COLUMBUS, Ohio — Not long after the founding of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence, organizers began advocating for a safe-storage law to help keep firearms out of children’s reach.
“It was one of the top things we were working on, because we thought it was such a no-brainer that everyone could agree,” founder Toby Hoover said of the organization’s early efforts — more than 20 years ago — to mandate secure storage or gun locks so that kids can’t accidentally shoot their friends, siblings or themselves.
But the push for a safe-storage law failed then and has failed to advance in almost every Ohio legislative session since.
Even former Republican Gov. Bob Taft was unsuccessful after taking the rare step of testifying before the General Assembly, while in office in 2000, in support of safe-storage laws.
The gun-rights lobby targets each proposal, “and then it gets picked and picked and picked apart,” Hoover said.
Muskingum County resident Christy Conklin started championing child-access prevention laws in 2014, after her 11-year-old nephew, Lucas Templin, was shot to death while playing at the home of his 11-year-old best friend.
Though she and her family handed out hundreds of gun locks, the pace slowed as “backlash” built, Conklin said.
She had long been frustrated by the time she learned of the shooting death last month of 2-year-old Noelle Massuros, a Pataskala girl whose anguished mother told 911 dispatchers that her 6-year-old son apparently had picked up an unattended gun.
The girl’s father, Jason Massuros, faces charges of involuntary manslaughter and child endangering. Police had responded to calls from the home about a dozen times over the past decade, sometimes for domestic incidents involving a man with a gun or knife.
“Why did you have a gun in the house?” Noelle’s mother can be heard saying on the 911 call. “I told you this would happen.”
Conklin said she doesn’t understand why support for safe-storage laws is viewed by some as an encroachment on gun rights.
“I don’t want you to give up your guns; I have guns in my home,” she said. “I want you to lock them up. The problem lies with responsibility.”
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, the nation’s largest gun-control advocacy organization, a majority of gun owners do not secure all their firearms. The group says nearly 350 children under 18 unintentionally shoot themselves or someone else each year, while another 590 minors die by gun suicide each year.
The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence counts 27 states with some type of child-access prevention law. The center says the strongest impose criminal liability if minors are likely to gain access to improperly stored guns, and the weakest laws simply prohibit certain people from providing a firearm to a minor.
Still, leaving guns unlocked and easily accessible remains legal in most states, including Ohio, the Giffords center said.
Ohio’s latest gun storage proposal, from Rep. Brigid Kelly, D-Hyde Park, and Rep. Jessica Miranda, D-Forest Park, would prohibit “negligent storage of a firearm” and allows for charges from a third-degree misdemeanor to a first-degree felony if a child gains access to an improperly stored gun.
The fact that the bill is proposed by two Democrats in a Republican-controlled legislature that leans strongly pro-gun rights likely poses a problem from the start.
The Cincinnati Enquirer recently asked Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, if better storage of firearms could have made a difference in the Pataskala shooting, which was near his district.
“It’s a terrible tragedy,” Householder said. “But I don’t have enough information on the circumstances to comment further.”
Sean Maloney, legislative director for the Buckeye Firearms Association, said law-enforcement officers already have the means to penalize reckless behavior by filing child-endangerment charges against irresponsible gun owners.
“There’s plenty of opportunity to charge parents criminally,” he said.
Maloney disagrees with those who think that making gun storage the law would begin to change behavior, as supporters say happened with seat belts. He said mandates about storage and locks violate the rights of gun owners.
“We need to leave it up to parents to decide how they’re going to protect their families,” Maloney said. “I think more than anything else, we need education. Educate the children away from the home, too.”
Jodi Sandoval said she didn’t keep guns in her own home and hadn’t thought to ask whether her teenage son’s friend had unsecured firearms in his.
But then her son, Noah McGuire, 14, went to a friend’s house in Clintonville for a sleepover and was killed in 2012. His 15-year-old friend found a loaded gun in a television cabinet and accidentally shot McGuire.
A devastated Sandoval worked with the Children’s Defense Fund in 2013 to urge action on a storage law, and she said in court that she thought it unfair for Noah’s young friend to be the only one facing a legal consequence. The teen was sentenced to a year of probation on a delinquency charge of reckless homicide.
“I am saddened and disappointed that nothing has changed in the seven years since that senseless and tragic time,” Sandoval said in an email last week. “The indelible mark his absence has left on our family and community is as painful today as it was then. I weep as I write.”