Floridians Debate Gun Control Law
Under the statute, gun owners may go to jail if children are injured by unlocked firearms. FIREARM SAFETY
JUST inside Magnum's Outpost gun shop, on a pegboard filled with firearm accessories, packages of gun safety straps carry bright orange stickers with the warning: CHILDPROOF YOUR GUNS. Starting this month, that message assumes a greater urgency in Florida. Under a new state law, gun owners can be fined $5,000 or imprisoned for up to five years if anyone under 16 is injured or killed by an unlocked firearm. Sellers must give gun buyers a written warning stating their responsibility to store firearms safely. They must also post similar notices in their stores.
Earlier this week, Willie W. Green of Tallahassee became the first person charged under the law when his visiting eight-year-old granddaughter shot herself in the thumb with a gun found in his room. And on Sunday a nine-year-old boy in Palatka accidentally shot and fatally wounded a 12-year-old friend with his father's rifle.
Leo Dudley, co-owner of Magnum's, admits he has ``mixed reactions'' to the law. But, he adds, ``I feel anything we can do for child safety we should do. If this accomplishes what it intends to do, then it will be worth it.''
Oscar Kiesylis, owner of Defender Firearms in St. Petersburg, estimates that half of all families in Florida own at least one gun. In June, during one two-week period alone, five children in the state were accidentally shot, two of them fatally, with their parents' guns. Out of the shock and anger surrounding those tragedies, the current legislation was born.
Although stores like Magnum's carry everything from $3.75 safety straps and $9.95 trigger locks to $1,200 gun safes, dealers point out that ordinary padlocks, bicycle locks, bicycle cables, and even small nylon bands can all be used to keep firearms out of the hands of curious children.
Weapons dealers differ in their opinions about the potential effectiveness of the law. Among the more optimistic is Patricia Kiesylis of Defender Firearms, who says, ``You're not going to get 100 percent [compliance], but you're going to get many more people locking their guns than you would without the law.''
Less convinced is Jake Boz, owner of Jabbco Radio Inc. in Largo. ``I don't think the law is going to be much of a deterrent myself,'' he says. ``You buy a gun for self-defense. Most of my customers want quick access to their guns.''
Imagine, he says, that ``it's 3 a.m. You're sound asleep. Whamo! A guy just broke down your door. He could be crazy on drugs. It's like a cartoon. You'd have to say, `Stop! Don't move until I get my gun unlocked. Then we can continue with this.'''
Mr. Dudley refutes that line of reasoning by pointing to a small black metal gun safe with a combination lock. Its five buttons can be punched quickly to open the lid.
``I keep only one gun in the house loaded, and I keep it in one of these,'' he explains. ``Anybody would be a real fool to leave a loaded gun in plain sight on a bedside stand.''
Dealers and gun owners also disagree as to whether individuals whose weapons kill or injure children will actually be imprisoned. As John Gluck, a National Rifle Association certified instructor, points out, ``It will be difficult to prove that the gun was left out in a negligent manner.''
Even so, Mr. Boz expects that district attorneys ``will prosecute to the max.'' Mr. Kiesylis shares that view, saying, ``They intend to try to enforce it.''
Dan Trombini, manager of Kastle Keep, a gun shop in Largo, disagrees. ``I don't think any of the DA's are going to prosecute unless it's a case of gross negligence,'' he says. ``You're going to take a grieving parent and charge them with a crime and lock them up? It's like closing a door after the horse is out. The idea is prevention.''
Noting that ``locks can be defeated if you leave the key in the wrong place,'' Mr. Trombini emphasizes education as the ultimate solution. He and his sales staff ``try to instill in parents that they need to train their kids to respect and understand what a firearm can do.''
Gun safety education for children is, in fact, another component of the law. Before March 1, 1990, the state Department of Education must develop and submit a gun safety program to the Legislature.
As the mother of a seven-year-old and a 10-year-old, Mrs. Kiesylis favors such programs. But, she adds, ``I wouldn't want my children to be told, `This is a gun, this is bad, and people who own them are bad.' If they approach it in that way, I would be very upset.''
A more balanced approach, Dudley explains, is the one his own children, ages 9 and 11, heard when he took them to a safety course in Tampa. As he recalls it, the instructor told the children: ``This gun has a good side and a bad side. This [the handle end] is the good side and this [the barrel end] is the bad side. Don't ever be on the bad side. If a playmate takes out a gun to play with it, leave. Make an excuse.''
Yet dealers caution that even the best child safety courses have their limits. Emphasizing the importance of parental responsibility, Mrs. Kiesylis says: ``In every case you read about when a child is killed, you say, `Where were the parents? Where was the adult supervision?'''
To help increase parental responsibility, Mr. Gluck goes before parent-teacher associations with a 20-minute program called SAFE - Secure All Firearms Effectively - in which he demonstrates various types of gun locks.
Explaining his commitment to gun safety education, he says simply: ``I've got eight grandkids. I don't want any of them to be a statistic.''