A survey published in a recent USA Today makes no sense. The question: “Should parents of kids with mental illness be allowed to have guns at home?” The answers: No 60.6% and Yes 39.4%. (The original source is Parents magazine and a place called the Child Mind Institute.).
The numbers are puzzling and the question itself is poorly worded. Nearly 40% of the people polled think it’s okay for kids with mental illnesses to be in homes with firearms? Did the risk of homicide, suicide, or accidental discharges not cross their minds as they were answering?
The scope of the question is flawed. Children are not often (accurately) diagnosed with Axis disorders until their late teens or early adulthood. Are all children diagnosed with conduct disorders dangerous to themselves or others? No. What are they really asking? Because your child has been diagnosed with a mental illness, you should or should not be allowed to own or possess a firearm? Or would a better question be, “If you own or possess a firearm and your child was ever diagnosed with a serious mental illness, which of the following gun protection devices would you use?” a. trigger lock, b. gun safe, c. all of the above, d. none of the above. The only answers are a, b, c, whether your kid is mentally ill or not. Unsecured firearms and children are like unsecured pornography and children; no matter how good you think your hiding place is in your home, they will find it.
A case from June 4, 2013 in San Diego illustrates this point as only tragedies can: a man’s 9-year-old daughter was playing in the garage with a 10-year-old boy from her neighborhood. The girl’s 14-year old brother was supposed to be babysitting both kids but wasn’t. Somehow, the two young children got their hands on the man’s 9mm pistol. It discharged and killed the 10-year-old boy with a shot to his chest. San Diego Police have not said publicly who fired the gun. The gun’s owner turned himself into police this week and was charged with involuntary manslaughter, child endangerment, and criminal storage of a firearm.
The man’s attorney has said the police search warrant which identified the gun’s hidden location is wrong (insert usual gasp of shock here). SDPD said their investigation suggests the gun was stored in a plastic bin in the garage, but the attorney (who was not there at the time of the incident, of course), says both the gun and the ammunition clip were hidden separately and in an “inaccessible place.” Well, then how did those two devices come together to produce the accidental but avoidable death of a child? While it’s unlikely both children possessed huge magnets, which they waved around the house and were able to attract the gun and the magazine, some act of extreme carelessness certainly occurred to put both into the hands of one child or the other at the moment when the firing pin fell on a live round.
Since the Devil is always in the details, the results of the investigation will tell the real truth. Fingerprints from the gun and photographs of the scene and the house may help. Certainly the prosecutor will use the test conclusions from the gunshot residue (GSR) swabs taken from both children’s hands to accurately determine not just who handled the gun but who fired it. Statements from the 9-year-old girl should help, as she is more likely to tell the truth at her age than any adult covering it up.
None of this will bring the dead boy back to life, of course, but if the man’s attorney can prove her client used all due diligence to keep his gun safe, then maybe he will not be convicted. But that’s a big if.
Some gun owners who believe their guns should be at the ready don’t always like impediments like trigger guards, trigger locks, gun safes, or storing their unloaded guns away from the ammunition. They say these devices or methods can be defeated and no approach guarantees complete safety. They don’t like any delay that keeps them from immediately protecting themselves or others with a loaded gun. Perhaps. But most kids don’t have safecracking or lockpicking skills. Trigger locks and gun safes offer the best line of defense for the accidental discharge of a firearm, or even its theft.
Most burglars know right where to look for a gun in a home they target: bedside nightstand, under the bed or mattress, in the bedroom closet, or in the bedroom dresser drawers. If your gun safe is locked, well-hidden, and heavy enough not to be carried out (bolting it to the floor helps), then your guns are mostly safe from misuse or theft. And even crooks who steal guns with trigger guards often destroy the gun when trying to cut the lock off.
Responsible gun owners, and as a former cop I’d like to think I’m one, know that the debate about gun control in this country is complex and not possible to solve with pat yes/no, do/do not answers, platitudes, or yelling. Few issues in society create such strong feelings. But with 300 million people in the US owning an estimated 280 million guns, can’t we at least agree that an important part of gun ownership is gun safety?
A report on “60 Minutes” in the aftermath of the Newtown school shootings said that Adam Lanza’s mother had a gun safe for her collection of firearms. Unfortunately, first for her, and then for the kids at Sandy Hook Elementary, and our nation, it was kept in his bedroom and it was not locked.
Dr. Steve Albrecht, PHR, CPP, BCC, is a San Diego-based speaker, author, and trainer. He is board certified in HR, security, and coaching. He focuses on high-risk employee issues, threat assessment, and school and workplace violence prevention. In 1994, he co-wrote Ticking Bombs, one of the first business books on workplace violence. He holds a doctorate in Business Administration (DBA); an M.A. in Security Management; a B.S. in Psychology; and a B.A. in English. He worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years and has written 17 books on business, HR, and criminal justice subjects. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DrSteveAlbrecht