Safe storage bill sees revival following surge in youth gun shootings

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Indiana Statehouse (IL file photo)

Trusted adults left firearms in their purses, between couch cushions, in their dressers or otherwise unsecured and loaded. Curious teenagers and toddlers alike found the weapons, killing or injuring themselves and others.

Recent reports found that Indiana had the third-highest number of unintentional shootings by children so far in 2023, with nine children dead and another 18 injured — according to data collected by gun safety advocate Everytown.

The unprecedented surge in youth gun violence has left leaders scrambling for answers but one particular common factor prompted a Democratic lawmaker to revive a failed attempt to promote safe firearm storage and penalize adults who fail to do so with children at home.

Rep. Mitch Gore, D-Indianapolis, said the bill’s details aren’t yet finalized but “the crux of it … would make it unlawful, specifically, to leave a firearm unattended when it’s likely that a child could gain access to it.”

Ways to secure a firearm could include disassembling or removing a critical component so it can’t fire or locking it up — either in a safe or lockbox or using a cable lock.

“The idea, of course, is to prevent these tragedies that we’re seeing more and more where children access an unsecured firearm and then use it to injure themselves or another,” Gore said.

High number of unintentional youth shootings

The New England Journal of Medicine reports that firearm-related injuries are the leading cause of death for children and adolescents in the United States, prompting action from the Biden administration. Just this week, the White House invited 100 Democratic state lawmakers to discuss ways to reduce gun violence with an emphasis on safe storage.

Among them were three of Gore’s colleagues: Rep. Ragen Hatcher, of Gary; Rep. Maureen Bauer, of South Bend; and Rep. Victoria Garcia Wilburn, of Fishers.

In the Everytown analysis, Indiana’s death rate fell behind only Texas and Florida, which have four times and three times the Hoosier state’s population, respectively. Shootings involved those as old as 17 and as young as three, spanning the state from Fort Wayne to Evansville.

According to reporting from Chalkbeat Indiana and Axios Indianapolis, overall homicides in Indianapolis have been down but gun deaths for youth are up. But while many of the latest incidents have been clustered in population centers, including Marion County, children have died in rural areas as well.

Gore, a captain with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, said two such incidents have occurred to constituents since his election in 2020, including a Cumberland shooting that killed a four-year-old girl this summer.

“In Cumberland, I’ve had conversations with the (police) chief about the toll this takes on law enforcement and other first responders,” Gore said. “It’s just tragic and I’m really, really sick of having to hear about this occurring throughout the state… I think it’s time for it to end and I think it’s common sense.”

Bill history and details

Gore’s proposal likely won’t be a new, standalone criminal charge but could instead clarify that an unsecured firearm accessible by a child is explicitly part of the existing endangerment of a child statute, which is sometimes used to charge parents or other adults.

Doing so would make it easier for the prosecution when explaining charges to juries, Gore said.

Gore knows he faces an uphill battle on the bill, which Republicans have declined to give a committee hearing in the past. To find something palatable, Gore said he’s worked with prosecutors, public defenders, firearms rights advocates and members of the Republican supermajority.

“We attempted to introduce it as an amendment to permitless carry or license-less carry,” Gore said about the most recent attempt. “I thought it’d be a good amendment to show that we’re serious about gun owner’s rights but we’re also serious about their responsibilities.”

However, the Republican supermajority struck the amendment on procedural grounds without a vote.

Still, Gore highlighted a Democratic win when it came to safe storage education earlier this year, when Seymour Republican Rep. Jim Lucas’ advanced his bill on arming teachers in classrooms. In the bill, Rep. Maureen Bauer slipped in a provision requiring the Department of Education to develop and distribute materials on safe firearm storage for parents.

“Every Hoosier student, in their enrollment packet, at charter schools, private schools and public schools should receive information on the safe storage of firearms,” Gore said.

Some police departments — and even libraries — in the state distribute free cable locks to secure firearms, an inexpensive method, though it’s unclear how many departments participate. Gore said he’s love to see that tool expanded but said it would be something to consider in a budget session.

Some of the language for his bill, he said, is pulled directly from the National Rifle Association’s website regarding safe storage. Another source he used is Be SMART for kids, which details steps parents can take to protect their children at home and at other residences.

“I think everybody agrees that these are the steps one has to take. The right to bear arms also comes with the responsibility to do it safely,” Gore said. “ I think all reasonable gun owners recognize that so it’s time to enshrine that in Indiana code and hold people who don’t adhere to that responsibility to account.”

The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.

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