The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gun owners favor requiring parents to lock up weapons. It’s lawmakers who don’t.

After a 6-year-old shot a teacher in Virginia, there will be another push for safe gun storage laws across the country. Most will likely fail.

From left, Elly Hoinowski and Jeff and Angela Akers listen to speakers at a Virginia gun rights rally in Richmond on Jan. 16. (Alexa Welch Edlund/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP)
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In the three weeks since a first-grader in Virginia took his mother’s pistol to school and allegedly shot a teacher in the chest, an angry and exasperated public has again asked why lawmakers have not done more to ensure that gun owners lock up their firearms.

But it isn’t the gun owners who have stood in the way of their own accountability. In fact, the vast majority would embrace it. Two-thirds who responded to a 2019 poll said they supported a mandate for all of them to secure their firearms — and yet, four years later, amid the worst stretch of school shootings in history, fewer than half the states in the country have passed any such law.

The reason is simple, according to gun-safety researchers and lawmakers who have tried for years to pass safe-storage legislation: Conservative politicians fear the political power of gun lobbyists who oppose those regulations more than they fear constituents who support them.

“This is all about politics and culture wars,” said Daniel Webster, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions. “The basic rationality, and our general instinct that we want to protect our kids, gets sadly pushed aside.”

The widespread unwillingness of state legislatures to pass the laws — driven in part by a small but fierce core of gun rights devotees key to the Republican base — is especially frustrating for Webster and other researchers, who have collected a growing body of evidence showing that those regulations reduce the risk that children will shoot themselves or others, unintentionally or on purpose.

Two kids, a loaded gun and the man who left a 4-year-old to die

For students, the consequences of inaction have been dire. If children as young as 6 didn’t have access to guns, more than half the country’s school shootings since 1999 would not have happened, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. In the past two years alone, at least 45 acts of gun violence on K-12 campuses would have been prevented, sparing 51 people from being shot and 44,000 children from being exposed to the terror and trauma of those incidents.

The effects extend far beyond the classroom, though. Since 2000, more than 11,000 children have ended their own lives with guns, and thousands more have shot themselves or others by accident.

Gun violence is now the leading cause of death for young children and teenagers in the United States.

Last week, the family of the 6-year-old boy accused of shooting his teacher in Newport News, Va., released a statement asserting that the gun had been “secured.” In an interview with The Post, the family’s attorney said the weapon had been stored on the top shelf of a closet and was fitted with a trigger lock, but the family has not explained how a child that young could have figured out how to remove the lock.

Va. school ignored warnings boy had gun before he shot teacher, attorney says

Most trigger locks require a key, a three-digit code or a fingerprint scan to open. It remains unclear whether prosecutors will charge anyone with a crime in the case.

The Post reviewed every school shooting since the Columbine High massacre nearly 24 years ago and identified just 10 instances in which the adult owners of the weapons were criminally charged because they had failed to lock up their firearms.

Six of those prosecutions stemmed from shootings committed by kids younger than 11 — even though children in that age group are responsible for only about 3 percent of the total number of shootings.

Virginia has adopted a law intended to prevent children from obtaining guns, but it is considered among the weakest in the country. The statute prohibits people from “recklessly” leaving a “loaded, unsecured firearm” somewhere that could endanger a child under the age of 14. It does not, however, require that people lock up their guns, nor does it do anything to protect older teens, who are at a higher risk of suicide and are far more likely to commit mass shootings.

A 6-year-old is accused of shooting someone at school. He isn’t the first.

Virginia Democrats have proposed bills this session to strengthen the state’s law, just as they have in previous years. But despite fresh public demands for action in the aftermath of the shooting at Richneck Elementary, Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, a Henrico County Democrat sponsoring one of those bills, has little hope that it will succeed.

To pass, VanValkenburg said, the proposal would first have to survive a House subcommittee controlled by a GOP majority. All seven Republican members of that subcommittee have ties to the National Rifle Association: Each belongs to the organization, has been endorsed by it or has received a sterling rating from it. Four have also taken NRA donations.

“It’s a very old legislative tactic,” said VanValkenburg, a high school history and government teacher outside Richmond. “Take a bill that you don’t want to pass and put it onto a subcommittee where you’ve stacked it with people who are the most antagonistic to the law.”

None of the Republican members agreed to a phone interview for this story, but one of them, Del. Jason Ballard (Giles), answered questions by email. Ballard, an Army veteran who received $5,000 from the NRA in 2021, suggested that existing Virginia law is sufficient, writing that the “mandates described are unenforceable, invasive, and run the risk of severe violations of privacy.”

