Alan Gottlieb’s Editorial From Women and Guns

The Child Safety Issue: Key to Preserving Gun Rights

by Alan M. Gottlieb

Editorial from Women and Guns June 1997

For the gun rights movement, when it comes to “child safety and guns” legislation the easiest thing to do is nothing, or oppose it because our enemies are for it. But to do so would be wrong.

Now that I got your attention, keep reading.

If you ignore the child safety issue and allow our opponents to have the moral high ground in this debate, it surely will aid and abet them in their question for their ultimate goal of banning our guns. Every time an incident where a child gets his or hand on a loaded gun and a tragedy happens, your guns and my guns become the target. The blame should be put on the irresponsible individual and not on us. By taking this position we do not allow all gun owners to be painted by the same broad brush.

Sure we could argue that the only thing that works is education. And that programs like the NRA’s Eddie the Eagle are great. But is that all we could or should do?

I don’t think so. And despite my more than 25 years of being on the front line defending our right to keep and bear arms against every and all attacks, some gun owners think that my supporting any form of child safety legislation with respect to firearms is a sellout. They remind me of the title of a book written by one of my favorite authors, Ross Thomas, THE FOOLS IN TOWN ARE ON OUR SIDE. If you haven’t read it, you should.

We need to out-think our opponents and control the agenda and not give them issue after issue to paint us into an isolated corner with. Polls and focus groups show that over 8 our of every 10 Americans support almost any kind of legislation that would keep loaded guns out of the hands of children. That figure included 7 out of 10 gun owners. With numbers like that, it is like handing political dynamite to the gun grabbers, if we don’t control the playing field and become pro-active. Here’s why.

No argument for or against any piece of legislation resonates as strongly with the American public as those dealing with the accidental death of a child. For this reason, the emotionally evocative issue of child safety has become the true court of public opinion in the battle to preserve our gun rights.

The fact that the actual number of children who are killed in gun related accidents each year remains quite small is beside the point. How the gun rights movement reacts to concerns about child safety will be seen by the public as revealing our true character: are we responsible, concerned citizens who care about our community and want preserve our freedoms for our children, or are we “the irresponsible militia yahoos who wear camouflage clothes to hide their extremist views” that the gun grabbers claim we are?

In politics perception becomes reality.

When we adopt a suspicious and adversarial tone with anyone who voices concern about child safety, reasonable people too frequently put us in a latter category. If the questioner has an anti-gun agenda, then our response will just help him or her to reinforce a negatives stereotype. Our response to the child safety issue must be serious and pro-active, and should include support for the prosecution of gun owners who are criminally negligent in a manner that results in the accidental death of a child.

My approach is to support legislation that does not mandate how or where your gun must be stored. But to hold irresponsible people liable for their own actions. This is right in line with the gun rights movement’s philosophy of holding individuals, not inanimate objects, responsible for harm done with firearms.

We take this approach in regard to criminal misuse of firearms. We have always supported legislation that punishes the criminal misuse of firearms by punishing the criminal and not gun owners. This approach would punish those who recklessly endanger children and not gun owners in general. So why is there any debate on this going on in the gun rights movement?

The answer can be found in a splendid little book, “THE DEATH OF COMMON SENSE” written by Phillip K. Howard, which points out that linking rational, practical solutions to problem solving is increasingly difficult in a country that has de-linked individual rights from personal responsibility.

It only makes sense to support the prosecution of those whose reckless behavior has resulted in an avoidable death or serious injury. If we leap to the defense of obviously negligent gun owners, we allow our enemies to paint all gun owners with the same broad brush.

By far the greatest benefit of supporting sensible, preferably incentive based, safety legislation is the opportunity to show that we too care about the well being of children. Most Americans favor responsible gun ownership, but have a very strong view that a person who leaves a loaded firearm unsecured on a dresser where his daughter’s nine year old friend can shoot herself with it deserves to be brought to justice.

A pro-active approach to the child safety issue is more than damage control. It is about reaching out to legitimately concerned citizens with the message that gun rights are not incompatible with safety and responsibility. If we allow our enemies to hijack the issue of child safety, we put ourselves on the losing side of a battle that could decide the war.

