Could The Santa Fe High School Suspect's Father Be Charged For Not Locking Up His Guns?

May 24, 2018

As Texas debates what, if any, steps should be taken to prevent mass shootings in the state, we asked our audience what questions they had about guns in schools.

A common question is whether the 17-year-old suspect’s parents would face any liability under state law:

Will the parents be charged under Sec. 46.13. MAKING A FIREARM ACCESSIBLE TO A CHILD?

– Glenna Soirez

In short, probably not.

Both the .38 revolver and the Remington shotgun used to kill 10 people and injure 13 at Santa Fe High School last week were owned by the suspect’s father. 

But, in a case like this, the issue of parental liability gets gray, it seems.

Texas is one of 27 states that have so-called child-access laws – laws that hold gun owners liable for allowing children access to a firearm. And Texas’ law is one of the tougher laws in the U.S., says Ari Freilich, an attorney with the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

If a child were to find a firearm and harm or kill someone else or themselves, the gun owner could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor under state law, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

“I don’t think the father is going to face any criminal liability for having those firearms accessible."

But, Freilich says, Texas' law is weaker because it applies only if a firearm is loaded – whether or not it has a round in its chamber.

“So, as a result, Texas' law would likely not apply even if an adult left an unsupervised child home alone with an unloaded firearm out on the table right next to a box of ammunition,” he says.

The law defines a "child" as 16 and younger. The suspect is 17, so it wouldn’t apply on the basis of his age alone. A gun owner could also be found criminally liable under state law, however, if he or she knowingly sold, loaned or leased a firearm to someone under the age of 18.

While officials say the suspect used his father's weapons, it's unclear how he obtained them.

“I don’t think the father is going to face any criminal liability for having those firearms accessible,” Emily Taylor, an attorney with Texas LawShield, which provides legal aid to gun owners. “There’s sort of a loop here that is not stitched up tightly when it comes to imposing criminal liability upon this dad."

Even though handguns and long guns have different purchasing ages (21 and 18, respectively), the law doesn't delineate between the two, and the charges are the same. But Freilich and Taylor agree there's not a concrete definition of what security means in Texas' child-access law. The gun can't be readily accessible. That can mean lots of different things for lots of different kids.

"I think that when you're talking about 14-, 15-, 16-year-old kids, sure, it should be locked up in a safe. But if  you're talking about a 3-year-old, you can probably rest assured that, if you put a readily dischargeable firearm on the top shelf of a closet, they're not going to gain access,"  Taylor says. "It really depends on the ability of the child in question." 

Gov. Greg Abbott hinted this week at expanding state efforts to get gun owners to lock up their firearms. He emphasized "the necessity of safe storage of guns and strategies to promote the safe storage of guns."

"How in the world can a parent either not know about or not be accountable for a situation where a student may be bringing a gun or a knife to a school?" Abbott said. "Parents are partly responsible for this and need to be held accountable."

In a memo to Abbott before the roundtables began, the Gifford Center suggested Texas raise its law to cover anyone under 18. As it stands, it appears prosecutors don't regularly charge people with making a firearm accessible to a child. 

Alice Tripp of the Texas State Rifle Association, who attended Wednesday's roundtable session, said in a statement after the meeting that prosecutors have brought 62 charges statewide since the law was passed in 1995.

Do you have a question about guns, gun violence or school shootings in Texas? Ask it in the form below.

_

This story has been updated.