There is no section of the Code of Virginia titled, “Prohibition on providing young children with gasoline and matches to play with.” Does that mean it’s legal in the Old Dominion to give young children gasoline and matches to amuse themselves?
Of course not.
VA Code Ann. § 18.2-371.1 provides,
A. Any parent, guardian, or other person responsible for the care of a child under the age of 18 who by willful act or willful omission or refusal to provide any necessary care for the child's health causes or permits serious injury to the life or health of such child is guilty of a Class 4 felony. For purposes of this subsection, “serious injury” includes but is not limited to (i) disfigurement, (ii) a fracture, (iii) a severe burn or laceration, (iv) mutilation, (v) maiming, (vi) forced ingestion of dangerous substances, and (vii) life-threatening internal injuries…
B. 1. Any parent, guardian, or other person responsible for the care of a child under the age of 18 whose willful act or omission in the care of such child was so gross, wanton, and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life is guilty of a Class 6 felony.
It's kind of like how states don’t typically have statutes titled, “Prohibition on beating a person over the head with a shovel.” Rather, it is understood that such conduct is treated as aggravated battery – or in the case of Virginia, “aggravated malicious wounding.”
The point is that not every type of conduct that is illegal is spelled out in individual detail in state criminal statutes. Instead, many statutes are written as to implicate an array of undesirable conduct without trying to predict every idiosyncrasy of human behavior.
This basic concept might come as news to the purveyors of “narrative journalism” over at the Washington Post.
Engaging in the Post’s favorite pastime – scolding Virginians for failing to adopt whatever policies are fashionable in the increasingly crime-ridden and rat-infested federal enclave – in late January, a pair of reporters whined about how the state doesn’t have a statute explicitly requiring gun owners to store their firearms in a certain manner. According to the tenor of the article, explicit mandatory firearm storage laws are necessary to protect young children from firearms.
To be clear, NRA supports storing firearms in a responsible manner. NRA’s gun safety rules include “store guns so they are not accessible to unauthorized persons,” and NRA materials offer suggestions on how a person might accomplish that.
NRA does not support top-down on-size-fits-all government mandates on how to store firearms. As NRA’s safety materials explain, “Many factors must be considered when deciding where and how to store guns. A person's particular situation will be a major part of the consideration.”
Virginia already has ample statutes that address the conduct at issue.
Of course, Virginia has the statute cited above (VA Code Ann. § 18.2-371.1). That statute could be brought to bear in cases where a person responsible for the care of a child exposes them to a firearm in a reckless manner.
Further, VA Code Ann. § 18.2-56.1 prohibits “reckless handling of firearms,” and provides,
A. It shall be unlawful for any person to handle recklessly any firearm so as to endanger the life, limb or property of any person. Any person violating this section shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.
A1. Any person who handles any firearm in a manner so gross, wanton, and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life and causes the serious bodily injury of another person resulting in permanent and significant physical impairment is guilty of a Class 6 felony.
Then there’s VA Code Ann. § 18.2-56.2, titled “Allowing access to firearms by children; penalty.” This statute provides,
A. It shall be unlawful for any person to recklessly leave a loaded, unsecured firearm in such a manner as to endanger the life or limb of any child under the age of fourteen. Any person violating the provisions of this subsection shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.
B. It shall be unlawful for any person knowingly to authorize a child under the age of twelve to use a firearm except when the child is under the supervision of an adult. Any person violating this subsection shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor. For purposes of this subsection, “adult” shall mean a parent, guardian, person standing in loco parentis to the child or a person twenty-one years or over who has the permission of the parent, guardian, or person standing in loco parentis to supervise the child in the use of a firearm.
The message is clear: Behaving recklessly with firearms around children in the Commonwealth of Virginia is illegal.
So, if acting recklessly with firearms around children is already illegal, why would gun control advocates bother to make it even illegaler with mandatory storage laws?
Because mandatory storage laws aren’t about reducing unauthorized child access to firearms. These laws target benign conduct and are about stigmatizing and encumbering law-abiding gun owners and placing restrictions on how responsible parents can introduce their children to firearms and the shooting sports. As with all gun control, the overarching goal is to discourage gun ownership and eventually eliminate it.
Take for instance another mid-Atlantic state, Maryland. MD Code, Criminal Law, § 4-104, titled “Child's access to firearms,” provides,
(c) A person may not store or leave a loaded firearm in a location where the person knew or should have known that an unsupervised child would gain access to the firearm.
But this statute isn’t necessary. MD Code, Criminal Law, § 3-204, the state’s reckless endangerment statute, provides,
(a) A person may not recklessly:
(1) engage in conduct that creates a substantial risk of death or serious physical injury to another;
This statute has been used to prosecute those who keep firearms in a reckless manner accessible to children. The fact pattern in the case Tabassi v. Carroll Country Department of Social Services (2018), makes clear that a defendant was convicted under both Criminal Law, § 4-104 and Criminal Law, § 3-204 for keeping a firearm in a reckless manner accessible to a 12-year-old child.
However, this hasn’t stopped anti-gun Maryland lawmakers from trying to pass further legislation dictating just how law-abiding gun owners store their firearms and micromanaging how they can introduce their children to shooting.
Whether it’s a child endangerment statute, a criminal negligence statute, or a reckless handling of firearms statute, states already prohibit actual reckless behavior with firearms around children. The statutes may look different and may not reference firearms explicitly, but the prohibition on reckless conduct involving firearms is clear.
This is also part of the reason the research on so-called “safe storage” laws is dubious. Given the diversity of state laws addressing reckless behavior with firearms, along with the myriad other factors at play when attempting measure human behavior, efforts to isolate the supposed impact of “safe storage” statutes that those most likely to be reckless with firearms probably don’t even know exist are unsophisticated and silly. Then again, unsophisticated and silly could be used to describe almost all anti-gun social “science.”
There are ways to further encourage responsible firearm storage that don’t implicate the rights of law-abiding gun owners. As noted earlier, NRA has educated generations of gun owners on proper firearm storage. Moreover, tax breaks for firearm storage equipment could incentivize responsible behavior.
For instance, this year the Virginia assembly passed HB 2387. The legislation provides an up to $300 tax credit for the purchase of one or more “firearm safety devices.” That term is defined to mean “a safe, gun safe, gun case, lock box, or other device that is designed to be or can be used to store a firearm and that is designed to be unlocked only by means of a key, a combination, or other similar means.” Another option could be for states to permanently exempt these products from sales taxes.
As with all gun controls, when someone claims how another “safe storage” law will help immanentize the eschaton, give them a lesson in human nature by pointing them to the mountain of laws already on the books.