Keeping kids safe from firearms should be a top priority in Maryland; why is this bill stuck in committee? | COMMENTARY

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Sixteen-year-old Jaelynn Willey, shown here in a family photo, was killed in 2018 by her 17-year-old former boyfriend, Austin Rollins, who had taken his father's gun. (Handout/Baltimore Sun)

A few years ago, in another iteration, Maryland’s current Firearm Safety Storage Requirements and Youth Suicide Prevention bill — which is now stuck in the House Judicial Proceedings Committee — became known as “Jaelynn’s Law,” named after 16-year-old Jaelynn Willey.

On March 20, 2018, Jaelynn’s former boyfriend, who had been stalking and harassing her for some time, brought his father’s 9 mm Glock handgun to Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County. There, Austin Rollins shot Jaelynn in the head, and, later, himself. Both teens died. Because Austin was 17-years-old at the time, his father was spared any potential liability for keeping the firearm where Austin could access it. The state’s current child access prevention law only applies to careless storage involving minors age 15 or younger, and, even then, the punishment for conviction, a misdemeanor, is a simple fine of up to $1,000.


The bill currently in committee to hold guardians accountable for lax gun storage raises the maximum age of the minor at risk of accessing the firearm to 17, as well as the stakes for non-compliance. It increases the potential fine and adds possible jail time, with both penalties graduated based on the consequences of having an unsecured firearm. Bad storage, but no one accesses it? As the bill is written now, that’s punishable by up to 90 days in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. Bad storage, a minor accesses the weapon and does harm to himself or others, as in the Austin Rollins case? The parent or guardian could face up to three years in jail and a $5,000 fine.

Of course, nobody wants to see a grieving parent criminally prosecuted; they’ve already faced the ultimate penalty: the loss of a child — theirs or maybe someone else’s — and the knowledge they might have prevented it. But if the threat of prosecution forces otherwise law-abiding gun owners to recognize the critical responsibility to safely secure their firearms, it is a small price to pay to save a child’s life.


And that’s why this bill has to move this year. At least seven people in Maryland were injured or killed by a minor accessing an improperly stored firearm since 2020, the last time the bill was introduced and left to languish. Do we want seven more on our conscience?

Already, the bill has been in the works for nearly a decade. Most of the kinks have been worked out, and the Maryland Senate passed a version of it in 2020, shortly before the session shut down early because of COVID. It’s time for the House Judiciary Committee to put it to a vote.

Studies show that such laws can reduce suicide and unintentional gun deaths by up to 54%, which is more important now than ever, as we experience an unprecedented rise in youth suicide, especially among girls. According to the Centers for Disease Control, trips to the emergency room for potential suicides among children ages 12 to 17 rose 22% from the summer of 2019 to the summer of 2020. And in just the first few months of 2021, the number of ER visits for girls presumed to have attempted suicide spiked 51%.

Maryland’s bill would not only require firearms to be locked away and unloaded, so that a reasonable person would expect it to be safe from access by a minor, but that the Deputy Secretary for Public Health Services develop a publicly available guide to prevent youth suicide and promote best practices in safe storage.

Maryland law already holds people criminally responsible for securing firearms from minors, as do nearly a dozen other states and jurisdictions, but its law has no teeth. If this bill passes, Maryland would join states including California and Massachusetts that allow for jail time as a penalty for failure to comply. We wouldn’t be the first.

And holding parents accountable for the actions of their children has long been a part of the American justice system. In most states, parents are civilly liable for willful property destruction by their kids, and more than three dozen states hold guardians criminally liable for their child’s illegal behavior in certain circumstances.

While House Judiciary Committee members understandably have been focused on getting a good “ghost gun” bill through this session to prevent the proliferation of the deadly, untraceable weapons, they shouldn’t have to make a choice between one or the other. Issues left to work out in the firearms storage bill, including potential penalties, are relatively minor. Don’t let the clock run out on it; the bill deserves a vote. Let Marylanders know that every life, their children’s in particular, is worth protecting.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.