"PUT DOWN that knife," I screamed. The object of my fearful demand was not a violent assailant or a miscreant bent on armed robbery. It was my 4-year-old who had climbed on a step-stool to reach the kitchen counter, and had grabbed a carving knife of ample size and menacing keen.
Deeply shaken, she dropped the knife and began to cry. Luckily, my ill-considered shout (instead of prompt but calm intervention) did not frighten the child into cutting herself. Nor did her normal curiosity result in harm.
But that potential danger, readily recognized by an adult, was unknown to her. Exploring the tools of adults is a natural instinct of children, not thwarted easily by parental command or well-tempered explanation.
So many useful items of life are harmful to children. Teaching and warning can only do so much to prevent a child's unbridled curiosity from leading to tragic consequences. It's not enough.
Children need to be protected from themselves, against their lack of good judgment. Prevention is worth far more than cure. I should have placed the knife in the sink, or kept the child's stool away from the multiple dangers of the kitchen -- things that adults need to think about because children are all too vulnerable.
It's why medicines come in child-proof packaging; why antifreeze and other household poisons are locked away; why the water heater thermostat is turned down. These are only some precautions we take with children in the house. There are surely some we haven't thought about, but should.
However, there's one thing that every adult should know and do: keep firearms away from children in the home. Notice I didn't say "loaded" firearms -- because it is all too often the "unloaded" gun that kills or wounds a curious child, mostly oblivious to the deadly distinction.
What do you do when an 8-year-old finds a key to a locked room and searches out his parent's forbidden pistol -- and kills himself at play?
Fatal attraction in Silver Run
That's what happened a week ago to Christopher Jenkins of Silver Run. Loaded or not, the handgun was an object of fatal attraction for the youngster.
Had the handgun not been loaded (as should have been the case, with both parents away from the house) -- and secured with a trigger lock, the tragedy could have been prevented.
The potential for grievous harm is widespread. About 40 percent of U.S. homes have a firearm, often kept loaded and unlocked, according to the National Safe Kids Campaign of the Children's JTC National Medical Center. About 1,500 children under 15 are treated in emergency rooms for accidental gunshot wounds each year. Some 200 children die from gun accidents.
Trigger locks have been sold for years, but relatively few gun owners buy them. You wouldn't think that $10 or so for a safety lock would faze someone who plunks down hundreds of dollars for a firearm. But that seems to be the sad case. And most gun dealers aren't eager to press the issue.
Since July, however, gun sellers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties must provide a trigger lock with each handgun sold. Supplying a gun lock doesn't mean that it will be used or used properly, but it increases that chance. The world's largest handgun maker, Smith & Wesson, recently launched a program to provide trigger locks with each gun it sells to the public.
There's legislation in the General Assembly to require the sale of trigger locks with handguns sold or transferred, and to have every gun shop prominently post notice of that requirement.
(Maryland law provides a fine of $1,000 for making a loaded firearm accessible to a minor. It's a largely ineffective law, given the potential serious consequences of violation.)
The Baltimore City Council is weighing a bill to require child-safety trigger locks with the sale of any firearm.
We've seen the predictable reaction to this low-cost safety measure. It will prevent gun owners from quickly firing their weapons in self-defense, opponents say. People who need gun locks will buy them without the requirement, they argue. (Sure, just like the people who need auto seat belts will wear them anyway.)
Another concern raised is that dealers will turn to the flimsiest, cheapest locks if they must provide them with guns. Given the supply of affordable, credible locks already on the market, that seems unlikely. There is a considerable range of devices available, from basic key lock and alarms that sound if a lock is forced, to an expensive version requiring an owner's electronic identification bracelet to unlock the gun.
Firearms safety programs for youths are fine. So are in-school safety education efforts to increase awareness. But they are no substitute for a properly used trigger lock, and an unloaded gun, in preventing accidental shootings of children (and adults).
This is the kind of precaution that should become second nature to a responsible gun owner.
We're not talking about disarmament. It's like locking a car when you're not using it.
Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.
Pub Date: 2/15/98