Could a bill under consideration in the Legislature have saved the life of a Kelso 13-year old had it been in effect last October?
HB 1122 would make it a gross misdemeanor for parents if children use an easily accessible firearm to threaten or injure a person unless it is used in self-defense. The law also would require all firearm dealers to offer to sell or provide a lockbox, trigger lock or other device that prevents the weapon from firing. No one would be required to purchase them.
Supporters of the bill, which would also require stricter storage of firearms in homes, say parents should have a legal obligation to keep guns locked away from children.
Rep. Ruth Kagi (D-Seattle), who sponsored the bill, compared the proposal to other safety laws that have changed public behavior.
“We have dramatically impacted the number of children dying in cars, because we have seat belt laws and car seat laws,” Kagi said. “And those laws have made a very significant difference in child safety... We have required that there be safe caps on aspirin and Drano, but we don’t do anything about the most dangerous thing in the house.”
Sen. Dean Takko (D-Longview) is one of a few Democrats opposed to the bill. His vote could prove pivotal to the bill's chances in the closely divided Senate, if the legislation even makes it there. The Senate bill missed a legislative cutoff, but could be revived, while the House version is alive until Wednesday's deadline to pass at least one chamber.
Takko said the bill would place an unfair obligation on gun owners.
“It’s unreasonable to think you’re gonna expect everyone to lock up their guns,” Takko said. “I think that rational people, careful people, and good parents are gonna do (the right) thing. You can pass any law you want on this kind of thing, but I don’t think it’s gonna make a difference.”
Rep. Kagi said the National Rifle Association has turned a ”common sense” proposal into an anti-gun bill.
“You can keep your gun; we’re not telling you how to own your gun. Just store it safely.”
The bill is one of a group of gun-control measures introduced this session, and its timing coincides with the run-up to the trial of 13-year-old Dawson Dunn of Kelso.
Dunn is accused of manslaughter in the Oct. 14 shooting death of his friend Edgar Vasquez. Investigators say Dunn shot his friend with a shotgun he retrieved from his family's master bedroom and erroneously thought was unloaded. His trial is scheduled to be set next week.
Rep. Kagi, not speaking specifically about the Kelso case, said many parents “are just in total denial” about the extent to which children have accessed their firearms.
“I’ve talked to a couple of parents who said they brought their kids up with guns. They taught them to safely fire guns, to never carry a loaded gun,” Kagi said. “... Guns are just fascinating to little kids. Parents say, ‘my child would never touch the gun,’ and a very high percentage of kids, when you talk to them, they say they have.”
The scientific journal Pediatrics found that on average, 82 children die each year from unintentional firearm discharge, based on data from 2002 to 2014. In about 54 percent of those cases where children up to 13 years old were killed, the shooter was another young child. For teenagers from 13 to 17 years old, the shooter was someone in their age group 62 percent of the time.
Nearly two-thirds of unintentional firearm deaths for young children were due to “playing with the gun,” while that amount was 49 percent for older children, Pediatrics reported.
Twenty-seven states have Child Access Prevention laws. Eight of them — California, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Connecticut, Illinois, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island — charge criminal liability when poor storage leads to a child using a firearm. Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, Minnesota, and Texas impose criminal liability even if the child doesn't use the firearm.
A 1997 study published in the JAMA Network found that in states that had laws for at least one year requiring safe storage of guns around children, unintentional shooting deaths were reduced by 23 percent. Gun-related homicide and suicide also declined, but not to a "statistically significant" degree.
Wally Wentz, owner of Gator's Custom Guns in Kelso, sees a need for better parenting instead of government regulation.
“(The government) doesn’t require you to keep the keys to the car in a locked box,” Wentz said. “... (And yet) having a car is not constitutional right. Having a firearm is.”
Wentz said each handgun he sells comes with a safety lock from the manufacturer, which is required under the Federal Child Safety Lock Act of 2005. The act does not apply to rifles or shotguns, which are designed to be fired with both hands.
“Instead of restraining (gun owners) in more ways,” Wentz said, “let’s enforce or refine some laws we already have.”
It was a suggestion echoed by the administrators of Cowlitz Game & Anglers, a sportsman's club that runs the Cowlitz public shooting range in Castle Rock and provides gun safety training. Rob Mowell, range master for the club, said gun lock requirements shouldn’t place an undue burden on a gun owner. He strongly supports formal training for gun owners, but would stop short of requiring it.
“I believe that everybody, if they’re gonna be a new gun owner, they should take formal instruction,” Mowell said. “I would highly recommend it.”
Mowell said Vasquez’ death was “a tragedy, no matter what,” and said accidents like that can be prevented by free gun locks, which are available at many police agencies in Washington through a partnership with Project ChildSafe, a program that promotes safe firearm ownership.
The Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office has given away hundreds of gun locks over the last few years, said Sheriff Mark Nelson, who was appointed in 2009.
Nelson said that despite the tragic nature of child shootings, he hesitates to legislate what citizens do in their homes.
Nelson, whose late father, Les Nelson, was Cowlitz County sheriff from 1974 to 1986, said he grew up with guns in the house and had his first rifle when he was around 9 years old. He said he has taught his children to respect firearm safety rules.
“The next thing is, everybody’s gonna be required to have a fireproof cabinet for their lawnmower gas. Everybody’s gonna be required to have a locked, secured cabinet for their medications,” Nelson said. “I’m not taking away or diminishing the tragedy, but we cannot legislate every single thing that happens tragically.”
HB 1122 is a Second Amendment rights issue. But no right is absolute, said Ralph Fascitelli, former board president of CeaseFire, a Washington gun-control non-profit. Even the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative champion, acknowledged that in a 2008 ruling in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, Fascitelli said.
“Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited,” Scalia wrote while defending the ownership of handguns in homes, saying it is “not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
“Whatever small restriction (the bill would impose) is far offset by the lives of children saved,” Fascitelli said of HB 1122. “Let’s get real. We need to protect our kids. This is reasonable legislation that all gun owners should get behind. Almost all reasonable people will put the priority of child protection beyond whatever perceived loss of gun owner rights.”
Fascitelli said that an even better solution would be encouraging, but not mandating, the use of child-proof “smart guns,” which can only be used by an authorized user.
“It’s easier to change the product than … personal behavior,” Fascitelli said. “The vast majority of gun owners are perfectly responsible, but some of them aren’t. We can explore non-political paths, and create a safer product that is reliable.”