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The danger of unsecured guns

Our laws, technology and culture have worked to make kids safer from everything but guns.

Maryland law says that "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 would gain access to the firearm." The offense is considered a misdemeanor, subject to a fine of up to $1,000.

We don't know yet whether the law might apply in the case of Isaiah Deloatch, the 4-year-old who found a gun in his home in Southwest Baltimore and fatally shot himself. Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby's office is working with police but has not said whether any charges may be filed in the case. It doesn't really matter, though; a $1,000 fine is almost certainly irrelevant to a parent who has lost a child in this way.

As far as gun safety advocates are concerned, Maryland has some of the best laws in the country. In addition to the prohibition on leaving guns where minors might have access to them, gun dealers are required to sell only weapons with a "integrated mechanical safety device" that is "designed to prevent the handgun from being discharged unless the device has been deactivated." Older guns that lack such safety features must be sold with an external safety lock that achieves the same purpose. The state maintains a roster of handguns eligible for sale in the state, evaluated for, among other things, "reliability as to safety." And Maryland is one of only three states with laws related to so-called "smart gun" technology. The Handgun Roster Board is required to report annually on the status of guns with integrated technology that prevents them from being fired by anyone other than an authorized user. Such guns either use biometric identification, such as fingerprints, or for the user to be carrying some kind of token, like a watch or key fob, that communicates with the gun. Finally, the Gun Safety Act of 2013 requires a gun safety course for those who apply for handgun purchase licenses, and that training includes safe storage techniques for guns in the home.

Still, the state doesn't go around checking whether guns are locked up or whether they are left loaded. All the laws in the world are of little use in preventing tragedies like this one if individual gun owners don't take the danger of improperly secured firearms seriously.

We don't know any details about how the gun Isaiah found was stored, so we can't speak to what happened in his case. But there is a tension between the reasons many people keep guns in the home and the steps necessary to keep them from being used improperly. The best practices for gun safety — for example, those listed by the National Sports Shooting Foundation — include storing firearms unloaded, in a locked cabinet, safe or gun vault, with an additional trigger lock or similar device, and storing the ammunition separately in another locked container. Those who keep firearms in the home to protect themselves from intruders may see such precautions as defeating the purpose — imagining that the gun may do no good if it takes so long to access.

(The NRA, incidentally, also insists that guns should be stored unloaded but is otherwise less prescriptive, saying, "Many factors must be considered when deciding where and how to store guns. A person's particular situation will be a major part of the consideration" and adding the disclaimer that "mechanical locking devices, like the mechanical safeties built into guns, can fail.")

But what is important to realize is that the risk of accidental injury or death from improperly stored firearms is substantial. Everytown for Gun Safety, a group that advocates for tighter gun laws, issued a report last summer concluding that federal data on accidental handgun deaths of children significantly understate the problem. The Centers for Disease Control reported an average of 62 unintentional deaths of children every year from 2007-2011, but the group's analysis of publicly reported gun deaths for the 12 months ending in December 2013 found more than 100. About two-thirds of the deaths took place in the child's home or family car, and the vast majority could have been prevented if the guns had been stored locked and unloaded.

The NRA and other Second Amendment absolutists tend to fall back on spurious comparisons when the subject of accidental handgun deaths comes up — for example, the fact that far more children die in auto accidents than from guns. True enough. But our technology, laws and culture have made steady advances over the decades to make cars safer, from child seat use to new requirements for backup cameras. The same can't be said for guns.

In 2002, New Jersey passed a law saying that 30 months after smart guns are available for sale anywhere in the United States, only such guns will be legal for sale in that state. Consequently, the gun industry and its supporters have applied intense pressure against any dealer who attempts to sell them — including in 2014 a Rockville gun dealer who dropped his plans to sell a German made smart gun after being the target of protests and death threats. Now New Jersey lawmakers are seeking to soften the 2002 law to require that smart guns be sold alongside traditional ones within three years after the technology is on the market — and the NRA is fighting even that, arguing that it's a stealth effort to ban firearms altogether.

But until we take the real and present threat of accidental child shootings more seriously than the phantom one of banning guns, tragedies like the death of Isaiah Deloatch will happen week after week.

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