As the calendar changes from August to September and the schoolyards start filling with children again, it is worth stopping to consider what the actual causes and consequences of gun violence are, beyond the popular culture stereotypes, and how we as a society can effectively prevent gun violence… if we so choose. One proposed solution to protect children from gun violence, which has been enacted by fourteen states and the District of Columbia, is to hold parents accountable for violence perpetrated by their children under negligent storage laws.
Negligent storage laws, however, are misguided. While intriguing in theory, legislators will waste valuable political capital that could have been spent on more effective alternatives that genuinely address the social and behavioral causes of gun violence.
Gun violence is a deeply nuanced public health problem that is primarily linked to the high prevalence of guns in the United States, according to research presented by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Pragmatic approaches that account for the immutable political and constitutional reality of the second amendment, are a superior intervention. Moreover, many of these approaches do not risk inflaming the passionate resistance of gun rights advocates, because they directly target the pathologies of gun violence, without assailing guns or their owners.
—The Right to Bear Arms
It is well established that the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees American adults the right to bear arms, unconnected to service in a militia (D.C. v. Heller). Even so, there are limitations, to this right. Governments can restrict felons and the mentally ill from owning weapons, and they can apply conditions on the commercial sale of weapons. Following Adam Lanza’s murder of 27 people with a with a Bushmaster XM-15 semiautomatic assault rifle, courts have held that states can ban the sale and possession of assault rifles, as did Connecticut in 2013. Likewise, states are well within their rights to prosecute parents when their children access firearms under negligent storage laws.
According to the medical journal, Pediatrics, nearly 5,790 children are treated for gunshot wounds each year, while an additional 1,300 children are killed from firearms, making guns the third leading cause of death among children in the United States. Every single day in the United States, nineteen children will die or be treated for a gunshot wound. Disturbingly, 4.2% of American children have witnessed a shooting in the past year.
There are disparities across gender, minority status, geography, and age. Boys account for more than 80% of gun violence. African American children have the highest rates of gun deaths overall and the highest rates of firearm homicide. Their rates are nearly double those for American Indian children, four times higher than those for Hispanic children, and ten times higher than the rates for white and Asian American children. Whites and American Indians, in contrast, have the highest rates of suicide.
Geographically, some states fare better than others. Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Vermont had twenty or fewer firearm deaths from all causes over the five-year period, from 2010 to 2014. In general, firearm homicides tended to occur at higher rates in the south and the Midwest. The District of Columbia and Louisiana, however, had the highest rates of childhood firearm mortality overall.
There are also disparities across age, with teenagers accounting for nearly 85% of firearm fatalities according to the CDC. While homicides represent 53% of gun violence deaths in children overall, and suicides represent 38% overall, suicides are nearly as significant a problem as homicides among teenagers. Among younger children, firearm deaths are likely to involve intimate partner violence, family problems (such as divorce or job loss), and community violence. The causes of homicides in older children are more likely to be the result of gang violence, drugs, or criminal activity. Homicides in older children are also more likely to occur when the victim, himself, uses a weapon.
Suicides follow a consistent pattern as well, with 71% of suicide victims, experiencing a relationship problem with an intimate partner, friend, or family member. Mental health, as would be expected, factors heavily in suicides. Suicide patterns in children tend to reflect broader societal trends as well. Suicide rates in both adults and children were highest in areas hit heaviest by the economic recession that began in 2008.
—The Solution: Comprehensive Approaches, Not Negligent Storage Laws
According to the Giffords Law Center, states where negligent storage laws were enacted have seen significant reductions in gun deaths, suicides, and nonfatal injuries. However, these studies have limitations. The studies on fatalities, for example, are quite dated, ranging from thirteen to twenty-one years old. The study on nonfatal injuries was not published in a medical or health journal, but instead, in an obscure economics journal.
Among the states with negligent storage laws, five of the fourteen states rank among the top sixteen states with the highest rates of gun violence against children. Additionally, the District of Columbia, although being one of four jurisdictions with the most comprehensive negligent storage laws, is also the jurisdiction with the highest overall rate of firearm mortality. Further complicating this picture, three of the above-mentioned states that witnessed twenty or fewer firearm deaths in children have passed negligent storage laws, while the other five have not.
When states pass negligent storage laws, prosecutors face profoundly uncomfortable charging decisions. Forty-seven percent of firearm fatalities in children are not homicides. Is it morally justifiable to charge a grieving, psychologically-scarred parent for the accidental death or suicide of their own child? What about parents who lost one of their children to the hands of another child? The moral questionability of these decisions are magnified when a prosecutor confronts the reality that less than half (46%) of U.S. gun owners store their guns safely, according to a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health survey. That same survey also found that when gun owners attend a gun safety class, they are twice as likely to store guns safely, and when gun owners have discussions with family members they are thirty nine percent more likely to store guns safely. As we can see, education yields superior increases in gun safety compared to negligent storage laws.
The varied pathology of gun violence requires comprehensive interventions. By understanding the factors that mediate and moderate gun violence and targeting those factors, states can effectively reduce the prevalence of gun violence. Because mental health is such a large risk factor for suicide, increases in mental health counseling expenditures can better prevent suicide deaths than can passage of negligent storage laws. Deaths of young children can be reduced by addressing the actual causes of these deaths, through anti-poverty interventions, job training programs, and funding of centers for domestic violence victims. For older children, anti-gang initiatives and street outreach programs such as Cure Violence and Safe Streets, can reduce the likelihood of drug or gang related homicides. Of particular significance are early childhood education programs like Head Start, which accrue dividends far beyond the initial investments. According to the Brookings Institute, these programs have consistently proved effective in increasing educational outcomes, well into the collegiate years. Head Start participants in general (but especially African Americans) experience “social, emotional, and behavioral development that becomes evident in adulthood measures of self-control, self-esteem, and positive parenting practices.” Programs like these are a better intervention than punitive laws of ambiguous efficacy.
Negligent storage laws have an unmistakable allure, especially during mass shootings when society is at a loss for answers and asks that prosecutors assign blame. These laws fail, however, to account for the reality of gun violence as an epidemiological phenomenon, with varied causes based on social and behavioral risk factors, which can be targeted more effectively through comprehensive interventions — not one size fits all criminal statutes. Negligent storage laws certainly may be appropriate in mass shootings, but they are an expenditure of political capital that is best spent elsewhere — on evidence-based, comprehensive public health interventions that will not raise the ire of second amendment zealots.
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