Memo to NRA: Support Prosecution of Irresponsible Gun Owners

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In the space of just a few weeks, four tragedies involving guns and children were reported in the news last month.

  • On Oct. 2, 2015, an 11-year-old boy in Ohio fatally shot his 12-year-old brother. The boys and a man were visiting a friend’s property. The men put three loaded weapons on a picnic table, and were discussing them when the younger boy picked up one of the guns and it fired, striking his older brother in the head.
  • On Oct. 3, 2015, another 11-year-old boy from Tennessee asked an 8-year-old girl if he could see her puppy. When she said no, he went into an unlocked closet in his house, got his father’s shotgun and shot the girl, killing her.
  • On Oct. 11, 2015, a 2-year-old boy in South Carolina found a .357 revolver in a pouch on the back of the front seat of the car he was riding in and shot his grandmother with it. She’s expected to survive.
  • On Oct. 17, 2015, a 3-year-old boy shot and killed his 6-year-old brother while they were playing cops and robbers with their father’s gun.

Such tragedies happen far too often—and they’re just the tip of the iceberg.

In fact, according to the Washington Post, so far in 2015, there have been at least 43 incidents in which a child aged three or younger shot someone with a gun.

And those are only the incidents involving toddlers.

In most of these cases, the child-shooters aren’t prosecuted, either because of their age or because the shooting was clearly accidental. (Note that given the circumstances in the Tennessee case, it’s no surprise that this boy has been charged with first degree murder.)

In reality, these child-shooters are also victims, who are likely to be traumatized and scarred by having shot someone, particularly if they knew the person they shot. How does a little kid process having killed his brother or hurt his nana?

On rare occasions, the owners of the guns involved in such incidents are prosecuted.

For example, in the South Carolina case, the child’s great aunt, who owned the gun he fired, was arrested and charged with unlawfully carrying a pistol. She was driving the car at the time of the shooting.

And the father of the boys involved in the Chicago shooting was charged with felony child endangerment for keeping the loaded gun on top of the refrigerator.

But I believe the gun owners responsible for allowing a child to access their weapons should be held accountable in all cases in which it can be shown that they didn’t take adequate steps to secure their guns. In such cases, the child may have pulled the trigger, but the gun’s owner must bear some responsibility.

I won’t waste time discussing why too few prosecutions of gun owners in such circumstances are brought. Dahlia Lithwick did a wonderful job covering most aspects of this issue on Slate recently.

The aspect I would like to address: Why isn’t the National Rifle Association (NRA) speaking out in these cases and supporting the prosecution of irresponsible gun owners?

After all, the NRA’s mantra is “Guns don’t kill people—people kill people.” And the organization is constantly arguing that most gun owners are responsible, law-abiding citizens.

If that’s true, than any time someone leaves a loaded gun on a nightstand or in the bottom of a closet and a child retrieves and uses this weapon, it’s a blemish on the reputation of responsible gun owners everywhere. So why doesn’t the NRA speak out against these irresponsible gun owners?

Whenever someone even suggests limiting the rights of gun owners in any way at all, the NRA has lots to say. But when a child shoots someone with an unsecured gun, what do we hear from this organization?


In fact, the NRA actively opposes safe storage laws, which would require gun owners to safely secure guns to keep them out of the hands of children. And it’s even sponsored laws barring pediatricians from raising gun safety in exams of children much like they would discuss bike safety or safety around pools.

The NRA’s Eddie Eagle Gun Safety Program for children clearly isn’t getting the job done. If this group wants to have any credibility on the issue of gun safety, it needs to speak out on shootings by children and support the prosecution of irresponsible gun owners.

I believe that police officers should support the prosecution of corrupt cops who make all good cops look bad. And prosecutors should support the discipline of colleagues who are corrupt, conceal evidence from the defense or otherwise undermine the criminal justice system.

Likewise, the NRA shouldn’t support gun owners who don’t take steps to keep weapons away from kids and instead it should want these irresponsible owners to be punished appropriately and held accountable for the tragic consequences of their negligence.

As long as the NRA continues to stay silent when these incidents occur, the group will never have any real credibility as a gun safety organization, particularly with those of us who already distrust the group.

Sadly, the NRA may not care about its credibility on this issue. After all, a recent Gallup poll found that 58% of Americans have a favorable view of the organization. But if it does want to win any respect from the other 42% of us, it needs to show it cares more about the lives and well-being of children than the rights of gun owners.

Of course, as The Nightly Show host Larry Wilmore recently suggested, if pushed to respond to shootings by toddlers, the NRA may very well argue for arming them.

To paraphrase the NRA’s mantra, it might say: “The solution to a bad toddler with a gun is a good toddler with a gun.”

Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.


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