POLITICS
05/22/2018 05:45 am ET Updated May 22, 2018

Texans On Both Sides Of Gun Debate Agree On Safe Storage, But Not On How To Support It

The state has a child access prevention law, but it doesn't appear to be working as intended.

The 17-year-old who killed 10 people last week at his high school in Santa Fe, Texas, was too young to buy a gun, but he didn’t have to look far to find one.

On Friday morning, he took his father’s pump-action shotgun and .38 revolver, concealed them under a trench coat and walked into an art class before opening fire on students, teachers and a responding school resource officer.

Authorities haven’t released further details about how the gunman was able to access the weapons, but in the aftermath of the massacre, people from across the political spectrum have stressed the importance of securing firearms to keep minors and others from getting ahold of them without permission.

“If you’re a parent and you own guns, lock your guns safely away,” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a staunch pro-gun Republican, said at a press conference on Friday. “It’s a serious issue and one big step we can take.”

Ed Scruggs, a board member of Texas Gun Sense, a nonprofit focused on gun violence prevention, offered similar advice.

“If you have minors in the house, the guns should be secured, because anything just laying out is a risk,” Scruggs told HuffPost.

Advocates on both sides of the gun debate appear to have found some elusive common ground in promoting safe and responsible firearm ownership, an issue that nationwide studies suggest is a worthy cause.

survey published earlier this year found that most gun owners don’t safely store all of their firearms in a locked container, such as a safe or gun case, or with a trigger lock device. Among households with children under 18, 55 percent of gun owners said they did.

Some 4.6 million kids live in a home with a firearm that is unlocked and loaded, according to a recently published study. Those guns frequently end up in children’s hands, leading to suicides, fatal accidents and a number of recent school shooting events.

Although Texans may agree on the need to confront the issue of unsecured guns, they don’t agree on the best way to do it.

Texas is one of 27 states, as well as Washington, D.C., that attempts to compel gun owners to store their firearms properly with a child access prevention law, which allows prosecutors to charge adults with misdemeanor criminal negligence when a child under 17 obtains a “readily dischargeable” firearm from their property. Because the suspect in the Santa Fe shooting is 17, the law may not apply in this case. The Galveston County District Attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether it would pursue charges against the gunman’s father.

Recent reports have called the effectiveness of the 1995 law into question. There were only 61 convictions statewide under the statute in its first 20 years, according to 2015 review by the Austin-American Statesman. Gun control experts say prosecutors may be hesitant to bring charges against individuals who may already be coping with a tragedy after a child’s shooting. They’ve also criticized the law because it doesn’t explicitly mandate safe storage practices and is typically only used after a tragedy has happened.

To Scruggs, that’s proof the state should strengthen the law and clarify the circumstances in which it would be applied.

“Right now, the state really does very little, if anything, to encourage the safe and secure storage of firearms at all,” Scruggs said. “It’s not really a gun rights issue, it’s just a gun issue and we shouldn’t be afraid to discuss it.”

Last legislative session, Texas Gun Sense and other gun violence prevention groups also worked to launch a statewide education and public awareness campaign around gun safety, which would’ve used funds from the state’s handgun licensing fees.

Gun rights groups opposed the measure, and it failed to make it out of committee.

Alice Tripp, legislative director of the NRA-affiliated Texas State Rifle Association, said the push for a new gun safety program was a “noble goal,” but that the legislature shouldn’t be responsible for paying for it.

“They can do what the rest of us do: Work your tail off, make money and give it to create it,” she told HuffPost. “You don’t do it through law and legislature and through tax funding.”

Under federal law, every handgun sold by a licensed dealer must be accompanied with a trigger lock or other safety or storage device. Those rules don’t apply to private sales between individuals. Firearm manufacturers also include basic safety information in the owner’s manuals that come with their products.

But Massachusetts is the only state that actually requires all firearms to be stored with a locking device in place when not in use.

In an interview on Sunday, Patrick wouldn’t commit to supporting a stronger law on gun storage, insisting that Texas already “holds you responsible if you’re a gun owner.” 

Tripp said she opposes a more stringent safe storage law in Texas, and questioned whether police would even be able to enforce such a measure. She pointed to existing safety programs provided by groups like the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry’s lobbying association, and said that a large part of gun safety ultimately comes down to “parental logic.”

“You don’t leave out poison or medications,” she said. “Nobody has to tell me not to store my car keys in my ignition, but there are people that do that.”

But Tripp said she supported Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s plans to convene a roundtable discussion on gun violence and school safety following the Santa Fe shooting, an announcement that some saw as a surprise coming from a Republican who has long opposed any talk of gun control. She said she hoped to see them cover a number of proposals, including potential changes to the state’s child access prevention law.

“If it needs to be a stronger penalty, then that needs to be discussed. But if it’s not being used at all, then how come?” she said. “Nothing can be off the table.”

In the meantime, Scruggs said gun owners can take it upon themselves to begin an honest conversation around safe storage and keeping firearms out of the hands of their children.

“Maybe people grew up in a house with hunting guns and other guns available, but they need to realize that we’re living in a different time,” he said. “We can never be too safe.”

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