the bill wasn’t necessary because prosecutors could bring charges under existing laws, such as reckless homicide.

“They beat us again,” said Beth Joslin Roth, director of the Safe Tennessee Project, which backed the measure. “But we’ll keep fighting for it. These shootings keep happening.”

Tennessee has one of the highest rates of accidental shootings involving minors of any state, according to a separate AP-USA TODAY Network investigation last year. During a 2½-year period starting in January 2014, 17 minors in the state under age 18 were killed in accidental shootings and 35 were injured.

From 2012 through 2016, efforts to create laws in 11 states that don’t have them — and to strengthen laws in 20 others that do — have failed. Not one became law. Few of the plans received public hearings, and those that did were often vocally opposed by gun-rights activists.

So far, 27 states and the District of Columbia have adopted some form of a child access prevention law, although their provisions vary widely. Most carry only misdemeanor penalties, and some are written very narrowly so that they may not apply even when children die. Others are intended to keep guns away from kids who might commit a crime.

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