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Prosecutors back bill that boosts penalties for unsafe storage of weapons

Rep. Stacey Newman (left) and St. Louis circuit attorney Jennifer Joyce (center) listen to Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker as Baker announces her support for Newman's legislation on February 29, 2016.
File photo I Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

The prosecutors in Missouri's two largest cities are joining with pediatricians to support legislation that would make it a crime to leave a loaded weapon accessible to children.

Rep. Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights, is the sponsor of the bill, which makes it a felony if a gun owner "knowingly fails to secure a readily available, loaded deadly weapon in the presence of a child less than 17 years of age." A weapon would be considered secure if it had a functioning trigger lock, was kept in a safe, or was unloaded.

Missouri led the nation in toddler firearm deaths last year, Newman said, and more than 100 children under the age of 17 have been injured or killed by firearms so far this year.

"We all see these stories. They're traditionally classified as accidental," she said. "These aren't accidents.  Adults are responsible. They should be held responsible. We can't afford to lose any more children because it's inconvenient for an adult." 

Newman's effort has the support of both St. Louis circuit attorney Jennifer Joyce and Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker. Both women already bring child endangerment charges under the current statute, but Joyce said some of her colleagues are reluctant to do so.

"There's inconsistency across the state," Joyce said. "The endangering statute doesn't explicitly say that this is grounds for filing that charge, and so there are some prosecutors that feel are reluctant to do it, especially since firearms are such a hot button issue right now."

Joyce is a gun owner, and both she and Baker emphasized that the law is not an attempt to restrict the right to own a firearm.

"This is about reason and common sense," Baker said. "I do support the Second Amendment. But we're talking about responsible gun ownership. Children should never be responsible for their own safety."

Newman, the state representative, said the bill has no chance of going anywhere in a Republican-controlled legislature in an election year.

"Part of my responsibility as a legislator is to push issues, particularly ones that will save lives," she said. "It's public opinion. Voters actually get to choose the Legislature."                     

Impact of restricted access laws

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of 2014, 18 states and the District of Columbia had so-called "child access prevention" laws on the books leveling various punishments for improperly storing a firearm. 

The impact of such laws on the number of children accidentally killed or injured by guns isn't clear. Two studies, from 1997and 2000, found that significant drops in the rate of unintentional child firearm deaths could mostly be attributed to the states that allowed for felony prosecution. A third study, from 2001, found no impact on accidental gun deaths from child-access prevention laws, but a 2013 paper looking at non-fatal injuries found reductions in both inflicted and self-inflicted wounds.

Dr. Robert Flood, the director of emergency medicine at  Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital, said the safest home for a child is one without a gun.

"But when you consider than an estimated four in 10 Americans have a gun in their home, you have to come up with a common sense measure that'll help make it as safe as possible," he said.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.