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A Loaded Issue
Tue February 12, 2013
Keeping Guns Loaded, Unlocked At Home With Children Can Be Deadly
For parents, keeping guns in the home means taking steps to make sure children can’t get to them.
But as recent cases in New Hampshire show, things can go wrong. The results can be tragic, but also raise questions of how hard law enforcement should come down on those parents.
Sonja Smock vividly remembers the details of the night nearly two years ago when her daughter accidentally shot her.
The gun was a Smith and Wesson 38 Special Revolver.
“It wasn’t like your stereotypical accidental shooting on a TV show, where a child is bringing it to school, showing his friends. That’s not what happened. It just fell, and as I always tell her, if something falls, pick it up. And she picked it up and it just went off.”
Smock was hit in the left wrist. Despite several surgeries, she never regained feeling in her hand.
She goes over the events of that night from the kitchen table of her Belmont mobile home. We’re not far from her bedroom, where the shooting happened.
She and her daughter, now 12, don’t talk often about the shooting.
“Psychologically, she feels terrible, you know? I don’t have any feeling in the hand. I’m left handed. They took the crest of my hip off a year later in October hoping to regrow the bone and it didn’t.”
Smock knows she is lucky that her daughter wasn’t hurt or killed.
She pled guilty to a violation – negligent storage of firearms – and was ordered to pay a $500 fine. But the fine was suspended based on good behavior.
State law holds gun owners criminally responsible if a minor gains access to their firearm and discharges it recklessly or uses it in a crime.
Other states, including Massachusetts, go further, requiring gun owners to keep firearms locked when not under their control.
In the past five years, Smock is one of only two people convicted of negligent storage of firearms in New Hampshire, according to state court records.
The other had a far more tragic result.
Last April, 9-year-old Maximos Hebert found a .22Walther hand gun – loaded – in a drawer underneath his father’s bed in their Hollis home, directly across from his bedroom.
The gun went off and Maximos was shot in the head. He died from his injuries.
The child’s father, Anthony Hebert, had two other loaded weapons underneath his bed.
Hollis police charged him with several crimes, including negligent storage of firearms. He also faced three counts of endangering the welfare of a child and possession of marijuana.
“The fact of leaving a firearm in a manner that’s not safe in an area you know could be frequented by children is reckless. I think anybody could agree to that," says Hollis Police Chief James Sartell.
Sartell says police still have the gun used in the incident, but isn't sure what the process would be if Hebert wanted it back.
The state would later drop the endangering charges. Hebert pled guilty to the negligent storage and drug charges. He paid $1,000 in fines – and served no jail time.
Dennis Hogan was the Hillsborough County Attorney at the time and his office prosecuted the case.
He says when parents lose a child because of their own negligence, sympathy often comes into play.
“We’ve had other cases that have a similar thing where the parent is responsible for the injury to the child and the fact that that parent is also suffering from the loss that they created does factor into somewhat to what the prosecution is willing to accept for a plea bargain.”
More than a third of all households in the United States contain a working firearm.
And while it may seem obvious that keeping a gun in the home increases the likelihood of a firearm accident, Harvard University researcher David Hemenway says it poses a danger most often to one member of the family.
“What we found is that who is likely to be shot is often children.”
He says research on gun ownership reveals several troubling trends. For example, while most parents do store their guns in a safe manner:
“Unfortunately, a sizable minority of parents store their guns inappropriately and make it so much easier for kids to get access to these firearms.”
His hope is parents who decide to keep guns in the house will weigh the benefits and costs.
“One of the big costs is that 99.99999 percent of the time, you can’t use the gun appropriately because you’re only going to be using it for defense and nobody’s breaking into your house every day, or rarely, or never.”
For parents who decide to keep a gun in the home, there are storage options available to keep it out of their child’s hands.
“This is just a basic security box. It stores one firearm to lock up to keep it safe from kids and stuff like that. This one is going to be more, it’s called a speed vault," says Michael Goyette, owner of Pete’s Gun and Tackle in Hudson, as he shows some of the devices available for home storage.
“You punch in your keypad, the gun drops out, so it’s ready for quick access. They actually make this one with biometrics, so it takes a finger print.”
He says some of the larger vaults can hold more than a dozen guns at one time. There are also trigger locks.
But Goyette says proper storage only goes so far.
“I tell everybody, you know your children better than I do. Somewheres the between the ages of 5 and 12, to introduce children to firearms. Curiosity kills the cat. Get rid of the curiosity. Take them out shooting.”
But not all precautions are fool proof.
Sonja Smock says she and her daughter took a gun safety course. She bought the gun out of fear for her ex-husband.
And Smock’s argument for leaving the gun unlocked and loaded is one of quick access.
“What are you to do if surprised in the middle of the night – hold that thought, let me go get my key.”
Like in Hebert’s case, the police still have the gun Smock’s daughter fired.
She’s not sure she wants it back.
“I don’t even know if I’d want a gun anymore. Would I even have what it took to pull the trigger if need be? I don’t know. If somebody, if my children were in danger, absolutely. If I was in danger, I would probably try to talk myself out of danger with that person. But guns are dangerous, you know?”