Byko: How to make a gun useless for home defense

City Council President Darrell Clarke says he would welcome a challenge from the NRA to a new city law requiring putting guns and ammo in locked boxes in separate locations.

Darrell Clarke admits he was surprised.

There were more guns floating around Philadelphia, legal and illegal, than he had imagined.

That's what the City Council President found a few months after he proposed legislation that would require the safe storage of weapons and ammunition in homes with minors.

His bill, now law, addresses a "number of horrific incidents involving young children who got access to a weapon" and killed or injured themselves or others. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports guns cause twice as many deaths of young people than cancer and 15 times as many deaths as infections.

Those are sobering statistics and reflect the lack of intelligence of too many gun-owning parents.

The law requires firearms in homes with children under the age of 18 to be locked up. There is one exception - they need not be locked when carried by, or in the "immediate control" of, an "authorized user."

An earlier version of the bill required all firearms to be equipped with a trigger-locking device, but was removed on the advice of the city law department, which doubted it could clear constitutional muster. (The gun lock idea found a different expression, as I'll explain.)

What remained in the law, unfortunately, is a provision that guns and ammo must be stored in locked boxes in separate locations.

If police find a person in violation, a fine of up to $300 can be assessed, "but I hope we are not in a position to enforce it," says Clarke. By that he means he hopes police will never have to come to a crime scene involving a gun and a child.

The overbearing law requires a foolish redundancy that defeats the weapon's defensive use. The gun owner could die while having a scavenger hunt to different storage places.

As a responsible gun owner I try to be reasonable, but this is not. And why would you have to lock up an unloaded gun, which is no more lethal than a hammer?

"It strikes me as beyond the powers of city government," says Jon Mirowitz, a gun-rights lawyer who jokes that his positions are to the right of the NRA's. "One, [it's a] pre-emption [of rights]. And two, it's feel-good idiocy. It doesn't keep the children safe, it guarantees the bad guy a defenseless victim."

Clarke says he relishes a court challenge from the NRA.

Back to the gun-safety locks. The city has been giving them away free at public events, starting with the National Night Out in July - and they're as popular as Thai ice cream. (As a historical note, the Daily News in 1998 had a gun-lock giveaway. We figured we'd hand out 1,000. We ended the giveaway once we hit 5,000.)

For the city, the initial gun-lock order was 1,500, Clarke says, followed by orders for 4,500 more. They cost less than $6 each, paid for through a variety of private sources, including some of Clarke's campaign funds. He jokes, "I hope that's legal."

If that's your worst sin, President Clarke, you're in the clear.

Distribution is handled by the sheriff's office and there's a city hotline: 215-686-3572.

At the public giveaways, it occurred to Clarke that perhaps not every person taking a gun lock was the owner of a properly purchased gun. "If they lock up an illegal weapon, I'm OK with that," says Clarke.

As we discussed all things that go bang, Clarke also wants to get passed a requirement that lost or stolen guns be reported to police.

If your car gets stolen, you report that to the police, why not a stolen gun, he asks?

Some gun owners respond that you immediately know if your car is stolen, but you might not know about a gun.

That's true and my response is to report the gun stolen or missing as soon as you do know.

The "report" law would slow the "straw" buyer, the term for someone who buys a handgun for someone else - which is against the law, with very limited exceptions.

As things are now, someone can buy a dozen guns, sell them illegally and when one used in a crime is traced back, the "straw" buyer claims it had been stolen, holding him or her blameless.

The "report" law would help stem the flow of illegal guns, and I'd like to see "straw" buyers get 10 years. More deaths come from illegal guns than from the tragedy of a legal gun being left on a kitchen table like a banana.

That brings us back to the locked gun-box law, which most gun owners don't even know about.

That's why I'd like to propose a bill myself: A gun buyer would have to complete a course in gun safety, and gun law, before a gun purchase could be completed.

That might save more lives than double locked boxes which, in reality, few people will use.


stubyko@phillynews.com

215-854-5977 @StuBykofsky

Blog: ph.ly/Byko

Columns: ph.ly/StuBykofsky