There was a time in Wichita when an ordinance required adults to properly secure guns around children.
Some people, including the mayor, wish it was still that way. Others say that a law is not the solution to protecting children.
Now, Wichita has a fresh tragedy involving a gun and a small child.
For 12 years, Wichita had an ordinance regulating gun storage around children. The Wichita law required that guns be properly secured if someone under 18 could have access and required that adults keep guns unloaded, locked away or secured with trigger locks. The City Council adopted the ordinance – punishable by a fine of up to $2,500 and up to a year in jail – in 1993 after a rash of accidental shootings involving children. In a little over two years, from January 1991 through April 1993, police recorded 69 firearms accidents in Wichita that resulted in death or injury. In 26 of the cases, the victim was under 18.
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In 2005, the Wichita gun storage ordinance was repealed because a state law nullified it.
After the ordinance was repealed, from 2007 through 2013, Wichita police recorded on average eight accidental shootings at homes each year, according to numbers Lt. Dan East provided Friday. In 2013, 10 shootings were reported. No other details of those accidental shootings, including whether they involved children, were available, East said.
On the state level, there is no law specifically involving safe gun storage, said Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett.
Last month, the governor signed into law a bill that will prohibit local governments from enforcing local gun ordinances and will make gun laws uniform across the state.
In Wichita, tragedy struck Tuesday. Police say a 4-year-old boy reached into a nightstand drawer at a home he was visiting and pulled the trigger on a handgun. A bullet struck his 19-month-old brother in the chest, and the boy died at a hospital.
Laws ‘don’t prevent tragedy’
The death is devastating, but having a law dictating safe gun storage is not the solution, said Phil Journey, a longtime gun rights advocate, former legislator and current Sedgwick County District Court judge.
Safe-storage laws “don’t prevent the tragedy. They punish people afterward,” Journey said.
As a legislator in 2005, Journey pushed for passage of a state law that eliminated the Wichita ordinance on gun storage. He argued that the law impinged on the right to self defense.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and Katherine Melhorn, who is a pediatrician, child abuse expert and member of the State Child Death Review Board, said they wish the safe-storage ordinance was still in effect.
If there can’t be a law, then education is crucial, Melhorn said. The education needs to focus on the specifics of properly securing guns and keeping in mind that children will go to lengths to find a gun, she said. The Child Death Review Board recommends that “all firearms be stored with gun locks in a secure and locked case with ammunition stored separately.”
“Whatever side of the gun rights issue you’re on, that should not get in the way of making sure that children don’t have access to loaded weapons,” Melhorn said.
Brewer said he hasn’t heard of any talk of trying to enact a storage law in light of the recent tragedy. “Right now,” he said, “everyone’s trying to get over the shock.”
Brewer said he respects gun rights, is a hunter and appreciates guns. When he shops for one, he said, “I’m always thinking, ‘How am I going to secure this?’ ”
He has pizza night at his house, and his young grandchildren visit. “That has always just been a fear – I do not want these children getting a hold of it (one of his guns).”
Journey said that, partly because of gun safety education, the nation has seen a large decrease in accidental shootings over the past 40 years.
But there’s disagreement about the data. In September 2013, The New York Times published a review of hundreds of child gun deaths, concluding that “accidental shootings occurred roughly twice as often as the records indicate, because of idiosyncrasies in how such deaths are classified by authorities.” The article said the National Rifle Association used the lower numbers to oppose gun storage laws, contending that children were more apt to die from falls or poisoning. The article said fewer than 20 states made it a crime for adults not to store guns safely.
Wichita City Council member James Clendenin said he would argue that everyone who buys a gun should be required to take safety training.
A law dictating what people do in their home has limitations, he said. “You can’t be in everyone’s houses, nor do I want to be.”
Police Chief Norman Williams said that anyone who has children around has to make sure guns are safely secured, but “you don’t need a law for common sense. Education and awareness is the key.”
Make safety paramount
What can a person do to keep their children from getting harmed?
Wichita police Lt. Jeff Allen, the department’s firearms commander who instructs recruits and veterans, said his approach when his children were young started with this idea: “If kids want to get to something, they’re going to get to something.”
Using that assumption, Allen said his approach as a father was to satisfy their curiosity. He told his kids that if they wanted to see a gun or ask a question about it, they should approach him. That way, he said, “it wasn’t something taboo.”
And he took precautions: He kept his guns unloaded, away from his children and separated from the ammunition. If other children visited, he would lock the guns in a closet.
In hindsight, he said, he said he could have taken additional precautions.
“What I always told my kids is, ‘Every gun is loaded. If you pick up a gun, you have to assume it is loaded.’ ”
Mike Relihan, owner of the Bullseye Shooting Range near 13th and Oliver, said, “There’s so many things you can do now” to safely store guns.
Relihan and others recommend the small, easy-access safes that are just big enough to contain a handgun and fit into a drawer. “We sell a lot of those,” he said.
When someone buys a handgun at this store, the salesman will ask how the gun is going to be stored, and often people say it will go into the nightstand. Then the salesman will say, “OK, here’s the next thing you should buy,” pointing out the small safe that fits into the nightstand. The portable safes can be quickly opened by a key, combination or by fingerprint recognition.
Relihan said he doesn’t think a law will keep people safe. “Everybody ought to use common sense,” he said, and store their firearms depending on the situation. He knows a grandfather who keeps a loaded gun in his nightstand but moves it into a safe when his grandkids visit.
Kent Barrett, hunter education coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, said a good starting point for safe storage is keeping the gun and the ammunition separated. Then lock and secure it in an inaccessible place away from children.
It’s easy to get a gun lock through safety programs, he said.
As a conceal-carry instructor, Barrett tells his students that everyone has to determine how accessible a gun should be. “That’s a balancing thing,” he said. If you really need a gun, he said, “better have it on you.” But at the point you take the gun off, “at that point, you probably need more security (than access), and you need to take steps to secure the firearm.”
“Safety needs to be paramount, though.”
One of the basic education messages that children get in schools, he said, is if you see a gun, stop, don’t touch it, leave the area and tell an adult.
“Unfortunately,” Barrett said, “we see too many times the fascination with the gun.
“I think we are remiss to not teach gun safety earlier to our children.”