When It Comes to Kids and Guns, There's No Such Thing as an "Accident"

It's time for parents to stop making excuses and start driving change.
01/22/2015 05:07 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2015

"I'm sorry, Mom. I shot Corbin." Words no mom should ever hear. Words no child should ever utter. But that's exactly what happened in Elmo, Missouri, when a 5-year-old boy found his grandfather's loaded gun and unintentionally shot his 9-month-old baby brother in the head, killing him.

From toddlers in Idaho to kindergartners in Missouri, these tragedies occur in our country far too often, yet we do little to prevent them. In fact, nearly two children are killed in unintentional shootings in America each week. While a handful of these tragedies receive national attention, the vast majority of them barely make the front page. Why? Because America's epidemic of gun violence has been sustained for so long that even toddlers and children shooting children is becoming a terrifying new normal. Yet each unintentional shooting of a child by a child is as tragic and as preventable as Corbin's senseless death.

It's time to wake up, America.

Storing guns unloaded, locked, and apart from ammunition is a simple, commonsense measure to ensure guns do not end up in the hands of children. But in America, common sense seems to be lacking when it comes to responsible storage of guns. While Corbin's grandfather maintains he stored the gun used in the shooting in a box, he said it could easily be opened with any key or a screwdriver, so the box was effectively unlocked. And, it's been reported the gun was stored loaded, so even with the best intentions, he broke two of the most basic rules of responsible gun storage.

Being cavalier about gun storage can be a fatal mistake. Curious children are very resourceful, especially when it comes to things they have been told not to touch. A Harvard survey showed that 70 percent of kids under age ten knew where their parents stored their guns, even when they were hidden. Making assumptions that children will not explore closets or cannot access guns stored seemingly "out-of-reach" has yielded deadly results time and time again.

Parents, it is imperative to be informed about guns in your home and any homes your child is visiting, and to know whether weapons are locked and stored apart from ammunition. This conversation may be uncomfortable, but given more than two million American children live in homes with unsecured guns -- 1.7 million of which are loaded and unlocked -- asking about guns in the home could mean the difference between life and death.

And when it comes to responsibility, the onus always falls on the adult. While it is important for children to fully understand the dangers of guns, parents should never assume their children, or their friends, will make safe choices.

Finally, we know that child access prevention laws work. There is empirical evidence that these laws reduce the number of children killed or injured in unintentional shootings, and also substantially reduced child gun suicides. In Florida the passage of a strong child access prevention law was associated with a staggering 51 percent decline in unintentional child shooting deaths between 1989 and 1997. Strengthening and enforcing our child access preventions is a must and 82 percent of Americans -- and 81 percent of gun owners -- favor allowing law enforcement to charge adult gun owners with a crime if a child accesses a negligently stored gun and death or serious injury results. Unsurprisingly, the NRA has repeatedly opposed such laws, saying the laws infringe on gun owners' rights to effectively protect their homes.

American parents can do better. We MUST do better. The vast majority of shootings by children -- more than two-thirds -- could have been avoided if gun owners stored their firearms responsibly and prevented children from accessing them. Parents can no longer dismiss these incidents with statements like, "I didn't know," "My child would know better," or "It was a tragic accident." There is no such thing as an accidental shooting when it involves a child shooting him- or herself or another person with a carelessly stored gun: it's an unintentional shooting due to an adult gun owners' negligence.

It's time for parents to stop making excuses and start driving change. Gun owners and non-gun owners alike should view the heartbreaking example in Missouri as one more reason to push for stronger child access prevention laws, store firearms responsibly, and talk to friends and family about gun safety.

Moms will no longer accept shootings by children as tragic "accidents." We will spread the word about responsible gun storage, we will ask other parents about guns and how they are stored in their homes, and we will fight to hold adult gun owners accountable when they carelessly make guns accessible to children.