How to prevent preschooler shootings?

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When we think of shooters, we don’t typically think of children toddling around with firearms. And yet, as the New York Times pointed out yesterday, 4 toddlers shot and killed themselves in a single week in April. As T.S. Eliot observed, “April is the cruellest month,” but so is May, June, July; there are approximately 2 preschooler shootings a week in the United States. The CDC reports that there were 33,636 total gun deaths in 2013, or 10.6 firearm deaths per 100,000 of our population. The U.S. has the most firearms per capita of any country in the world, and as Americans, we are 25 times more likely to die by firearm than citizens of other “high income” developed countries… and sometimes this happens at the hands of a three-year-old. Yes, that is the average age that children accidentally fire a weapon, according to the NYT article.

In our polarized politics, our population is split between perceiving guns as protective and viewing them as potentially injurious, threatening, and harmful. 2nd Amendment advocates and gun industry lobbyists have pushed for “campus carry” and “open carry” laws, while gun control advocates have lobbied for more stringent background checks and “safe storage,” or Child Access Prevention (CAP) laws. 27 states now have CAP laws on their books to hold adults criminally liable for negligent gun storage when a child is likely to gain access to a gun, or uses and causes injury with a gun. Massachusetts has gone so far as to require that guns be secured in locked storage, but as the NYT reports, this has not stopped unintended shootings by children.

The average 3 year-old who unknowingly pulls the trigger is not developmentally mature enough to take part in this national gun control and gun violence debate and certainly not capable of decisional balance. A three-year-old is capable of sorting objects, naming the colors, counting, pretend and fantasy play, and physically pulling a trigger — this is not Camus’ Stranger, who leaves us bewildered as to why he did it. Who is accountable, then, when a child pulls the trigger?

Children are actually sometimes charged for murder or non-negligent manslaughter, though it is thankfully a rare occurrence. Assessing proper mens rea in children is difficult, and surely competency to stand trial comes into play for serious crimes. However, the FBI did tally 14 cases of children under the age of 12 being prosecuted for such crimes in 2013.

CAP laws prosecuting parents seem to be the majority of states’ answer as to who should be held accountable for unintentional firearm deaths. According to Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, CAP laws were found to reduce said deaths for children under the age of 15 by 23%, a statistic from between 1990 and 1994 that is often repeated in the policy literature. However, the effectiveness of these laws should be more thoroughly studied, state-by-state. It is unclear how often CAP laws are actually applied, given that many police officers and magistrates may not want to hassle with charging a grieving parent with a misdemeanor crime. In Texas, an officer has to wait a week before arresting a parent who has lost a child due to an unintentional firearm offense. When we step back from our moral indignation over the reckless parent, these laws are construed by some as cruel and traumatizing (though not unjustified), which could be impacting their implementation. Like much of our criminal law underpinned by legal deterrence, having a punitive law on the books might also do little to reduce or deter these lethal occurrences.

It’s not that we shouldn’t hold parents accountable for preschooler shootings and deaths, but it might also behoove us to more rigorously assess the effectiveness of our prevention strategies at the state level and the frequency with which they are actually being administered. The law shouldn’t just speak to accountability but also to preventing these deaths. It could be that CAP laws are highly effective in some states but not in others, due to the way they are being implemented. It’s imperative that we hold ourselves accountable, ensuring that our policy, data, and possibly bolstered public health initiatives, keep pace with our predilection for firearms.

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