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Posted: 10/9/2005 7:12:17 PM EDT
Ever heard of a safe or lock box ?

Days after her husband placed a lock on his handgun in March 2002, the couple's then 4-year-old daughter, Shelbie, found the weapon in a dresser drawer. She played with it before heading out to join a friend. "It was out of the pouch and the bullets were on the floor," Churchill, 34, of Queen Creek, Ariz., remembers. Without the lock, which the family received through an earlier form of Project ChildSafe, "she could have shot through the wall. ... I think about it every day."

Shelbie Churchill shows how she found her dad's locked gun in a drawer in 2002.

Industry's lock giveaway promotes safe guns
By Charisse Jones, USA TODAY
A national campaign by the gun industry has provided millions of free gun locks to everyone from young mothers to hunters in an effort to keep firearms from falling into the hands of children.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the firearms and shooting sports industry, targeted five states in August with Project ChildSafe. The stops in New York, Michigan, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska concluded the second phase of the program, which has visited all 50 states and given away roughly 28 million locks since September 2003. The National Rifle Association is not a member of the foundation.

The campaign's current phase, which runs through August 2006, will focus on safety education. Three million more gun locks also will be distributed.

With an estimated 240 million guns in the USA, advocates on both sides of the gun control debate believe locks can save lives, although research on the issue is scant.

A report published last month in the Pediatrics online journal found that about 1.7 million children live in homes where there are unlocked and loaded guns. Of 1,400 children and teenagers shot to death in 2002, roughly 90% were at home when the incident occurred, the report says.

The lock giveaway coincided with expected federal legislation that would shield gunmakers and dealers from most lawsuits stemming from criminal use of firearms.

The Senate passed the bill in July, and the House of Representatives is likely to do so soon. Sponsors say the legislation is necessary to protect the industry from financial ruin in the face of litigation.

"There's a number of lawsuits brought forth in the last few years that are really stressing the financial viability of the firearms industry in the U.S.," says Dan Whiting, spokesman for Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, a co-sponsor of the bill. "And it's setting a dangerous precedent to hold someone liable for the actions of a third party."

But Eric Howard of the Washington, D.C.-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence says the law would remove one tool that forced the gun industry to initiate campaigns such as the lock giveaway.

"The only thing that has encouraged this industry to go in a positive direction is lawsuits," Howard says. "And now it looks like the House will pass (the legislation) and they will no longer have an incentive to reform."

Bill Brassard, Project ChildSafe's director, says the gun industry has long encouraged the safe use of firearms and has expanded its message with the 2-year-old effort.

"With this program we went ... to what we might call non-traditional gun owners, the person who owns a gun for personal protection or who has been handed down guns through the family," Brassard says.

"This provides a reminder to them to make sure that a loaded gun doesn't fall into the hands of a child," Brassard says.

The safety kits distributed by Project ChildSafe and law enforcement agencies included gun locks with keys similar to those used on bicycles and brochures on how to safely store a weapon.

Because the program does not question or track those taking the free locks, foundation officials do not know how many are actually being used. But Brassard says feedback from law enforcement agencies indicates that "the vast majority ... are being installed."

Most gun manufacturers already provide some kind of lock with new firearms, but the practice is voluntary. The federal legislation that would protect the firearm industry from lawsuits when guns are used to commit a crime includes an amendment that would require locks, or another safety device, to be sold with every handgun. Seven states, including California, already require that locks be sold with some firearms, according to the Brady Campaign.

Kristy Churchill believes a gun lock may have saved her child's life.

Some gun control advocates view the lock giveaway as little more than a publicity ploy.

"Even the best child safety lock program is only going to prevent a very few deaths among very young children," says Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Violence Policy Center, a Washington-based group that supports a national ban on handguns. "The better answer for parents is just to get the guns out of the house."

Howard, of the Brady Campaign, also objects to federal funding of the program. The campaign's second phase received $30 million from the Justice Department.

"It should be a program where the industry pays for it," he says. "It just speaks to the incredible level of friendship between the gun industry and the government."

Brassard says that the locks meet standards set by federal officials.

Bob Ricker, consultant to the Washington-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, questions whether the locks meet the highest safety standards. Still, he sees the initiative's benefits. "Being able to have the tools to properly store your gun if you're a gun owner is very, very important," he says. "So for that aspect I think it's a very good program."

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