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Legislature ignoring problem of gun safety

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An old superstition holds that bad things come in threes. If that were true, Utah wouldn't see any more of its young people killed in accidental shootings for a long while.

But old superstitions are seldom true. They are useless when it comes to predicting the future or establishing public policies.

Last week, a 14-year-old Salt Lake boy died of a gunshot wound to the head, which was inflicted by his 13-year-old friend. Somehow, the two of them found themselves playing with two sawed-off shotguns and two handguns at a time they should have been in school. Police were trying to figure out where and how the two had come into possession of the weapons.

Earlier this month, a 12-year-old boy, the younger brother of one of my children's classmates, died under similar circumstances. This time, the toy in question was a .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol.

To round out the triumvirate, last June a 15-year-old boy shot himself to death accidentally with a gun he found. That happened only a few blocks from where last week's accident took place. Maybe that eerie connection closes the circle on this pattern of threes.

Does anybody really believe that?

When innocent youths die accidentally at the hands of other innocent youths, it's hard to ignore the situation. Yet that is what Utah's lawmakers do with this problem, year after year.

First, I must make something clear. I am not a fan of gun-control. I do not wish to repeal the Second Amendment.

Those are important matters to establish in this debate because in Utah the gun lobby has turned any talk of a law requiring people to store guns safely into a gun-control issue. That explains why, for most of a decade, a bill that would make it a felony to leave a gun in a place where a child could get at it didn't even get a committee hearing. It finally emerged earlier this year and was voted down without much discussion.

If you vote to require parents to lock away guns, you might as well vote to make them lock away liquid drain cleaners, baseball bats and swimming pools, not to mention a host of other things that could be harmful to children. So goes the argument Marla Kennedy often hears on Capitol Hill. She is executive director of the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah, a prime force behind a tougher law. That argument usually is followed closely by one that says the government has no right to mandate what a person does within his or her home — a dangerous argument to use if you support laws against sodomy.

But, of course, responsible parents already do put drain cleaners and ball bats in places where vulnerable kids can't get them. They install locks on cupboards and on gates to their pools. None of those things, however, is as attractive to kids as a gun.

Not long ago, ABC's Primetime did an experiment in which it planted a disabled gun in a place where teenagers, who had been trained how to handle such situations, would find them. The boys in this experiment, unaware they were being watched, seemed transformed by their discoveries. They picked up the weapon, played with it, and even pointed it at friends.

Other studies, conducted by universities, have found the same thing. Many teenagers lack the maturity to treat the sudden discovery of a gun properly. To many youths, guns are seductive. Not so a bottle of Drain-O or a baseball bat.

Still, most Utah lawmakers want kids to be solely responsible for their own gun safety.

The latest version of the bill, by the way, would not hold an adult responsible if a minor took a gun that was within arm's length of an adult. You could still sleep with one under your pillow, in other words. It would give police and prosecutors discretion as to whether to charge someone, taking into account the grief a parent may be experiencing.

A law wouldn't stop accidents from happening. It can't substitute for plain old good parenting. But it would penalize people who are negligent. And, yes, the number of accidental shooting deaths nationwide is on the decline, but that is little comfort to anyone who knew the latest three victims.

Marla Kennedy, who plans to continue her fight, says, "As soon as someone gives me one decent, common-sense reason as to why we don't need this law, I'll stop."

Let's see. So far we have arguments that equate accidental child gunshots to consuming drain cleaners, swinging baseball bats and falling into swimming pools.

Maybe bad comparisons come in threes, as well.

Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: even@desnews.com