County attorney: Unlocked guns not only unsafe, but in many cases illegal
The month of December was devastating for at least two families in the Twin Cities. Both families had a child find a gun in the home and shoot his sibling; one of those cases ended with a 4-year-old shooting his 2-year-old brother to death and the other involved a 2-year-old shot by his 9-year-old brother while the parents were away.
Unfortunately, these cases are neither rare nor confined to our communities. In fact, a cursory Google search for toddler gunshot deaths just this month shows kids accidentally killing their siblings in Texas, Tennessee, Colorado and California.
How can these tragedies be avoided? Simple: follow the law! In Minnesota it is a gross misdemeanor to negligently store or leave a loaded firearm in a location where the person knows, or reasonably should know, that a child is likely to gain access, unless reasonable action is taken to secure the firearm against access by the child. Minnesota law also makes it a felony to willfully deprive a child of appropriate supervision when the child suffers substantial harm as a result.
If parents are to have a loaded firearm in their home, they must either lock the gun away or prevent an accidental discharge by using a trigger-lock device that prevents the gun from going off. Yet, in a recent study, researchers found that of 94 people who possessed firearms in their homes with children under 7, 36 percent admitted to keeping their firearms loaded, 45 percent did not store their guns locked and 57 percent failed to store them in a locked compartment.
These same parents undoubtedly make sure their toddlers ride in car seats buckled up, cannot access the family’s liquor cabinet or poisonous cleaners and regularly change smoke detector batteries. So why miss the biggest threat to children’s safety in the home by leaving a loaded gun in the closet or under the mattress?
Many parents fear a home break-in during the night time and thus feel safer when arming themselves. While being armed may offer some security, the best defense to a home break-in is to immediately summon police via 911. All cops treat home burglaries seriously and night-time burglaries generate one of the highest public safety responses from police. Cops, moreover, are highly trained in responding to dangerous situations like home burglaries and they do an outstanding job of keeping us protected in our homes.
Nonetheless, if a home owner still feels the need to be armed in the home, and children are present, the safest thing to do is to put the firearm in a locked container such as a gun safe or lock box. Trigger locks are inexpensive and provide some measure of safety against an accidental discharge. However, if you are relying on just using a trigger lock, please consider unloading the firearm as well.
While night-time home burglaries are rare, the thought of someone breaking into our homes while our families sleep drives many of us to assuage our fear by keeping a loaded firearm in reach. If children are in the home, however, this is not only a bad idea, it is also illegal if steps are not taken to secure the weapon. Consider instead calling 911 and let our public safety professionals protect us.
Pete Orput is the Washington County attorney.