At least 73 juveniles under age 12 were killed last year, roughly the same pace as the previous five years, reported the USA Today. More than the 55 students of ages killed by a firearm in school.
A 2017 USA TODAY and Associated Press investigation of the 152 deaths from 2014 to 2016 found about half ended in a criminal charge, usually of adults who police said should have watched children more closely or secured their guns more carefully.
Nearly identical cases then and in 2018 had markedly different outcomes.
A grandfather was charged in Virginia, a father was charged in Georgia and an uncle was charged in Missouri – all with variations on criminal negligence. But elsewhere in Virginia, prosecutors declined to charge parents after two incidents that left 2-year-olds dead on the same day in May.
Felons are the only consistent exception. Because it’s illegal for anyone convicted of a felony to possess a gun, almost every felon involved in an accidental gun death faces criminal charges.
David Chipman is a former agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who advises the gun violence prevention group Giffords, named after former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, who survived a mass shooting in Arizona in 2011. Chipman said there should be more focus on preventing the incidents from happening in the first place.
“The law is meant to punish, deter and hold people accountable, but the real issue should be how to prevent something with a fatal outcome,” he said. “So we have to deter that behavior and educate people."
Some in the gun rights community advocate keeping a loaded firearm in reach for protection from a home invasion. Chipman called that scenario a “fantasy.” He said ATF agents and police with children all consider how to safely store firearms – and said he owns a fingerprint-protected gun safe that he can unlock in seconds.
But in rural pockets of America, keeping a loaded firearm around is commonplace, said Elbert Koontz, mayor of Republic, Washington, a town near the Canadian border. With a population of about 1,000, Republic has averaged about three burglaries a year over the past decade.
Republic made headlines this year for pledging to become a “Second Amendment Sanctuary City” by refusing to enforce a new state gun law, which includes background checks and penalties for not locking up firearms at home.
Koontz said parents should focus on teaching gun safety instead of surrendering their ready access to guns.
“Where we live, you’re lucky if you can get a cop in 15 minutes,” Koontz said. “If a criminal comes in and breaks down your door, by the time you open up the gun safe and get the ammunition and load your gun, you’re already dead.”
At least 13 county sheriffs issued news releases stating they would not enforce the Washington law. In February, Columbia County Sheriff Joe Helm called it “unconstitutionally vague” and “unenforceable.”
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson countered with a sternly worded letter to all police chiefs, sheriffs and towns threatening not to enforce the new gun law. He warned that law enforcement agencies that don’t perform the checks could be held liable if someone gets a gun and uses it to do harm.
“Local law enforcement officials are entitled to their opinions about the constitutionality of any law,” Ferguson wrote. “But those personal views do not absolve us of our duty to enforce Washington laws and protect the public.”
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