Kids and guns  

By Pete Williams

    WASHINGTON —   Children, guns and parental responsibility: It’s estimated there are over 200 million guns in America. There is a gun in 43 percent of households with children. So who is responsible when a child uses one of those guns and commits a crime? A GROWING NUMBER of states now struggle with who should be held legally responsible as they search for ways to reduce violence among young people. One immediate answer is to make it a crime for a parent to leave an unlocked gun at home where a child could get it.
       Seventeen states now have what they call child access prevention laws, requiring adults to either keep their guns securely stored or locked so that children can’t fire them.
       “If you are going to own something that could possibly blow away your child’s classmate, the very least you can do is ensure that there is no access to the gun by anyone but a responsible adult,” said Naomi Paiss of the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence. Just last month, a Florida woman was charged with a felony for leaving a loaded gun under some pillows in her vacation home. A child found it and accidentally shot a playmate.Democrats support a federal child access law, but the gun control bill is stalled in the Republican-controlled Congress. Even so, George W. Bush appeared to support the idea Wednesday.
       “The fundamental point is how does this child get a hold of a gun and why,” said Bush. “And people need to be held accountable for that ... including the parents, yes.”
       Even locking guns doesn’t always work. Maryland prosecutors this week charged a teenage boy with stealing a gun from a locked cabinet and giving it to his girlfriend who used it to commit suicide.
But what about broader laws holding parents responsible whenever their children commit crimes?
       Just 13 states have laws that allow charging parents with crimes for the acts of their children. But they’re nearly always used for minor offenses like skipping school or shoplifting.
       In one notorious case, a judge in 1996 ordered a delinquent South Carolina girl tethered to her mother for nearly a month. But juvenile justice experts don’t know of a single case of a parent convicted for a serious or violent crime committed by a child. And legal experts say no one, not even a parent, should automatically be punished for someone else’s crime.
       “Parents cannot promise that their children will behave properly at all times,” said Professor Martin Guggenheim of New York University Law School. “What parents should be required to do is to be held to a standard of their own conduct.”
       Even when the parents can’t be charged with a crime, they can still face civil lawsuits, with less stringent evidence standards. Relatives of victims from four past school shootings are now suing the parents of the boys who fired the shots.
       But lately, more states are actually shifting their focus away from the parents; they’re seeking instead to place more blame on young offenders by charging them as adults who are responsible for their own criminal behavior.

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