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Last May, when a 17-year-old student of Sante Fe High School in Texas shot and killed 10 people and wounded 13 others in 30-minute shooting spree, he was using legally purchased guns that he had taken from home. During an initial interview, the suspect’s father refused to say how his son had acquired the weapons, but later disclosed that he owned the guns and his son had taken them from his closet.
Although this may seem like a rare occurrence, it happens all time! A 2000 study found that 55 percent of homes with children and firearms had guns in an unlocked place. Another report found that carelessly stored firearms kill an average of two children per week and 89 percent of unintentional firearm deaths occur at home while the parents are away. Moreover, these numbers only account for accidental shootings by mainly young children and toddlers, not guns stolen with the intention of harming others.
There must be laws regarding this, right?
If loaded guns can be so easily accessible that even a toddler can do damage, one would think that there would be laws in place to prevent this from happening or at the very least, a focus on appropriately storing firearms, right?
Wrong. It turns out that there is no federal law on locking devices and only 11 states have laws to fill in the gaps. You read that right, 11 out of 50 or only 22 percent of states view this as an issue that deserves attention. To put this in perspective, states have stricter laws on pool fences than they do ensuring that guns are locked away. Of these 11 states, Massachusetts is the only one that requires all firearms to be stored in a locked place, whereas California, Connecticut, and New York only require this under certain circumstances. In addition to those already mentioned, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island are the other states that have regulations, and these exist mainly for handguns.
Are there any Texas specific laws?
Despite Lt. Governor of Texas Dan Patrick’s comments after the shooting that guns need to be locked up at home, Texas is not on the list above and there are currently no requirements by law. Texas, however, does have a law in place that penalizes parents for making their gun accessible. Texas Penal Code § 46.13 states that a gun owner commits negligence if they fail to secure a firearm or leave it in a place where they knew a child would gain access. There are affirmative defenses to prosecution. These include if the child was supervised by an adult or the gun was used in lawful self-defense. Otherwise, the gun owner can be held liable.
Is the parent liable?
Taking the above into consideration, it seems like the parent of the Sante Fe school shooter should be liable. However, I asked San Antonio injury attorney Justin Hill, and it appears that the Texas law only applies to children under the age of 17. Since the shooter was 17, the parents will likely not be charged, even though the family of one victim has filed a lawsuit.
Let’s get this straight. In Texas, there are no laws on the books to ensure that guns are locked up at home, even though gun accessibility is a well-known issue and a catalyst for many shootings. On top of that, there is no accountability on behalf of the parents if their child is 17 or older, the age of a high school junior or senior. And taking a retroactive approach by only punishing a parent or guardian after making a firearm accessible to child is far too late; the damage has most likely already been done.
In June of this year, there was a lawsuit filed that tackles exactly this issue of parental liability in relationship to firearms. It has yet to make its way through the legislature, but it seems like common sense. We can no longer afford to ignore all the deaths that could have been prevented by something as simple as a lock. Hopefully this law will inspire other states to take a similar stance in holding gun owners responsible for negligent behavior.