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.
Some gun-control advocates are undeterred. More needs to be done to protect children who live in and visit millions of homes with loaded, unsecured guns every year, they say.
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.
Roth’s experience is in line with what other gun-control advocates have faced in states across the country.
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.
Just how effective they are remains an open question.
A study published in 2000 by researcher Daniel Webster of Johns Hopkins University found that Florida’s law “appears to have significantly reduced unintentional firearms deaths to children” by up to 51 percent after it went into effect in 1989. The law included felony charges and was accompanied by an awareness campaign.
“If you leave a loaded gun accessible to small children, the consequence of that is often very minimal,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, a leading gun-control group. “But the data does show in states like Florida where you have a strong law, they work.”
Yet there was no evidence that laws in 14 other states had any impact, in part because most didn’t make violations felonies. Another study published in 2015 found that child access prevention laws “have no significant effects” on unintentional firearm deaths but that states with them do have lower youth suicide rates.
Some researchers believe that just having them on the books — if the potential consequences are stiff and publicized— can prompt adults to be more responsible when storing their guns.
Rather than rely on child access laws, prosecutors sometimes charged adults with child abuse and homicide. But in dozens of cases reviewed by the news organizations, no charges were filed, with some prosecutors saying that no law applied.
“There are no child-access prevention laws in Kansas requiring gun owners to secure their firearms in a specific way,” Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett wrote to AP, explaining his decision against filing charges in the death of a year-old Wichita boy shot by his toddler brother with an adult’s handgun.
Bennett said homicide charges didn’t fit — there was no indication the owner knew the way he stored his loaded gun in a bedroom drawer would potentially result in the child’s death.
Lobbyists for the NRA and other groups argued in Kansas and elsewhere that such laws were unnecessary because charges and civil lawsuits could be brought under different statutes.
Then-Kansas State Rifle Association president Patricka Stoneking told lawmakers in 2015 that knives, hammers, forks, scissors and other household items could be considered “dangerous weapons” under legislation proposed at the time. She questioned whether adults would be required to lock their kitchen cabinets and tool chests, and said there had been no “cause for concern” with unsecured guns.
“Gun owners in Kansas are not just leaving guns laying around for their kids to play with,” she said. The bill died quickly.
The groups also succeeded in blocking a bill in Oregon two years ago, a victory in a state controlled by Democrats.
NRA lobbyist Daniel Reid testified against the 2015 bill, which would have punished adults with up to one year in prison if children accessed their unlocked guns. He said it would do little to make children safer and instead would impede an individual’s right to self-defense. Oregon’s reckless endangerment statute, he argued, could be used to prosecute an irresponsible gun owner.
“Given the fact that current law already exists, the National Rifle Association is opposed to the notion of ‘sending a message’ to firearm owners by singling out firearms in state law as particularly evil objects,” he said.