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| Chaffin Luhana LLP

On May 18, 2018, another school shooting took place in Santa Fe, Texas. Ten people—including eight students and two teachers—were killed, and 13 people wounded. Dimitrios Pagourtzis, a 17-year-old student, was charged with the crime, and apprehended by police.

It was later revealed that the shooter had obtained the pistol and shotgun he used that day from his father, who allegedly kept them in a locked cabinet. The guns were purchased legally by the father, but now there’s a question of whether he may be held liable for negligent storage of those guns.

What is Negligent Gun Storage Law?

Most states have laws that are designed to prevent children from gaining access to firearms. The strongest ones impose criminal liability if a minor gets a gun that was negligently stored, while the weakest ones prohibiting people from directly providing a gun to a minor. In between the wide range of laws that exist, with some imposing criminal liability only when the child uses the gun to cause serious injury and/or death. Other laws impose liability only in cases of reckless, knowing, or intentional conduct by an adult.

Under Texas law, if a child gets ahold of a readily dischargeable firearm (one loaded with ammunition), a person is criminally liable if he or she failed to secure the firearm, or left the firearm in a place he or she knew or should have known that the child could access it. The person is not guilty if the gun was used for lawful purposes like hunting or other sporting events, in the defense of people or property, if the gun was gained by unlawfully entering of the property, or if the child’s access to the firearm occurred when the actor was engaged in an agricultural enterprise.

The penalty is harsher if the child uses the gun to cause serious injury or death to himself or herself, or to another person.

Can Texas Shooter’s Parents Be Held Liable for Damages?

The Texas Department of Public Safety states that safe storage of a firearm “is securing the firearm in a locked object and keeping the firearm separate from the ammunition.” It also involves restricting access from unauthorized persons at all times—24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Department further provides that safe storage is more than keeping the gun inside the house or vehicle, and applies to where the weapon is at all times.

Under these laws, are the Santa Fe shooter’s parents potentially be liable for the damage their son caused? According to the what’s on the books now and what we know of the shooter, the answer is no, because the law applies only to children under age 17. The shooter was 17. Meanwhile, Texas does not require that guns be locked or kept in a safe once in their owner’s possession.

It’s still unclear whether the guns used in the shooting had been locked away, or if the suspect’s father knew that his son could gain access to them. According to the New York Times, Houston police chief Art Acevedo stated that he believed the suspect’s father should face consequences, as “anyone that owns a firearm, that doesn’t secure it properly, ends up in the wrong hands, and used to kill innocent people, that should carry some significant consequences.”

An investigation by the USA Today network and the Associated Press found that between 2014 and 2016, there were 152 accidents in which children under the age of 12 either killed themselves or were mistakenly shot and killed by another child. In about half of those cases, the deaths led to a criminal charge, typically against the parents or childcare workers.

A 2018 survey by Johns Hopkins found that only 46 percent of gun owners safely stored their firearms.

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