Who could possibly be against keeping guns out of the hands of toddlers?
Plenty of people, it would seem, if you were able to follow Hillary Clinton’s argument in Wednesday’s presidential debate about a landmark Supreme Court ruling on the Second Amendment, and the vituperative reaction to it.
It’s a bit of a rabbit hole that Clinton threw herself into, but that’s pretty typical of the mind-numbing ideological stalemate that has frozen out common sense in the gun control debate. So let me explain.
Clinton was challenged about her opposition to the famous District of Columbia v. Heller decision of 2008 that struck down a gun control law passed in Washington, D.C. in 1975. For Second Amendment stalwarts, the Heller majority opinion, written by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, is darn close to holy scripture. The 5-4 decision was a broad affirmation of an individual’s right to private gun ownership for self-defense. It is huge.
Clinton said that she supported the individual’s right to own guns but disagreed with the ruling in that it didn’t support “reasonable restrictions.”
“What the District of Columbia was trying to do was to protect toddlers from guns,” Clinton said.
This sent gun rights people howling. They savaged Clinton for misrepresenting the crux of the D.C. law and the principles on which the decision turned. Nowhere in the law or the decision are children mentioned, they objected.
But that’s a little beside the point. A federal petition filed in support of the original law did argue for its use in keeping children safe, Politifact reported soon after the debate.
“The smaller the weapon, the more likely a child can use it, and children as young as three years old are strong enough to fire today’s handguns,” the petition stated.
Among other restrictions, the law had called for licensed guns in the home to be unloaded and disassembled or kept with a trigger lock, for safety concerns. Granted, the safe handling of firearms wasn’t the main impetus of the Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975. Preventing criminal gun violence — murders and other crimes — was the primary concern. But, knowing what we now do about gun accidents involving children, it is an entirely valid standpoint from which to criticize Heller.
Nevertheless, Clinton’s argument was judged half true by Politifact. A sane point of view — that the Scalia majority on the court had overreached by quashing any sensible regulation of firearms — was lost.
Keeping handguns away from small children shouldn’t be controversial. There is scarcely a police reporter or emergency room doctor in America who hasn’t faced the horror of a child shooting himself, a sibling, a friend or a parent.
The prevalence of these incidents is astounding, even though we don’t have anything near adequate data on this type of tragedy. Reporting by the Washington Post has found about one shooting by a young child a week in America. This is likely an under count, as many instances do not make the news unless it’s a parent or a sibling who dies. The Centers for Disease Control find that at least six children are injured in an unintentional shooting every day.
There really is no argument that such shootings shouldn’t be prevented. Indeed, they’re highly preventable — so much so that it’s a misnomer to call most of them “accidental.” Malign neglect is more often a better description.
It so happens that my state, Missouri, ranked the highest for toddler shootings last year in one study. Missouri, along with 23 other states, does not have a child endangerment law that includes firearms and holds adults criminally responsible for unintentional shootings of children.
A new national initiative announced in mid-October seeks change. The Children’s Firearm Safety Alliance is coordinating physicians, law enforcement, prosecutors, lawmakers and other advocates to look at what can be done nationally through policy work, legislation and education around gun safety.
It has promoted the hashtag #NotAnAccident and propagated this disturbing tidbit: You are more likely to be shot by a U.S. toddler than by a terrorist. The ongoing psychological trauma of these shootings shouldn’t be discounted. What an awful burden it must be for someone to carry through life knowing that, as a young child, he or she took a life or caused serious injury.
Keeping a loaded gun unsecured and within easy reach of a toddler ought to be considered a criminal act of negligence. A portion of the law that was struck down in Heller understood this. It’s time to admit that upholding a person’s right to own a gun doesn’t need to conflict with efforts to keep young children’s tiny hands away from pulling triggers.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Photo: Handguns are seen for sale in a display case at Metro Shooting Supplies in Bridgeton, Missouri, November 13, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Young