As responsible gun owners, we know that firearms are deadly weapons, capable of causing serious injury and death if they wind up in the wrong hands. We believe that through education on how to store and handle a firearm, gun owners can prevent a tragedy from occurring due to an accidental discharge or other mishandling.
Although some state governments have enacted laws that seek to enforce strict requirements for the storage and handling of firearms, especially around children, Virginia is a state where no such laws have been enacted.
State laws vary considerably in the storing of firearms, particularly when there are children in the home. On the extreme end, Massachusetts requires that all firearms be either stored in a locked container or equipped with a tamper-resistant lock or safety device. Failure to do so could result in fine up to $7,500 and/or imprisonment for up to 1.5 years! In comparison with other states’ laws, Virginia is about middle-of-the-road in that it does have criminal penalties for leaving firearms around children in certain situations, but these are rather limited.
Virginia Code § 18.2-56.2.A makes it a crime to recklessly leave a loaded, unsecured firearm in a way that endangers the life or limb of a minor under 14. While the Virginia courts have not directly addressed what “recklessly leaving a firearm” means, in Mangano v. Commonwealth, 44 Va. App. 210, 604 S.E.2d 118, the Appellate Court has said it is similar to “recklessly handling” a firearm. Essentially, recklessly leaving a firearm around means that the person leaving the loaded firearm did so knowing serious injury would likely result. (See Barrett v. Commonwealth, 268 Va. 170, 597 S.E.2d 104, 117 (2004). An example of this would be leaving a loaded handgun on the kitchen counter, knowing that your curious 10 year-old would come in and start playing with it. Further, the word “recklessly” here, and as interpreted in Mangano, means that if you have no reason to suspect a child under the age of 14 will have access to the firearm, perhaps because it is in your closet unknown to your child, it is not a crime if the child gets ahold of it.
Two parts of the statute stand out. The first is that unloaded firearms may be left around children without any crime being committed. This makes sense, considering that an unloaded firearm is no more dangerous in the hands of a child than some other common household items. The statute also specifies that a loaded firearm cannot be left around a child under 14. Leaving a loaded firearm around a teenager over 13 is perfectly fine. Violating this subsection is a relatively minor Class 3 misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of not more than $300.
Subsection B of the statute also makes it a crime to allow a child under 12 to use a firearm, unless they are under the supervision of a parent or legal guardian. Note that it is not a crime to give a child under 12 a firearm to shoot at the range if that child is under proper supervision. If convicted under this subsection, which is a Class 1 misdemeanor, a person could face a fine up to $2,500 and/or a county jail sentence up to one year.
In the grand scheme of things, these requirements for firearms storage allow Virginia gun owners to shoot with their children without worry. As discussed earlier, other states’ laws vary, such as negligent storage laws which make it a criminal act to negligently store an unloaded firearm or statutes that impose civil liability on people who fail to store their firearms properly.
It is always of the utmost importance that firearms are safely stored in the home, especially if children are living there. Individual circumstances may vary—you may take your teenager to the range weekly, or they may not have ever held a gun—either way, you know what is best for your particular situation. It may not hurt to have a gun safe, or locking devices for some or all of your firearms. The most important thing is to ensure that you and your family are safe.
If you have any questions about storing your firearm around your children, or what you can do to ensure a safe and happy environment in your home, give us a ring and an Independent Program Attorney will be happy to point you in the right direction.