NEW YORK— A classmate playing with his father’s gun accidentally shot 12-year-old Nicholas Naumkin dead in Saratoga Springs, New York, in December 2010.
Now, as Esmé Montgomery reports, the gun-control advocacy group New Yorkers Against Gun Violence is promoting a bill, named “Nicholas’s Law” in his honor, that would require gun owners to store guns safely. The group believes that increased regulations are desperately needed to reduce accidental injuries to children by firearms.
Infographic by Esmé Montgomery and David Alban. Data from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
“Americans are finally getting tired of the daily carnage” of gun violence, Leah Gunn Barrett, executive director of NYAGV, said over the telephone.
Gun control is now an important topic on the presidential campaign trail after several recent incidents of gun violence. The Gun Violence Archive’s Mass Shooting Tracker collects data on the number of deaths and injuries in incidents of gun violence. Those data show that in 2015, there was almost one mass shooting (defined as four or more deaths) for every day of the year.
Accidental shootings of children, while less frequent than mass shootings, remain a tragic problem. Federal data show that an average of 62 children under 14 years old were accidentally shot and killed each year between 2007 and 2011 – more than one a week. Safe storage regulations that may cut down on firearms accidents are currently an active area of legislation.
NYAGV is promoting Nicholas’s Law, or the Safe Weapons Storage Act, as a measure meant to reduce the number of Americans killed or injured by gun violence.
If Nicholas’s Law were to pass, gun owners would be required to safely store guns that are not in their immediate possession or control. An example of a “safely stored” gun would be one secured in a gun safe or rendered temporarily unusable by a gun lock. Gun owners who failed to comply with safe storage regulations could be subject to criminal charges.
Although New York already has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country, Barrett believes that the current laws are insufficient.
“There is a lot that remains to be done here in New York,” she said. “We have to pass the safe storage law.”
New York’s current regulations, including the NY SAFE Act of 2013, only require guns to be stored safely in households where the gun owner lives with another person who is ineligible to own a gun, for example, a convicted domestic abuser.
“There is a desperate need for change in the legal framework to address this problem,” Lindsay Nichols of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said over the phone. Author of a report called “Commonsense Solutions: State Gun Laws to Protect Kids from Unintended Shootings,” she says that Nicholas’s Law is a very comprehensive solution.
“It addresses both sides of the issue: the storage of weapons to prevent children from having unsupervised access to them, and other unauthorized people,” Nichols said. She says that ensuring that people keep guns locked up can also reduce youth suicide and the theft of guns.
Nicholas’s Law was approved by the New York State Assembly last summer but has not been passed by the State Senate. Passage by both is required for the bill to become a law in New York. Nicholas’s Law, and safe storage laws in general, face heated opposition from gun rights advocates for a variety of reasons.
Dave Kopel, a professor of Constitutional law at Denver University and the author of “The Truth About Gun Control,” says that safe storage laws make self-defense more difficult.
“All of the various types of locks add at least several seconds to the time it takes to use a firearm in an emergency,” Kopel argues in an article he co-authored, called “Smart Guns/Foolish Legislators: Finding the Right Public Safety Laws, and Avoiding the Wrong Ones.”
However, Nichols believes that safe storage laws would not prohibit people from using their guns in self-defense.
“There are gun locks that can be unlocked by an authorized user in far less than a minute. This has nothing to do with self-defense,” Nichols said.
Many gun rights advocates believe safe storage laws are unconstitutional. One such advocacy group is the Shooter’s Committee on Political Education, or SCOPE. It is a group “dedicated to preserving the Second Amendment rights for the residents of New York State,” according to its website.
Stephen Aldstadt, president of SCOPE, provided a response paper when I questioned him about SCOPE’s opinion of the proposed Nicholas’s Law.
The paper says the bill “will only provide additional opportunities for incursions on the rights of firearms owners.”
Moreover, SCOPE believes that safe storage laws are unnecessary.
“The death of a child is, indeed, a tragic occurrence, but the infrequent accident is not going to be addressed by this legislation,” the paper says.
Gun rights groups and advocates of increased gun regulations do not agree on the frequency of accidental shootings. Different classifications for reporting incidents make it difficult to compile data across all the states.
“Accessibility of firearms does not represent a threat to New York children,” SCOPE argues, quoting figures by the National Center for Health Statistics. These figures report only one firearm-related accidental death of a child under 15 in New York, in the year of 2006.
Other groups provide very different figures. In the justification of the bill to the State Senate, the bill’s sponsor cited New York State Department of Health figures. This department says that each year in New York, 210 children age 19 or younger are treated at hospitals because of unintended firearms injuries. Two children in this age group are killed by an unintentional firearm incident in New York each year.
Aside from disagreement on the frequency of accidents, gun rights groups and gun control advocates disagree on the necessity for laws specific to firearms negligence. If passed, Nicholas’s Law would give police the legal backing to charge parents who are negligent with the storage of their guns.
Barrett of NYAGV believes that the issue is simple.
“Why shouldn’t parents be liable for leaving a deadly lethal weapon out where children can find it and inflict harm on themselves or others?” she said.
However, Kopel believes that current laws that punish parents for negligence in the care of their children are sufficient.
“We already have laws on reckless endangerment which can be applied to any object,” Kopel said over the phone.
However, unlike reckless endangerment cases, safe storage laws would mean charges could be brought against parents before a tragedy occurs, therefore, hopefully preventing it.
Firearms laws across the United States vary significantly on the issue of storage. Massachusetts is the only state that requires all firearms to be stored with a lock in place. In California, Connecticut and New York, guns must be stored securely if the gun owner lives with someone ineligible to own guns. In seven other states, gun locks must accompany sales of handguns, but the user is under no legal obligation to use them.
Although Barrett believes that New York’s regulations are not perfect, she believes the situation is even more urgent in other states.
“If the rest of the country had New York’s laws, then we would see an automatic decline in gun deaths and injuries,” Barrett said.
The National Rifle Association is a gun rights lobbying group that is extremely politically powerful. According to its website, its opinion on safe storage laws is that “safe storage should be the responsibility of the gun owner and not the government.”
This does not appear to be the majority opinion. According to a 2013 national public opinion poll reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, almost 60 percent of Americans support laws requiring gun owners to lock up any guns in the home when not in use, to prevent handling by children.
In light of this, Nichols is optimistic about the potential for increased collaboration between the two sides.
“When gun owners and gun rights advocates have come to the table in good faith, there has been a lot of common ground,” she said.