States Reconsider Parental Responsibility In School Violence Cases
By Tiffany Danitz, Staff Writer
WASHINGTON -- Since the shootings at Columbine High School, policymakers have learned that state government can do only so much to curb youth violence without the help of parents. Two days after Columbine, Utah Governor Mike Leavitt set the tone of the debate when he said "Government is not a good substitute," for families.
In the last year, state lawmakers have begun dusting off negligence laws, long on the books, that hold parents responsible for their children's actions and many argue that these laws are sufficient for locking up parents whose firearms are used to kill others. But some states are considering making safe gun storage laws synonymous with parental responsibility.
Utah, Michigan and Idaho have laws that allow local jurisdictions to hold parents criminally responsible for their children's actions.
In Ohio, where a distraught sixth-grader pulled a handgun on his class last month, Gov. Bob Taft has made safe storage the cornerstone of his so far unsuccessful approach to preventing future school attacks.
A revived version of Taft's proposed school safety bill, sponsored by fellow Republican Rep. Ann Womer Benjamin, would hold a parent responsible if their child uses their gun to kill or injure. The penalty is up to a year in jail and a fine of $2,500.
The National Rifle Association, which backed Taft during his 1998 election campaign, has branded the bill the "Taft Burglar Protection Act" and has lobbied rigorously against it. Benjamin pulled the bill from consideration in the House Criminal Justice Committee yesterday when she couldn't muster enough votes for approval.
According to Handgun Control, an anti-gun group, 32 states are considering bills that would prevent access to guns by children through safe storage or trigger locks and by holding owners responsible. Seventeen states have passed similar laws.
A March 2000 poll of 1,012 adults by ABCNEWS.com found that 75 percent of respondents support the idea of charging parents for failing to keep firearms out of their child's hands.
While the NRA doesn't object to laws that require manufacturers to provide appropriate safety devices with guns, they don't want any law to mandate their use. "All 50 states have negligence laws already on the books that can be used. We disagree with creating a special firearms negligence category since it is unnecessary and it is essentially unenforceable," said NRA Spokesman Jim Manown.
But since the February shooting of a six-year-old girl by her first-grade classmate in Michigan, President Clinton has proposed making it a federal felony for an adult to knowingly or recklessly allow a young person access to guns that are then used to kill or injure.
California pioneered this style of regulation back in 1985 when it was trying to quash gang violence. The state fined and imprisoned parents for failure to supervise their children.
A decade later, Oklahoma passed a more narrowly focused law. It holds a parent responsible if their child possesses a firearm on school property. Instead of making it a criminal offense, the law allows parents to be fined up to $2,000.
Prior to shots ringing out in Columbine's hallways, Alabama, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee and Wyoming had parental liability laws on the books that allow parents to be prosecuted for failing to supervise their children or for being negligent during the supervision.
As the debate rages over whether it is good policy to enforce responsibility, one expert suggests that prevention would work better than punishment. J. Brien O'Callaghan, a psychologist and school safety consultant in Connecticut, said, "What is mainly necessary is helping parents do the job." But with liability laws, "you are telling people you are going to punish them for a job they want to do but don't know how to do."