Boy Shoots Girl

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

AT A DAY-CARE center in Germantown, an 8-year-old boy shot a 7-year-old girl with a handgun yesterday, hitting her in the arm but not killing her. The boy, whose father is a convicted felon with a long rap sheet, had bragged that he had access to guns. But why is it that after years of similar incidents and anguish and debate, the country has yet to enact laws to prevent such tragedies?

In the late 1990s, then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening's task force on gun violence in Maryland pushed for tougher rules mandating safety devices on handguns. In the following years, the state adopted a number of laws -- stronger than most in the nation -- including a requirement that handguns sold in Maryland be equipped with a childproof locking device, and another forbidding people from leaving loaded firearms within reach of unsupervised children. But other regulations -- potentially more effective ones in preventing accidents such as yesterday's -- went nowhere. Most notable was a proposal that guns be "personalized" by incorporating technology restricting a gun's use to its owner, for instance by using fingerprint recognition. In a study published in 2003, researchers led by Jon S. Vernick of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health examined 117 unintentional homicide deaths in Maryland from 1991 to 1998, four-fifths of them involving handguns. The conclusion: 37 percent of the deaths could have been prevented by a "personalized" gun.

A third or more U.S. households keep a gun at home, often a loaded one, in the belief that it will protect them from intruders who would do them harm. These guns may furnish some people with a sense of personal security, and at times they do safeguard the lives of innocent homeowners. But the pervasive presence of guns in homes comes with a cost; a substantial body of research suggests that households with guns are more likely to be the scenes of suicides and homicides than those without.

More gun safety laws will prevent many incidents, but they won't protect everyone from lawbreakers such as the father of the Germantown boy. Without stricter federal laws on access to handguns, more of these tragedies will occur.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company