Firearms in a Home With Children & Potential Injury Lawsuits
Millions of children throughout the U.S. live in homes where firearms are kept unlocked and loaded. This poses severe risks of death or injury, especially since children tend to be curious about firearms, and even small children may have the strength to pull the trigger of a gun. In addition to unintentional shootings, suicide and homicide involving children become more likely when a gun is easily available. A substantial percentage of child suicides between 2010 and 2020 involved firearms, and 90 percent of these suicides occurred after a child accessed a gun at their home or the home of a relative.
Child Access Prevention and Safe Storage Laws
While the federal government has not passed laws affecting the access of children to firearms, over 20 states (and the District of Columbia) have passed child access prevention or safe storage laws. Child access prevention laws generally prohibit people from leaving an unattended firearm unsecured so that an unsupervised child can access it. Safe storage laws regulate the storage of unattended firearms more broadly.
The scope of child access prevention laws varies by state. For example, some laws impose penalties only if an adult leaves a firearm accessible to a child, and the child uses the gun to cause injuries or death. Other child access prevention laws impose penalties if an adult stores a firearm in a way that makes it likely that a child can access the gun, even if the minor never accessed the gun or used it to cause bodily harm. Still other laws contain additional nuances.
Which Children Are Covered?
Child access prevention laws differ in the scope of the children who are protected. For example, while the California law covers children under 18, the Texas law covers children under 17, the Florida law covers children under 16, and the Illinois law covers children under 14.
Safe storage laws may require a gun owner to store unattended firearms in certain ways in all circumstances, or they may require a gun owner to take these precautions only when certain types of people are likely to be present. (These include children.) Only a handful of states have enacted these laws. A few states also impose civil liability on gun owners who do not store firearms safely.
Precautions for Firearm Safety
Regardless of whether a child access prevention or safe storage law applies to them, parents with guns should take precautions to keep their children safe. Ideally, parents should not keep guns in their home at all, but this may be unavoidable in some cases. If parents feel that they need to keep a gun, they should do more than tell their child not to touch the gun and assume that this will avert any risk. Parents should make sure that guns in the home are kept locked and unloaded. Ammunition should be kept in a locked container separate from the container where the guns are stored. Parents should prevent their children from having access to the keys, combinations, or other methods of unlocking a lockbox or safe that contains a gun or ammunition.
A gun trigger lock is an inexpensive way to keep a child safe if they happen to access a firearm.
If they use a gun for recreational purposes in the presence of their child, a parent should model safe firearms practices, such as unloading the gun before setting it down. This will help a child understand the importance of safe handling if and when they eventually access a firearm. In addition, parents may want to emphasize to their children that movies and video games glamorizing gun use do not accurately depict the world and that firearms pose serious risks.
Lawsuits Based on Firearm Hazards
Sadly, many firearm incidents involving children occur in their own homes and involve guns owned by their parents. Some incidents occur when children are visiting the homes of other people, however, who may have failed to properly secure their firearms. When a child suffers injuries from using a third party’s gun, parents may be able to pursue justice through a lawsuit against that third party.
Parents would need to show that the gun owner failed to use reasonable care in securing the firearm so that a child could not easily access it. If they live in a state where a child access prevention or safe storage law applies, a violation of this law likely would go a long way in proving a failure to use reasonable care. However, the absence of such a law would not block a claim if a reasonable person would have taken more precautions than the defendant in the situation at issue. If the defendant’s careless actions directly led to the injuries, parents may recover compensation for medical bills, pain and suffering, and any costs and losses related to permanent disabilities.