Why Gunlock Laws Make People Less Safe

It’s every family’s worst nightmare to lose a child. The Naumkin family, of Saratoga Springs, New York, suffered such a tragedy in 2010, when twelve-year-old Nicholas died from an accidental gunshot. A friend had fired his father’s unlocked gun.

To gun control advocates, the solution is clear: a proposed New York state bill that would make parents such as this father guilty of a felony. Any gun owner who fails to keep their gun under their immediate possession or who leaves it unlocked would face criminal charges. The proposed law is named “Nicholas’s Bill.”

Fortunately, these tragic deaths are extremely rare. According to the Centers for Disease Control, during the last 10 years that data is available from 2002 to 2011, in New York state a total of 12 children under 15 died from accidental gun shots.

Sure, the threat of a felony will help ensure that people keep their guns locked. But if that makes sense, why not apply it to the much more deadly threats facing New York’s children?

Again, for New York State, over those same ten years: 329 children under 15 died from suffocations, 207 from drownings, 200 from residential fires, 175 from pedestrians stuck by motor vehicles, 55 from falling, 54 from bicycling, and 40 from poisonings.

We could propose similar bills after children drowning in a neighbor’s pool: 34-month-old David Bender in Lyons, New York in July 2013; five and seven year old Ralph and Sharon Knowles in Central Islip in April 2013; and three and five year old Kendal and Kenely Francois in Union Township in June 2012.

Wouldn’t charging these pool owners with felonies make sure that they keep a watch on their pools or keep them locked up?

But the problem is more complicated. With pools, the risk of a felony would probably lead many people to have them filled in. Presumably, this would reduce the amount of exercising. With guns, we need to recognize that the trade-offs are immediate and deadly. Locking up guns or getting rid of them would cost lives, as families cannot effectively defend themselves against criminals breaking into their homes.

According to my research, published in the Journal of Law and Economics and elsewhere, mandating individuals lock up their guns actually didn’t reduce the few accidental gun deaths for children or teenagers. Rather, such laws emboldened criminals to attack more people in their homes. Their crimes were also more successful: 300 more total murders and 4,000 more rapes occurred each year in 18 states with these laws. Burglaries also rose dramatically.

Gunlock laws didn’t reduce accidental deaths. Despite the image in the media, two thirds of accidental gun deaths involving young children are not shots fired by other little kids but rather by adult males, most with criminal backgrounds. The notion that an adult male criminal who probably can’t even legally own a gun is going to obey some gunlock law is absurd.