The young parents were lying on their bed, talking about Christmas plans, as their 3-year-old boy bounced around them, rambunctious as usual.
They turned to see what had happened and saw their son bleeding from the head. The father’s Glock pistol apparently had fallen from his waistband, where he had tucked it in the small of his back. The boy had picked it up and shot himself dead.
It was Dec. 20 in a modest home in Sahuarita.
A town police officer described the scene he encountered there in his report, blacking out the family’s names: The father “had his arms wrapped around a small child who was lying on his back on the west side of the bed. There was a great deal of blood around the child and the wall behind him. The child had a towel wrapped over his head extending down to approximately his waist. (The father) was hugging the child and repeating the phrase ‘Please wake up.’ ”
The next month, state Rep. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, introduced a bill related to accidental shootings by children, attempting to make it a crime to store a loaded gun unsecured in a place where the owner could reasonably expect children to be. Similar laws exist in 28 states.
It never got a hearing.
This legislative session, state lawmakers are deep in the weeds of expanding gun rights, seeming to have a hard time finding ways gun rights are restricted in Arizona.
They are trying to speed up the process for citizens to get permits for specialized high-caliber weapons, such as machine guns. They are coming up with a scheme to fine city council members who try to pass and impose gun laws that are stricter than state laws. They are even trying to create a separate felony for stealing a gun from another person, which is already a felony.
But a little effort to protect kids from unsecured, loaded guns? Impossible even to discuss.
“Their priorities are all messed up,” Steele told me. “I swear we’re going to have personhood for guns or voting rights for guns soon.”
Understand that American children dying by gun isn’t a small or isolated problem. In Arizona in 2012, at least 32 kids were killed by firearms, according to the 2013 Arizona Child Fatality Review, a report that goes through every child death in the state. Of those, 50 percent of the deaths were by a gun belonging to the dead child’s biological parent, including many suicides. As with accidental shootings, leaving a loaded gun unsecured makes suicides by firearm easier.
Nationwide, accidental deaths of children by gun numbered at least 134 in 2010, said an annual report issued last year by the Children’s Defense Fund, called “Protect Children, Not Guns.” A New York Times report published in September said official figures tend to undercount by as much as half the number of kids killed in gun accidents because of the way they’re classified and reported.
Then there are the children who are not counted because they’re not killed — just seriously injured. On March 3, another 3-year-old boy, this one living in Amado, came across a gun in his home. He shot himself in the “lower torso,” the Pima County Sheriff’s Department reported, but he was flown to a Tucson hospital, had surgery and survived.
The gun he used to shoot himself was one of several unsecured weapons in the house, said Capt. Don Kester of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department.
Steele’s bill, HB 2542, would have made it a misdemeanor for a gun owner to leave a loaded firearm unsecured if the owner knows “that a minor is likely to get access to the firearm without the permission of the minor’s parent or guardian.” If a minor got access to a loaded gun left unsecured by the owner, and if a minor ended up killed or injured as a result, that would have been a felony. Tough? Maybe. But it never got a hearing.
Now, there’s not a lot of appetite among prosecutors to charge parents who lose a child, and I’m not sure how the Sahuarita case would even fit into this scheme, since the gun was tucked into the father’s waistband. The Amado case makes a neater fit. But can we agree that securing loaded guns from children is a priority, maybe even higher than letting a guy get his machine gun a few weeks faster?
I asked Tucsonan Todd Rathner, a member of the National Rifle Association’s board of directors, what he thought of Steele’s bill and the issue of gun safety. Not surprisingly, he’s all for gun safety — which has been a priority of the NRA since long before it became a powerful political group — but not for legislating it.
“If you’re going to keep a gun in the house, I think you have a responsibility to get trained and have your children trained. Do I think that’s the responsibility of the government? No,” Rathner said.
He noted that there are many ways that irresponsible parents allow their children to get hurt or killed, and gun deaths shouldn’t be singled out for legislation.“If we started legislating against being a bad parent, the jails would be full with parents,” he said.
Dr. Mary Ellen Rimsza, the Tucson pediatrician who leads the annual review of Arizona child deaths, viewed legislation such as Steele’s favorably but explained, “A prime factor in cutting down firearm deaths is cutting down children’s access to guns. There’s a wide variety of approaches to that.”
Among her favored approaches: simply having doctors talk to parents about gun safety, something NRA-backed legislation has tried to forbid in Florida.
Rathner’s anti-legislation point of view makes some sense — perhaps there’s a less draconian way to make gun owners secure their firearms than making it a crime — but not when it’s coming from a group that supports every imaginable way to legislate and codify its point of view on guns.
If laws are the way to protect and expand every conceivable facet of gun rights, then they’re also a legitimate way to protect children from guns. Arizona’s legislators should be ashamed that they won’t even discuss it.