Already, the news cycle has eclipsed America’s opportunity to grapple with the enormity of last week’s shooting at a Michigan high school, which claimed four lives — the deadliest at a K-12 campus in the United States since 2018. The 15-year-old suspect, Ethan Crumbley, is facing a long list of adult charges, including first degree murder and terrorism.
To be sure, many people hearing of this tragedy already feel numb to the endless reports of senseless gun violence in the United States. In 2020, there were over 600 mass shootings in the U.S. (defined as incidents with four or more people injured or killed). In 2021, there have already been 30 shootings in schools alone. But the Michigan tragedy is different, presenting a rare opportunity to achieve a very narrow — but vital — sliver of bipartisan gun safety reform. It’s a matter of common sense: Just require adults with kids to lock up their loaded guns while not in use.
What is also different about the Michigan case is that prosecutors charged the alleged school shooter — as well as his parents, who face involuntary manslaughter charges. Prosecutors allege the parents purchased the gun used in the shooting for their son and stored the gun in an unlocked drawer.
Historically, accountability for school shootings has stopped with the individual who wielded the gun. Debates over gun safety reform have focused there too, circling largely around proposals to strengthen background checks, outlaw certain weapons and ammunition, or simply blame underlying mental health problems.
In 1996, Congress legislatively banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from conducting research to “advocate or promote gun control.” This ban was finally lifted in 2019 with the authorization of $25 million for research. But according to private studies, gun violence was the leading cause of death in 2018 for children ages 1 to 19. For each child that dies from a gunshot, five more are injured — one every 32 minutes. A loaded firearm in the home is a better predictor of juvenile death by suicide than a child’s prior suicide attempt. Approximately 10,000 children having died by suicide with a firearm over the past 20 years. Survey data also shows that once teens decide to attempt suicide, nearly a quarter act on the decision within five minutes — a timeframe that makes gun use more tempting than alternative methods, if it’s available to them.
That is striking considering millions of children live in households with at least one loaded, unlocked firearm — four in 10 adults do, as well, largely for personal protection.
Unfortunately, there’s a major disconnect between parents and kids when it comes to firearm access. A 2006 survey conducted of 201 gun-owning families in rural Alabama found that 73 percent of children younger than 10 knew the storage location of a household gun; 36 percent had already handled one. But their parents were alarmingly unaware – 39 percent of those children’s parents reported a belief that their kids did not know where the guns were stored, and 22 percent believed they had never handled one — an information gap that bore no relation to whether the parents had discussed gun safety with their children.
Meanwhile, nearly half of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center in April 2021 perceive gun violence as “a very big problem in the country today” — comparable to the COVID-19 pandemic. An even greater number of people surveyed (53 percent) favor stricter gun laws, although that figure marks a decline since 2019.
When it comes to safely securing guns in households with children, a 2019 poll by American Public Media found that a whopping 80 percent — including 70 percent of Republicans — “want guns to be stored with a lock in place” and favor legislation mandating the practice.
Which group was least likely to support so-called or child access prevention (CAP) laws? Respondents from gun-owning households who “only sometimes” or “never” store their guns locked. But even half of those folks support a legal mandate that firearms be locked when not in use — and thus beyond the reach of children.
Compare these figures to the paltry support for a seatbelt mandate back in 1984. When asked whether they’d “favor or oppose a law that would fine drivers and front-seat passengers $50 if they did not wear seat belts when riding in a car,” 65 percent of survey respondents were opposed; only 30 percent were in favor. The CDC reports that seatbelt use reduces the risk of death by 45 percent.
About half of the states already have some version of a CAP law, although their terms vary widely. States with the strictest laws — which apply to require safe storage even if a “child could access” a firearm — reduce pediatric firearm fatalities by a whopping 59 percent. The most lenient laws ping parents with negligence only if they actually provide firearms to children, with numerous variations in between the two poles.
Prosecutors in the Michigan rampage assert the Crumbleys bought the gun used in the killings for their son only days before. Michigan has no CAP law at all, although of 50 gun-related bills introduced this year, two sought CAP protections but were stalled in committees.
America is in the proverbial crosshairs on many issues of life and death right now. The pandemic has killed 792,000 thus far. It also prompted a surge in gun sales, with the number of gun deaths by children climbing 33 percent between March and December of 2020. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to lift its 50-year constitutional ban on laws restricting all abortion on the theory that the state’s interest in fetal life is paramount — perhaps even greater than it is for the mother, who is 14 times more likely to die through childbearing. Perhaps ironically, the court also has on its docket a case seeking to expand the reach of the Second Amendment to preclude laws restricting access to handguns outside the home.
This should be an easy one, friends. There is widespread support for CAP laws that impose the relatively modest burden of locking up a loaded firearm to save the lives of children. This should be a place where Congress — or the states in large numbers — might see fit to act and establish such laws. That they probably won’t is another sad reminder of how broken our government really is.
Kimberly Wehle is a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and author of “How to Read the Constitution — and Why,” as well as “What You Need to Know About Voting — and Why” and “How to Think Like a Lawyer – and Why” (forthcoming February 2022). Follow her on Twitter: @kimwehle