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Stop the Gun Play : Nearly 90% of the accidental shootings of children 14 and under happen in the home. A variety of devices in all price ranges are available to help keep guns out of kids' hands.

March 21, 1993|MICHAEL T. HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES: Harris is a free-lance writer who lives in Crestline.

Brian Harris thinks of himself as a good family man. He and his wife have three children, ranging in age from 3 to 10. A vice president with Turner's Outdoorsman, a Southland sporting goods chain, Harris also keeps a pistol in his home, partly because he enjoys target shooting, but also for protection.

Harris (no relation to the writer) stresses to his children that a gun is not a toy and he begins teaching them basic gun safety about age 5. He also keeps his handgun secure and uses a rubber strap device now available on the market to add extra safety.

Lee Montoya, who works with Harris, also is a family man, with an 11-month-old daughter who's just beginning to walk and explore her surroundings. And Montoya, like Harris, also keeps a pistol at home for protection. He keeps his gun secured, but he made that decision long before his baby was born.

He and his wife have friends with young children who visit, and he understands that kids will be kids and that accidents can happen quickly. For that reason, he's always kept his handgun in a safe.

As gun owners, Harris and Montoya have plenty of company in Southern California, where 29% of the homes (866,970 households) have at least one gun in them, according to an April, 1992, poll by The Times.

The same poll, conducted before the May riots, found that 20% of Los Angeles County adults surveyed were likely to buy a gun within the year, with 75% saying the gun would be for personal use.

Since the riots, Los Angeles County's largest firearm retailers say their business has skyrocketed.

But only 60% of gun owners safeguard their weapons at home, according to the poll, and that worries citizen groups and public officials and has led to state legislation on gun safety.

The irony of the gun in the home is that sometimes, rather than protecting, it ends up injuring family members--sometimes fatally. Nearly 90% of the accidental shootings of children ages 14 and under happen in the home, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.

Gene Erbin, legal counsel of the state Assembly Judiciary Committee, said that based on the data he's seen he estimates about 200 children are shot each year in California, 50 fatally.

In Orange County alone, more than 30 adults and children died between 1987 and 1992 due to accidental shootings.

Some gun owners will protect their families against other household hazards, one gun-control advocate said, while ignoring the dangers of a firearm.

"We lock up our poisons, we child-proof our home, we put locks on the cabinets and we have safety caps on our medications," said Heather Morse, western program coordinator for Handgun Control Inc., a national gun control lobbying group. "But we'll leave a loaded firearm in our night-stand drawer, thinking that a child won't get to it. But a child will. A $5 trigger lock can save a life."

State and local officials are concerned about the number of guns in California homes, but they are even more concerned about the ability of their

owners to be responsible for their safekeeping. Some are worried that many residents, without any previous experience in firearm use, safety or maintenance, will bring home a gun, load it and simply stick it in a drawer or closet, where a child can have easy access.

Those fears may be well founded. According to The Times' poll, four in 10 gun owners do not keep their weapons locked up, and one in six has never even test-fired a gun, or last fired one more than 10 years ago.

John Lynch, head deputy district attorney for the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office, talked bluntly about the gun-safety issue:

"People have got to realize that (a gun) is deadly and they are attractive to kids," he said. "If they (would look) at just the photographs of the ones that we look at, of a beautiful little 2-year-old kid with the back of the head blown off. . . ."

Over a year ago, the Legislature enacted a law directly aimed at those concerns. Known as the Children's Firearm Accident Protection Act of 1991, it sets parameters for criminal liability if a child is injured or killed by a gun kept in the home, or if the child kills or injures someone else.

The law became effective January, 1992, and while many gun stores have posted signs about the new law, some officials are concerned that the public is not well-aware of the law's impact.

"The law covers any loaded firearm," Erbin said, including handguns, rifles and shotguns, adding that there is a stubborn percentage of shooting accidents in the home with rifles and shotguns.

The law's intent is simple. Where a child is present, a loaded gun in the home must be secured in such a way that either the child can't get to it, is unable to fire it or the gun is under direct adult supervision.

While it's hard to be specific as to results, officials said the law has had a positive impact.

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