Ballard did not directly answer a question about whether the state should revise the existing statute to include older teens, who are far more likely to shoot themselves or other people with unsecured guns. He argued that “responsible firearm owners also teach their children firearm safety,” echoing the belief of many adults that children can be educated out of making bad choices with guns — an assumption disproved by years of research.

Many parents of school shooters ignore glaring warning signs. This grandmother didn’t.

“As a dad, I know that there is no government entity that is more concerned with and dedicated to the safety of my children than I am,” Ballard continued. “I believe that’s true of all parents.”

An NRA spokesperson made similar assertions, emphasizing a need for responsible behavior while opposing legal requirements.

“The NRA supports safe storage for every firearm owned in America and we educate gun owners to keep firearms away from unauthorized users,” spokeswoman Amy Hunter said in a statement. “We believe storage should be a personal decision based upon the specific needs of the firearm owner or household versus mandating one specific method for every gun owner.”

Authorities explained the timeline of events that took place after a six-year-old child shot his teacher on Jan. 6 in Richneck Elementary School in Virginia. (Video: The Washington Post)

Critics of the laws contend that they make it harder for people to defend themselves in case of an emergency, but many safe-storage bills specifically address that issue.

State Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-Fairfax) has proposed an amendment that would require owners to lock up their guns, and store them separately from the ammunition, in homes where someone under 18 might be present. But the proposal includes an exception: People would be able to keep loaded guns in safes with biometric locks, as long as children could not access them.

High-quality pistol safes, which can be opened in less than a second with a fingerprint scan, are widely available online and cost less than $200.

“I come from the Deep South. I have family members who have guns. ... I can understand their concerns,” Boysko said. “This is a very thoughtful, carefully crafted, common-sense piece of legislation that can save lives.”

She is hopeful the bill will pass, especially in light of the Newport News shooting.

A year ago, Rosemary Bayer, a state senator in Michigan, was even more optimistic that her colleagues would embrace safe-storage legislation.

On Nov. 30, 2021, a 15-year-old boy took a 9mm handgun from his home and killed four students at Oxford High, in Bayer’s district.

She and Democratic colleagues had long campaigned for the state to adopt a safe-storage law, and Bayer felt certain the school shooting would bring consensus.

“‘Surely now you see,’” she recalled telling Republican senators. “There was no way they could ignore it.”

But they did.

In session after session, Bayer said, she stood on the Michigan Senate floor and read stories of other children obtaining guns and shooting people. None of it made a difference, even after the county prosecutor, Karen McDonald, charged the teen’s parents with involuntary manslaughter, accusing them of “unconscionable” negligence.

Once, Bayer said, a Republican colleague told her that the gun lobbyists had made it clear to him, and to other conservatives, that supporting any new regulation would jeopardize their careers.

“‘If you do not toe the line, we will primary you with so much money, you will never win another election ever again,’” she recalled him telling her. “It’s just that basic.”

Eight hundred miles away in South Carolina, where at least four children have committed school shootings in the past two years, state Rep. Jermaine L. Johnson (D) said he has heard a version of the same explanation from Republicans who refused to support similar legislation.

“‘I agree 100 percent with what you said. However, I just can’t vote that way, because I’ll get primaried,’” Johnson said he’s been told. “That’s the only concern that they have.”

Those concerns are not imagined. From South Carolina to Kentucky to Oregon, Republicans who showed any sign of softening their support for gun-rights activists have paid for it, although there have been exceptions. This summer, 15 Republicans in the U.S. Senate defied the NRA when they voted to pass a bipartisan gun-safety bill. Two of them, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Sen. Todd C. Young of Indiana, were up for reelection last year. Both won easily.

In Michigan, Bayer has a renewed sense of confidence that the state will finally create a safe-storage law this year, but not because any Republicans have changed their minds.

Her party now controls both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office, which means Republicans can no longer bury the bill in a committee and prevent it from reaching the floor of the House or Senate. Every lawmaker, she said, will be forced to make his or her position known.

“They’re gonna have a heck of a hard time voting no,” Bayer said, because after Oxford, the issue has become deeply personal to voters all over the state, just as it now has for many people in Virginia.

An Epic-MRA poll released in September found that 82 percent of Michigan residents wanted such a law, a sentiment held by people from one end of the political spectrum to the the other.

Among Democrats: 93 percent supported it.

Among gun owners: 76 percent.

Among Republicans: 75 percent.

Among NRA members: just shy of two-thirds.