Off-duty firearms safety targeted by police officer Locks are distributed to keep guns secure

March 29, 1998|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

To Anne Arundel County police Officer Bill Wild, stories of senseless deaths were surfacing too often around the country -- children getting their hands on guns, children shooting others, children shooting themselves, children dying.

Last month, when Wild heard another such story, about a 15-year-old boy fatally shooting himself while playing with a gun in Severn, he decided that such an accident was never going to happen with an Anne Arundel officer's gun if he could help it.

Wild started a program to purchase locks for gun-storage boxes and distribute them to all county police officers so that they can secure their weapons while off-duty.

It is the only such program in the Baltimore area, but part of a growing trend among police departments and federal law enforcement agencies to focus on off-duty weapon safety, experts say.

"The trend is to start addressing the issue of providing equipment, providing technology so officers can secure their weapons when they take them home," said Sean Kirkendall, spokesman for the Washington-based Center to Prevent Handgun Violence. "That fits in with the trend nationally of looking at finding ways to control access to weapons for juveniles as well as for everyone who doesn't have proper authority to access those weapons."

Wild's program, which is funded by the local Fraternal Order of Police and Sergeants Association, is simple. In Anne Arundel, police officers are issued service weapons and a storage box when they join the force, he said.

Locks were not provided, though Wild said some officers purchased them on their own. Officers also are required to store their weapons and ammunition separately when off duty and are taught firearms safety in yearly classes, he said.

"But we handle weapons every day in our job; it's easy to be complacent," said Wild, a police training academy firearms instructor and president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Wild dug into the police union fund, asked the Sergeants Association to chip in and spent just under $2,000 on 650 sturdy combination locks.

Jim Mercy, an associate director of the Division of Violence Prevention at the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control in Atlanta, said programs such as Wild's will help fight what has been a gradual increase in handgun suicides by teen-agers.

"The typical response of most police is to respond to these types of situations after they occur," said Mercy. "I think it's wonderful that they're trying to prevent these types of injuries."

Kirkendall said police forces are realizing prevention helps stop lawsuits when police weapons are involved in a crime.

Susan DeFrancesco, a coordinator at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said Wild's program isn't perfect.

"It still requires action on the part of the responsible adult, and it's just not as protective as something that would be built into the design of the gun," she said.

DeFrancesco said manufacturers are working on a handgun that could be fired only if its user was wearing a ring, lapel pin or wristband that sent out a signal.

Until that personalized handgun is produced, Wild's locks will have to suffice in Anne Arundel.

"Any time a child [accidentally shoots himself] it's a sad incident," Wild said. "I never want to see it happen in my community."

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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