In the wake of the unfortunate school shooting in St. Mary’s County a few weeks ago, one of the lesser discussed facts that have come forward is how the 17-year-old shooter was able to access the firearm he used to kill his ex-girlfriend and injure another student before killing himself after being encountered by a school resource officer.
The Glock 9-millimeter Austin Rollins used was legally owned by his father. There’s no reason to believe his father was anything other than a law-abiding gun owner. But I can’t help but wonder if Jaelynn Wiley would be alive had Rollins not had access to a firearm in his home. And that has me wondering about laws requiring the safe storage of such weapons.
As discussions continue about “common sense” gun laws, one of the most basic things that could be addressed — and something that both the anti-gun folks and responsible, law-abiding firearm owners should be able to agree on — is stronger requirements for the safe storage of guns.
Approximately 65 percent of school shootings involved the perpetrator getting the gun from his or her own home or a relative’s home, per a joint study by the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education in 2004.
Beyond that, there is overwhelming evidence that just having a firearm in the home increases the risk of injury or death, for both adults and children. The New England Journal of Medicine found that living in a home where there are guns increased risk of homicide by 40 to 170 percent and the risk of suicide by 90 to 460 percent.
Various studies over the years have shown about a third of homes with children under 18 have a firearm, 40 percent of gun-owning households with children store firearms unlocked, about a quarter those homes with children and guns have a loaded firearm in the house. A 2004 study states between 6 and 14 percent of firearm owning households with a child under 18 have both unlocked and loaded firearms, according to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
More than half of states, including Maryland, have some sort of law encouraging the safe storage of firearms, which also make adults liable if children gain access to guns. In Maryland, “A person may not store or leave a loaded firearm in a location where the person knew or should have known that an unsupervised child [age 16 or younger] would gain access to the firearm.” It is a misdemeanor for doing so and, upon conviction, a person found guilty is subject to a fine not exceeding $1,000.
Such laws have helped decrease teen suicides by about 10 percent and generally reduced firearms injuries among by children, with at least one study saying such injuries decreased by about a third, and another showing safe storage reduced the unintentional shooting deaths among children by 23 percent.
Maryland’s current laws would not have prevented the Great Mills High School tragedy, however. Rollins was 17, so the gun storage law would not have applied.
Would stronger storage laws have definitively prevented the shooting? That’s hard to say without knowing the circumstances, and possession of a handgun under the age of 21 is illegal, and does apply to Rollins, but it clearly didn’t stop him.
What I do know is that it should give gun owners some pause to think about whether their firearms are properly stored. For example, many older gun owners may have not have had children living in their homes for quite some time, but now have grandchildren over regularly. Childproofing the house includes making sure firearms unloaded and locked, out of reach and probably out of sight when the grandkids come to visit.
And surely, even parents who have taught their own children to respect firearms and how to use them properly, still may have their children’s friends or young relatives visit who may not have that same upbringing.
There is also the matter of stolen weapons. Hundreds of thousands of firearms are stolen every year from homes and vehicles of law-abiding gun owners, sometimes by people they know and trust, that then end up being sold to criminals who use them to commit violent crimes. Having weapons unsecured in cars or desk drawers makes it easier for them to be stolen with no obvious signs of forced entry, meaning these thefts may go unreported.
Perhaps our state lawmakers can at least consider debating the merits of stronger gun storage laws in Maryland when they return for next year’s legislative session. In the meantime, responsible gun owners may want to consider whether their firearms are properly and safely secured, even when existing laws don’t necessarily apply, in order to keep them from falling into the wrong person’s hands.