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Keeping Guns Out of Kids' Hands

BRAVO, Florida! That state this month became the first in the nation to prosecute adults for damage done by a child playing with a gun owned by an adult. Willie Green's granddaughter got hold of his gun, and shot herself with it. Her grandfather faces up to five years in jail and a 5,000 dollar fine as a result. Other states are likely to quickly follow suit.

The statistics on the number of deaths and injuries inflicted by children playing with guns are staggering. According to the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, 10 kids are killed each day by a shot fired when they, or a friend, are playing with a loaded gun. Ten times more are injured.

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Not even the National Rifle Association (NRA) opposes the Florida law. In fact, the organization boasts that it helped write it.

But not all pro-gun lobbyists think the Florida law will be a deterrent. Marion Hammer is the Executive Director of Unified Florida Sportsmen and sits on the national board of the NRA. She says: ``Those who would suggest that sending parents who are grieving from the loss of a child to prison is a deterrent factor I believe are approaching it from a ludicrous position. Because I don't believe that the threat of a prison term can be more of a deterrent than the thought of the death or injury of your child.''

Maybe not. But in most instances, children are killed or injured by a friend playing with that friend's parent's gun. So someone other than the dead or injured child's parents were at fault.

In fact the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence reports that eight out of 10 shootings involving children take place when a child using his parent's gun shoots a friend, not himself.

Judy Soto's 10-year-old son Omar was killed in January of 1988 by a friend playing with his father's pistol. She says she was ``completely devastated and shocked'' when she went to the state attorney's office and asked what could be done to prosecute the father of the boy who shot her son. She was told that there was no law holding the adult criminally responsible for leaving a loaded pistol in the house.

While Florida became the first state in the nation to prosecute a gun owner, it probably will not be the last. Lawmakers in Wisconsin, Connecticut, Virginia and Maryland have already introduced similar laws. They will be taken up in the 1990 legislative sessions, which begin in January.

And Dennis Smith, executive director of the Center, says lawmakers in at least a dozen other states - including Massachusetts, Maine, Louisiana, and Missouri - have expressed an interest in sponsoring similar laws.

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Money for education should be included along with these laws. Mr. Smith says about 60 percent of all Floridians keep a gun in their home. Interviews with several hundred schoolchildren indicated that most learned what they knew about guns by watching the movie, ``Rambo.''

The NRA's Director of State and Local Affairs, Richard Gardiner, agrees that education is a critical component: ``Education is the most important element of any legislative effort to solve the problem of child safety with firearms.''

Until now, the problem of kids and handguns simply hasn't been taken seriously by our state or federal lawmakers. States aren't even what could be called vigilant - in many instances - about policing the people who buy handguns. At best, states require gun-shop owners to run limited checks on would-be purchaser's criminal records.

If parents insist on keeping guns around the house, they should, at minimum, keep them unloaded and at best, under lock and key.

Maybe the Florida law won't motivate most parents to guard their guns more closely. But if it saves the life of one child, isn't it worth it?

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