Loaded Guns Can Be Good for Kids

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At the behest of President Clinton and gun control lobbyist Sarah Brady,theSenate recently voted to require that every firearm be sold with a lock.The next step is to require that all guns be locked up in the home -- as iscurrently required in Washington, D.C., and in Canada, whose gun lawsPresident Clinton has fulsomely praised. This next step will likely betaken when there is another horrible gun crime that (like the Littletonmassacre) couldn't possibly have been prevented by a trigger lock. Thatcrime will give the Republican congressional leadership another opportunityto make concessions that will immediately prompt the Democrats to escalatetheir demands for further concessions.

Are gun locks, as President Clinton says, a "no brainer"? Yes, indeed.Thelock-up-the-guns proposal is great -- as long as one doesn't think about itcarefully.

Contrary to the impression created by sensationalist media, fatal firearmsaccidents involving children are far from common. In the United States,about half of all homes contain guns; the total gun supply is about 240million, and there are tens of millions of children in the country. Yetaccording to the National Safety Council, in 1995 there were about 30 fatalgun deaths of kids aged 0 to 4 and fewer than 40 of kids aged 5 to 9. Thisshows that, even without legislation from Washington, the overwhelmingmajority of families with firearms already knows how to act responsibly.

Any parent knows that a single child's death is unspeakably tragic. Yetthe number of toddlers who die from gun accidents is smaller than thenumberwho die from drowning in buckets. And it's much lower than the 500 who diein swimming pools.

More generally, the total number of fatal accidents involving kids aged 0to 14 in 1995 was 6,500, and fatal firearms accidents accounted for just 3percent of the total. Yet the president is not scoring political pointsinveighing against bucket manufacturers, or demanding federal laws againstunfenced pools on private property. Politics, not saving children's lives,is the foundation of the current anti-gun campaign.

But doesn't it make sense to require parents to keep guns locked if it willsave even one child's life? Unfortunately, the analysis can't be thatsimple, because such a restriction will not only save lives; it would alsocost lives.

President Clinton -- and Liddy Dole at a recent speech at Yale -- comparegun locks to "child-proof" safety caps on medicine bottles. It's a goodcomparison, because the safety caps increased accidental deaths, and gunlocks would do the same.

According to research by Harvard's Kip Viscusi, the federal mandate aboutsafety caps on medicine bottles made people more careless about storingmedicine out of the reach of children. No cap can be really "child proof"(any bottle can be broken with a hammer), but careless parents leftmedicinebottles where children could get them, children defeated the "child-proof"caps and poisoning deaths increased.

Similarly, mandatory gun locks would encourage parents to stop beingcarefulto keep loaded guns out of the reach of small children.

Even worse, many kinds of gun locks (such as locks that fit on thetrigger),could cause accidents for both children and adults. A modern firearm won'tdischarge if it is dropped accidentally; but if the firearm has a triggerlock on it, the firearm often does discharge. That's why lockmanufacturerswarn consumers never to use the lock on a loaded gun. Mandatory use oflocks could thus undo 50 years of improvements in firearms design that havehelped reduce gun accidents by more than 75 percent. In addition toincreasing gun accidents, mandatory locks would likely increase deaths fromcrime. Guns are used quite commonly in self-defense; estimates ofdefensivegun uses per year range from 110,000 (National Crime Victimization Survey)to 1.5 million to 2.5 million or more (studies by criminologists Gary Kleckand Philip Cook). A very large majority of defensive uses simply involvedisplay of the firearm (without a shot being fired), followed by thecriminal's hasty retreat. Nobody knows what the exact count is or how manyof those uses save the lives of kids or other innocents.

Nor does anyone know how many of those defensive uses would have beenfrustrated by potential crime victims having to fumble with trigger locksorsafes -- perhaps in the dark while an intruder advanced toward a child'sroom. But we do know what happens in countries like Canada where the lawsrequire that firearms be locked up: the burglary rate is significantlyhigher than in the United States. U.S. burglars almost always avoidoccupied homes, for fear of being shot. But Canadian burglars are threetimes more likely than American burglars to break into a home when peopleare there. From the Canadian burglar's viewpoint, a "hot burglary"(victimspresent) is often superior, since the alarm system will be turned off andthere will be wallets and purses to grab.

Of course many burglaries of occupied homes turn into assaults or rapesperpetrated against the victim, and some turn into murders.

You might wonder how President Clinton and Mrs. Brady account for all thisextra danger caused by gun lock laws. The answer is that they don't care,because they do not support defensive gun use (except by governmentemployees, such as the president's bodyguards).

Although President Clinton claims that his gun control proposals won'tcausetoo much trouble for hunters or target shooters (true), he does not claimthat his laws won't substantially interfere with defensive gun use. Mrs.Brady told the Tampa Tribune in 1993, "To me, the only legitimate reasonforguns in civilian hands is for sporting purposes." If a person morallyopposes defensive force, then making it impossible for innocent people todefend themselves counts as progress.

If a family with small children lives in a safe neighborhood, then keepingthe guns locked up may indeed be the safest choice. But if a family mustlive in a dangerous neighborhood, and if the parents have taught gun safetyto responsible older children, then having the gun ready for immediateprotection might be safer. Parents, not members of Congress, are bestsuited to make these kinds of decisions.

David B. Kopel and Eugene Volokh

Dave Kopel teaches law at New York University Law School, and Eugene Volokh teaches at UCLA Law School.