by Elaine Korry
Accidental gun deaths have topped news headlines lately, with young people the most likely victims. In Sacramento, several Democratic state lawmakers are sponsoring bills to cut down on these tragic accidents, by making gun owners more accountable for how their weapons are secured.
One measure would make gun owners liable for any harm done by their firearms—regardless of who caused it. Right now they can be held liable if a child gets a hold of their loaded weapon and harms someone. But the proposed law goes further, in that gun owners could be penalized if they leave a loaded weapon unsecured, so that a child simply could access it.
Assembly Whip Jimmy Gomez, a co-sponsor of AB231, wants gun owners to take more precautions. “Keep your gun in a lock box, have a trigger lock, keep the bullets away from the gun itself, and that way if something happens and somebody tries to use your gun, it’s less likely that they’ll be able to get a hold of it, and then actually do something dangerous with it,” said Gomez.
Many gun owners say of course they’re responsible for their firearms, but they don’t need new laws to spell out how to make them safer. “If you have a gun, common sense, without anybody even telling you anything, is to lock it up so there’s no access from anybody that’s not authorized to use a firearm,” said Scott Jackson, a firearms owner and safety instructor in the Bay Area city of Burlingame.
Jackson supports common sense gun storage, and he tries to lead by example. At his shop he shows off several large black gun safes, containing an array of rifles and handguns. “These are bolted to the floor, and they’re $3,000 safes,” said Jackson.
All of Jackson’s firearms are locked up, unloaded, when they’re not in use. Under current California law, customers buying firearms must leave the shop with their guns unloaded. They must also have an approved gun safe or a locking device, such as a simple cable lock that loops through the action of an unloaded handgun or rifle. Once the cable lock is secured, the firearm becomes inoperable.
If a second gun safety bill passes in Sacramento, gun owners would also have to lock up all firearms whenever they leave their residences. SB108, sponsored by Democratic Senator Leland Yee, is also aimed at preventing unauthorized access to firearms. But gun owners complain they’d either have to reload their guns each time they come home, or give up on self-defense.
‑Sam Paredes, Gun Owners of California “Having an unloaded firearm in your nightstand drawer is tantamount to having a rock to respond to an immediate danger that presents itself,” said Sam Paredes, a lobbyist and the executive director of Gun Owners of California, which, according to its website, has more than 30,000 members.
According to Paredes, the state can mandate how guns must be secured in public, at a business, at a firing range, or in a vehicle, but not in the owners’ residence. “What the government cannot do is tell people how, when and where to keep those firearms in their own homes,” said Paredes. “Cannot be done. It’s unconstitutional.”
In addition to being onerous, said Paredes, the Democrats’ proposed new gun safety measures are simply unnecessary. “The vast majority of Californians are properly and safely storing their firearms because the number of accidents is very small. We hear about every time it happens, it makes the media.”
In fact, according to the California Department of Public Health, the number of accidental firearm deaths in the state has been dropping, from 146 in 2005 to 27 deaths in 2010. Some say that’s because of strict new state regulations; others say firearm deaths have been dropping everywhere. But that is small comfort to people who have been touched by this kind of tragedy.
Fairfield mother Sandra Macias lost her 14-year-old son Alex, who was killed in an accidental shooting. “He was a comedian. He was very funny. He played soccer and baseball, basketball. He was in the band. He was a Boy Scout. He was always busy, always busy doing something,” said Macias, who spoke about her son in a home filled with photographs of him.
Alex was killed by the brother of one of his friends, who was playing with a shotgun he found in his family’s garage in Suisun. The accident took place 18 years ago, but neither Macias nor her two daughters has ever been the same. “You try to move on and live a normal life, but it’s there every day. It’s there when you go to bed at night and it’s there when you wake up in the morning. And everything has changed.”
With the stakes so high, Democratic lawmakers say they will continue to push to broaden California’s gun safety measures to the limits of the Constitution. Gun advocates, on the other hand, are already preparing for a court battle if any new restrictions are passed.