To lose credibility on the child safety issue would be ironic because responsible gun owners are actually more concerned about child safety any one else. After all, we are the ones who are raising our children in homes with guns.

The average gun owning parent has surely spent more time thinking about child safety than the average gun grabber. I have four children myself, and education and safe storage of firearms both play an important role in my home.

Gun rights organizations, most notably the NRA, have spent millions of dollars on firearms safety education for children, because we truly do care about the issue. Why should we reinforce the myth that we aren’t concerned by a knee jerk defense of clearly irresponsible behavior?

Finally, there are potentially enormous tactical advantages to be gained from supporting truly reasonable safety measures, not the least of which is the opportunity to launch an effective preemptive strike against draconian measures proposed by hard core anti gunners.

While it’s true that gun accidents are not an “epidemic” as the gun grabbers claim, safe storage legislation is an epidemic, and one we would be wise to deal with pro-actively. Bills relating to the safe storage of firearms have passed in a number of places in recent years, including heavyweights California, Florida, and Texas. Some of these bills weren’t bad, but others were awful.

Bill Clinton by executive order has mandated trigger locks on guns of all federal law enforcement officers. He has told Congress this sets an example to mandate it for all Americans.

The city of Chicago recently passed a law mandating the use of trigger lock, period. It doesn’t matter that you have no children in your home, keep your gun unloaded, or that you keep your firearm in a locked box or drawer. All handguns in the city of Chicago are supposed to be registered. The police can now go house to house and arrest owners who don’t have mandatory trigger locks on their guns and confiscate their firearms. This is a telling example of what can happen when gun owners refuse to work for reasonable safe storage legislation we can live with.

By contrast, a safe storage bill that I am currently supporting in Washington State does not mandate how a gun must be stored and applies only to a loaded gun left where children age 15 or younger can gain unsupervised access to it, and creates exemptions from prosecution for gun owners who have stored their firearms responsibly.

In addition to allowing a gun owner the freedom to choose the method of storage that best suits his or her needs for self defense, the bill contains additional exemptions if the child had permission to pick up the gun or the “child” was the neighborhood delinquent who stole the gun. also exempted is possession of a loaded gun by a child for his or her self defense or for legitimate uses like hunting. Even the penalty for irresponsible gun owners is a relatively minor misdemeanor. A gun owner can be grossly negligent in a way that results in the death of a child and not even lose his gun rights under this bill. Also, the bill doesn’t make negligent gun storage a new prosecutable crime. Careless gun owners can already be prosecuted under the state’s reckless endangerment and second degree manslaughter statutes.

The main argument made by pro gun rights activists is opposition to this legislation, despite the fact that it does not mandate how a firearm must be stored and exempts gun owners from prosecution if loaded firearms are stored safely from children, is the “slippery slope” argument: “This is just a first step…” This is the same argument abortion rights extremists use to justify partial birth abortions. Any restriction whatsoever is treated as the first step toward total abolition. What they overlook, of course, is that laws that defend the indefensible are themselves a target for the very people they most oppose.

Gun owner support for reasonable legislation like this bill forces gun grabber organizations to go along with legislation which they privately believe is far too non-restrictive or be revealed in public as the irrational extremists that they really are. Handgun Control, Inc. refused to support the Washington State safe storage bill at first because they wanted a far more restrictive law and were concerned that this approach would undermine stronger proposed mandated legislation in other states.

A broad based coalition and media support for the bill in its current non mandatory storage form forced Handgun Control Inc. to also get behind it. Let’s take this opportunity to build a majority coalition in favor of responsible gun ownership in America. If we ignore and belittle citizens’ concerns about child safety, we give the gun grabbers an opportunity to build a majority “safety” coalition to attack our rights.

If you don’t agree with me, then point your loaded gun at your foot and pull the trigger.

About the Author: Alan M. Gottlieb is founder of the Second Amendment Foundation and chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, and the father of four.