It’s the kind of story that seemingly could only happen in America — only days before Thanksgiving a 3-year-old boy in Tulsa finds a loaded gun in his home. He points it at his mother who is changing her daughter’s diaper. He pulls the trigger and kills her.
But what is perhaps most surreal and unimaginable about this tragedy is that it happened again – two weeks later, again in Oklahoma, another 3-year old boy. This time the victim was a 23-year-old man who was shot as family members handled a loaded rifle. The child grabbed at the gun, and it went off. Two lives ended; countless others shattered.
These deaths were described as accidents, but of course they are anything but. They are the direct result of America’s toxic gun culture and of a nation inured to the point of inaction in ending the steady drumbeat of senseless death.
Just a few months ago, the president appointed an Ebola czar in the wake of three Americans being diagnosed with the disease. Before that, he sent American warplanes and military trainers to Iraq to rollback ISIS even though the group posed no direct threat to the United States. There was broad popular support for his actions
Yet, since then more Americans have been killed on US soil by 3-year-olds with guns than have died from Ebola or ISIS. Every day there resides among Americans a clear and present danger — millions of guns, many purchased for home protection that are having the exact opposite effect.
We know that having a gun in one’s home doesn’t actually make that home safer. Instead it increases, significantly, the possibility that someone who resides there will die as the result of a firearm. So here’s a suggestion: Rather than spend billions more on combating terrorists that pose less of a threat to Americans than falling TVs, how about invest the money and attention to gun safety?
No, that doesn’t mean taking away people’s guns. But here are three ideas. First, increase the criminal penalties to a felony for allowing a child to get access to a firearm. Leaving a loaded gun where a child can put their hands on it is not an accident — it’s the result of negligence. Make it a serious crime. There is good evidence that these child access prevention laws can reduce unintentional deaths.
Second, require gun safes in all homes where a child under age 18 is present. Have the federal government subsidize such safe purchases, if necessary. Doesn’t matter how it gets done, just that it happens.
Third, begin a nationwide public education campaign about the dangers of keeping a loaded gun at home where children are present. We’re all familiar with the powerful TV ads that depict the medical consequences of smoking — ones that ran last year are estimated to have persuaded 100,000 smokers to give up the habit. If you buy a pack of cigarettes, it says on the box how dangerous it is to smoke. Why should guns be any different? How about a public health warning any time someone buys a gun that its presence in one’s home dramatically increases the risk of a child (or adult) being killed? How about public service announcements that make clear the importance of securing weapons where children are present?
Reminding Americans that guns and curious children make for a potentially deadly mix isn’t infringing on people’s freedom or their right to bear arms. Indeed, there is no good reason for the NRA to oppose any of these measures — unless it wants to try to convince us that the only thing between a bad 3-year-old with a gun is a good 3-year-old with a gun.Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. His column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.