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Parents Should Be Held Liable For Not Locking Up Guns

September 29, 2013

Just one more reason we need to have tighter gun laws in America.

On a hot and humid August afternoon last year in Hinesville, Ga., Matthew Underhill, a staff sergeant in the Army, was mowing the lawn while his wife, Tessa, was in the house watching television with their 5-year-old son, Matthew. Their other son, Tristan, 2, was scampering down a hallway toward the bedrooms.       

It had been a good day for Tristan. He had used the potty for the first time. He and his mother had danced a little jig. Down the hall, Tristan entered the bedroom where his father had been staying because of quarrels with his wife. She had chided her husband in the past for forgetting to safely store his .45-caliber handgun. But he had recently put a lock on his door to keep out his wife and children. He thought he had locked the door before going out to cut the grass.       

The lock, though, had failed to catch. Tristan found the loaded gun under the pillow on his father’s bed. He pointed it at his own forehead and pulled the trigger. Hearing the gunshot, Sergeant Underhill sprinted inside to find Tristan face down on the bed, the gun beneath him. When he called 911, the sergeant was screaming so hysterically that the dispatcher initially mistook him for a woman.       

“My 2-year-old just shot himself in the head,” he said breathlessly. “He’s dead.”       

Tristan’s death underscored several themes running through the cases examined by The Times.       

While about 60 percent of the accidental firearm deaths identified by The Times involved handguns as opposed to long guns, that number was much higher — more than 85 percent — when the victims were very young, under the age of 6. In fact, the average handgun victim was several years younger than long gun victims: between 7 and 8, compared with almost 11.       

Over all, the largest number of deaths came at the upper end of the age range, with ages 13 and 14 being most common — not necessarily surprising, given that parents generally allow adolescents greater access to guns. But the third-most common age was 3 (tied with 12), a particularly vulnerable age, when children are curious and old enough to manipulate a firearm but ignorant of the dangers.       

About a quarter of the victims shot themselves, with younger children again especially susceptible. More than half of the self-inflicted shootings involved children 5 or under; the most common age was 3.       

About half of the accidents took place inside the child’s home. A third, however, occurred at the house of a friend or a relative, pointing to a potential vulnerability if safe-storage laws apply only to households with children, as in North Carolina.       

In opposing safe-storage laws, some gun rights advocates have argued that a majority of accidental shootings of children are committed by adults with criminal backgrounds. The Times’s review found that was not the case — children were most often the shooters — and that the families involved came from all walks of life.

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