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Not-so Safe-Storage Laws

The only ones “safe” are the intruders.

By Dave Kopel, Dr. Paul Gallant & Dr. Joanne Eisen of the Independence Institute

10/18/00 3:10 p.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on gun storage.

We're told that "safe-storage" laws for guns are all about saving the lives of our children. In fact, these laws lead directly to the deaths of both children and adults. The only people to end up safer are violent home intruders.

In a chapter in a book published last month, The Crime Drop in America(Cambridge Univ. Press), Dr. Garen Wintemute — one of the intellectual stars of the anti-gun movement — commented on "access to firearms" in America.

According to a 1996 Department of Justice survey, 35 to 40 percent of American households have firearms in them. (The true figure may be closer to 1 out of 2 households, since some gun owners may be reluctant to disclose private information to pollsters.)…. remarkably, one-third of handguns in the United States — perhaps 20 million guns — were stored loaded and not locked away."

Loaded guns just lying around the homes of Americans, ready for action. A clear and present danger to the families in those households? Not according to current safety figures.

In 1994, fatal gun accidents reached the lowest annual level since record-keeping began in 1903. They've dropped even lower each year since.

What should have been "remarkable" to Wintemute is that there were just 20 fatal gun accidents among children under the age of 5 in 1998. Contrast this with phony claims you hear about "10 children a day killed by guns." The greatest part of that factoid comes from gang-related homicides perpetrated by inner-city, 17-to-19-year-old male criminals.

Also contrast the 20 fatal gun accidents for children 0-to-4 with the near 600 children in that same age group who drowned. In fact, more children under the age of 5 drown in 5-gallon buckets of water than are harmed in a firearm accident.

You'd never know this by reading the current fundraising letter from Handgun Control, Inc. (HCI), which shrieks about parents leaving loaded guns on the dining room table within reach of small children. The letter doesn't point to any actual instances of such dining-room tragedy. Rather it complains that most states don't have a law specifically forbidding it.

In truth, all states have reckless endangerment and negligence laws which apply to guns, drain cleaner, knives, vodka, or anything else that might cause injury in the hands of a small child. Even without an HCI-mandated gun-lock law, parents know plenty of ways to keep items away from children without using mechanical locks.

We are told that "reasonable" trigger-lock laws are the cure for firearm accidents and gun thefts. What we are not told is that trigger-locks won't stop 10-year-olds, who can pop them off with screwdrivers, or break them with hammers. Such locks certainly won't stop determined criminals.  So just who is the target of these "reasonable" gun laws, and what's their real purpose?

Rather than saving lives, could it be that trigger-lock laws are intended to condition Americans into believing that firearms aren't acceptable for self-defense, or worth the bother?

Safe and Sorry

The most up-to-date research on the effect of gun-storage laws comes from Dr. John Lott and Dr. John Whitley in a study scheduled for publication in the April 2001 issue of the Journal of Law and Economics. In "Safe Storage Gun Laws: Accidental Deaths, Suicides, and Crime", Lott and Whitley analyzed the effects of safe storage laws from data spanning nearly 20 years. Their preliminary findings were released on March 29, 2000.

Lott and Whitley found that not only did such laws not save lives, they cost lives by making it more difficult to have a firearm ready for a sudden emergency. During the first 5 years after the passage of "safe-storage" laws, the group of 15 states that adopted them saw average annual increases of murders (over 300), rapes (3,860), robberies (24,650), and aggravated assaults (over 25,000).

The significant danger of gun-storage laws was brought home in an August incident in Merced, California, where a pitchfork-wielding man attacked Jessica Carpenter's 7-year-old brother and 9-year-old sister. It's neither a surprise nor a coincidence that the cause of this tragedy went unreported by the national press.

Jessica's father had kept a gun in the home, and his children had learned how to fire it. Jessica, age 14, is a very good shot. But by California law, the gun had to be locked up when the parents weren't home. So, when the murderer attacked, Jessica wasn't able to retrieve the gun to save her siblings. She ran to a neighbor, and begged for help. By the time the police showed up, the 7-year-old boy and the 9-year-old girl had been stabbed to death with the pitchfork.

In the aftermath, the children's great-uncle, Rev. John Hilton, declared that their father was "more afraid of the law than of somebody coming in for his family. He's scared to death of leaving the gun where kids could get it because he's afraid of the law. He's scared to teach his children to defend themselves."

According to Section 12035 of California's Dangerous Weapons Control Law, "criminal storage of a firearm in the first degree" is punishable by confinement to state prison for a maximum of 3 years, and/or a fine of up to $10,000.

But it was compliance with California's "safe-storage" laws — and the fear of being prosecuted for their violation — that cost the Carpenter family two of their children.

Lobbying with Lives

When it comes to "safe-storage," the real tragedy is that, despite all the professed concerns about "the children," the anti-self-defense lobby has no qualms in playing politics with the lives of children.  Wintemute, who has a much stronger record for intellectual honesty than many other researchers on his side of the gun issue, admits that for "child-access prevention laws…at this time there is no good evidence that the laws are effective."

Indeed, there is direct evidence that these are lethal laws. The tragedy in Merced is just one graphic instance of the thousands of additional murders and violent crimes that have resulted from criminals being emboldened by gun-storage laws that turn a family's home into a safe zone for violent predators.

The hidden agenda behind safe-storage laws has nothing to do with safety. First, the anti-gun lobby believes that armed self-defense, by people who are not government employees, is inherently immoral; so preventing families from protecting themselves is a step forward for civilization. The late David Clarke was the leading anti-gun advocate on the Washington, D.C. City Council. He claimed that his efforts to outlaw gun ownership for self-defense "are designed to move this government toward civilization...I don't intend to run the government around the moment of survival."

Mrs. Sarah Brady, Chair of Handgun Control, Inc., agrees: "To me, the only reason for guns in civilian hands is for sporting purposes." As a direct result of her group's successful lobbying, the California government was emphatically not around at "the moment of survival" for the Carpenter children.

In Canada, gun prohibitionists, such as then-Justice Minister Alan Rock, have used storage laws as a justification for imposing universal gun registration, since registration "will create a sense of accountability on the part of the firearms owner to comply with some of the safe-storage laws that are in effect."

As the next step, the anti-gun lobbies in Canada (who work closely with their American cousins) have begun pushing for "community storage." Rather than keeping your guns in a safe in your home, you would have to keep your guns at a police station. When you wanted to use your gun for the day, you could check it out from the police station.

This latest Canadian ploy isn't really new. Long ago, Sir Walter Raleigh wrote that the "sophisticated and subtle tyrant" will "unarm his people, and store up their weapons, under pretence of keeping them safe."

In the 1950s, one of the most popular sitcoms was Father Knows Best. Starring Robert Young as head of the Anderson family, it centered on family values and personal responsibility. The show was not entitled Government Knows Best. Half a century later, it's still true that parents, not legislators, know best how to keep their children safe.

Because the vocabulary of the debate has a great influence on the debate's result, people who really care about family safety need to stop using the words "safe storage" when discussing lethal laws like government-storage mandates. These laws turn a family's home into a safe zone for criminals.  


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