WHAT IF? There is a tendency to ask that question after something tragic happens. What if he had turned right and not left? What if she had not changed her plane reservation to get back early? It is a question for which, in many cases, there is no answer, and asking serves only as a type of torture.
In cases involving shootings by children, the question is often all too relevant. What if the toddler who unintentionally shot himself or a sibling hadn’t seen a gun lying around? What if the teen who died by suicide didn’t have a key to the gun closet? What if the 15-year-old accused of massacring classmates didn’t know how easy it was to swipe his stepfather’s gun?
The fact that many shootings by children could have been prevented if adults had kept the firearms locked away was detailed in a powerful report by The Post’s John Woodrow Cox and Steven Rich. Their analysis of 145 school shootings committed by children since 1999 found that among the 105 cases in which the weapon’s source was identified, 80 percent were taken from the child’s home or that of relatives or friends. “If kids as young as 6 did not have access to guns,” they wrote, “two-thirds of school shootings over the past two decades could not have happened.”
Eight children are accidentally shot every day, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. This message was tragically underscored as August unfolded: A 2-year-old in Kentucky died after shooting himself in the head; a 14-year-old in Washington was killed by his best friend while playing with a handgun; a 9-year-old girl in Tennessee was shot and killed by her 10-year-old brother.
Few states (the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence counts 11) have laws concerning firearm locking devices. Only Massachusetts generally requires that firearms be stored with a lock. When it comes to holding adults criminally liable for negligently storing guns where children can reach them, only 14 states and the District have taken action — and even their laws are seen as ineffective, because they are not enforced or carry weak penalties. The Post discovered just four instances in which adult owners of the weapons were criminally punished for failing to lock their guns.
“You’ve got kids in the house — you’ve got to lock up your guns. I don’t see why that’s so unreasonable,” said Mark Blankenship, the Kentucky prosecutor handling the case of a boy accused of killing two Marshall County High School students in January; Mr. Blankenship is considering whether to bring charges also against the stepfather whose gun was used. The prosecutor has been around guns all his life, owns a gun and understands why someone would want quick and easy access to a gun. But he found more than a dozen devices for under $250 designed to secure pistols like the one used in the Marshall shooting that could be opened in less than three seconds. “That’s when it really hit me,” he said, “that this was so easily preventable.”