More Floridians are arming themselves, and one of the unintended consequences should have been predictable. As gun sales and concealed carry permits increase, so do the number of children injured or killed by guns. Yet as the Florida Legislature begins its annual session, state lawmakers remain determined to make guns even more visible and accessible while the state ignores the dangers to kids.
The Tampa Bay Times' Kathleen McGrory and Connie Humburg tracked increases in child injuries and deaths between 2010 and 2015 by examining hospital and medical examiner records. In a report titled "In Harm's Way," they found nearly 3,200 kids ages 17 and younger were killed or injured by firearms. That works out to a child shot every 17 hours — a rate that should stun everyone regardless of where they stand on gun control. More kids also are dying from gunfire. During that six-year span, 475 kids were killed by guns, a nearly 20 percent spike. The tragedies reach every part of the state, affecting kids of all races and income levels.
But as casualties rise, the state barely takes notice. Florida law enforcement officials don't track child gun injuries. Even worse, the Florida Department of Health, which advocates ways to prevent drowning and increase motor vehicle safety, does nothing to encourage responsible gun ownership. The department averts its eyes even as surveys show more people are buying guns for protection instead of for hunting. And as gun owners worry about self-defense, they're more likely to have their guns accessible — and loaded.
Accidents are the fastest-growing cause of gun injuries to children. Toddlers find them in a nightstand or under a bed. Teenagers are fascinated by guns, digging them out of closets to show off to friends and assuming they are unloaded. The state should be aggressively promoting responsible habits like keeping guns locked up, storing ammunition separately and giving away safety mechanisms such as gun locks. Instead, there is silence and inaction.
How are legislators responding? A bill filed by Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Parkland, would require the use of a safe or a trigger lock when children are around (SB 142). Another bill filed by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, would increase the penalties on gun owners whose firearms are accessed by kids (SB 648). But those changes stand little chance of passing in the Republican-controlled Legislature, and it remains up to individual gun owners to recognize their obligation to safely store their firearms.
Meanwhile, Republicans are stepping up their efforts to loosen gun restrictions. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, has filed bills that would allow guns to be carried in airport terminals (SB 618), local government meetings (SB 626) and career centers (SB 640). Steube also has filed bills that would allow holders of concealed weapons permits to openly carry guns (SB 644) and to carry on college and university campuses (SB 622). Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, has filed a bill (SB 908) that would allow concealed weapons to be carried in all sorts of other areas, from courthouses to professional sporting events. Steube says the way to make children safer is to "do away with gun-free zones.'' Yet the facts show the increased availability of guns has put children more at risk.
The National Rifle Association, a powerful and enthusiastic supporter of open carry and allowing guns in more places, has a viable gun safety education program for children. Why don't more lawmakers follow the NRA's lead in that area when they are so eager to embrace the rest of its agenda?
Instead, the Legislature has been undermining efforts to promote gun safety rather than promoting it. A recent federal court ruling struck down key portions of an indefensible state law that prohibited doctors from asking patients about gun ownership. The law, nicknamed "Docs vs. Glocks," restricted physicians from inquiring about how many guns are in a home or how they're stored unless it was medically relevant. Like pool gates or infant car seats, such information is relevant because it enables doctors to encourage parents to protect their children's health and safety.
A child being shot every 17 hours is unacceptable. Experts call it an epidemic but a preventable one. Florida legislators should be as eager about promoting gun safety and protecting children as they are about allowing guns everywhere.