What Are Firearm Child Access Prevention Laws?

December 2, 2021

By Aara Ramesh

When it comes to gun rights, one demographic proponents of gun control are particularly concerned about is children that live in homes that also have firearms. While the presence of a firearm in the house can be dangerous to anyone, children are, of course, particularly susceptible to injury or death related to one. Not even counting injuries, per some estimates, around 1,300 children die from firearm-related causes annually.

The most common method of firearm-related injury or death involving children is accidental or unintentional shootings. That is, children come across or are able to access a gun, and while playing with it, end up setting it off. With older children, having a gun in the house heightens the risk of suicide.

Additionally, around 66% of children or youngsters who intentionally carry out a shooting get the guns from within their own homes or from relatives’ homes. The latest example of this is the shooting at a school in Michigan where the teenage shooter used his father’s newly-purchased gun for the carnage.

table three updated
Table source: The Violence Policy Center

In an earlier piece, we wrote about why having gun storage laws and minimum standards are important. At the time, we briefly touched on child access prevention (CAP) laws. Today, we delve deeper into this aspect of gun safety.

CAP laws are mostly retroactive measures that make a person criminally or civilly liable if they fail to store guns safely away from children. One study by the RAND Corporation found CAP laws might help lower gun suicide and accidental shooting rates in the states that have them. Another estimated that, among children aged 14–17, CAP laws lowered overall suicide rates by around 8% and firearm suicide rates by 11%. Other studies have found that CAP laws can reduce accidental shootings of children by up to 23%.

In states that do not have safe gun storage laws, “comprehensive” CAP laws are an effective alternative to prevent firearm-related deaths and injuries in children.

Image source: The National Bureau of Economic Research

Currently, 27 states and D.C. have some form of CAP law. CAP laws vary in strength and penalties for violating them. In California, a person is criminally liable if a minor is “likely to gain access to a negligently stored firearm,” regardless of whether the minor actually does access it. On the other end of the spectrum, in Georgia, a parent or guardian is just prohibited from directly giving a minor a firearm. Crucially, states define the term “minor” differently.

There are laws in nearly two dozen states and D.C. that make a person criminally liable if they “negligently store firearms, where minors could or do gain access to that firearm. The applicability of this is often phrased as if a person “‘knows or reasonably should know’ that a child is likely to gain access to the firearm.”

The states are: 

  • California
  • Colorado (also has a knowing, intentional, and reckless based law with a stronger penalty)
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware (has a “criminal negligence” standard)
  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Rhode Island
  • Texas
  • Washington

Colorado, Massachusetts, and Nevada make the person criminally liable if the child may gain access to a firearm. Minnesota, New York, and the District of Columbia make a person criminally liable if a child is likely to gain access to a firearm. California imposes criminal liability for both these cases. 

In all these states, as well as in Hawai’i, Maryland, New Jersey, and Texas, a person is criminally liable if a child gains access to the firearm at all, regardless of whether the child actually uses the firearm or causes an injury.

In Connecticut, Illinois, and Rhode Island, the criminal negligence statute only applies if a child accesses the firearm and then uses it to kill or seriously injure someone. In Florida, it is applicable if the minor takes the firearm to a public place and/or uses it in “a threatening manner.” In Iowa, a person is criminally liable if a child accesses the firearm, uses it to kill or seriously injure, or if they take it to a public place and/or use it in a threatening manner. In addition to these conditions, in Maine, New Hampshire, and North Carolina, criminal liability is also imposed when a child uses the firearm during a crime.

Across states, there are various exceptions made to CAP laws, including if the firearm is safely secured in a locked container and a child accesses it; whether the minor breaks into the house to access the gun; in cases of self-defense; in cases where the firearm is used by the minor to help law enforcement officers; when the firearm is used for hunting, sports, or agricultural purposes; and when the child has gone through a firearm safety course.

As such, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the only foolproof way to protect children from firearms is to not have any in the house. However, around one-third of all American families with children also have a gun in homes, amounting to roughly 22 million children nationwide living in homes with guns.

In the absence of CAP or safe gun storage laws, there are a few things adults can do to protect children who live in households that have guns.

It is not sufficient, experts say, to just hide a gun and believe the child doesn’t know about it. It is generally believed that three-fourths of children who live in homes with guns know where they are stored. Further, it is not true that children cannot fire a gun because they lack the strength or that they are able to tell the difference between a toy gun and a real gun.

If not having a gun at home is not an option, there are other tips that can be followed to provide a measure of safety:

  • The best way is to keep the gun unloaded and with the safety on.
  • The gun should be stored well out of the reach and sight of children.
  • The gun and the ammunition should be stored separately, both locked up.
  • Guns should also be within lock boxes or gun safes and should have a safety device like a gun lock.
  • The keys and/or combinations to lockboxes should never be made known to children.
  • Children should never be left unsupervised at home with a gun.
  • When your child is visiting another home, check if that family has unsecured firearms in their house.
Image source: Healthy Children

A more detailed breakdown of individual states’ CAP laws can be found here.