Nothing shines a spotlight on Maine’s child-endangerment law like a 2-year-old boy who shoots both of his sleeping parents with a loaded weapon.

It happened in West Bath on the morning of May 12.

According to police, the 9 mm semiautomatic handgun was sitting on a night table when the toddler picked it up and pulled the trigger. The single shot hit the boy’s mother in the leg, and two bullet fragments hit the father in the back of the head. The little boy was injured as well when the gun recoiled and struck him in the face.

Thankfully, all three are recovering. Even more thankfully, a 3-week-old infant in the same room at the time was not harmed.

On Monday, the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office arrested the father, 25-year-old Derek Carr, on a charge of child endangerment, a Class D crime punishable by 364 days in jail and a maximum fine of $2,000.

“So far as we know, this is the first time that an adult has been charged (in Maine) in one of these situations where there’s been child access,” Geoff Bickford, executive director of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, said in an interview the day after Carr’s arrest.

That might have a lot to do with the child-endangerment law, which Rep. Vicki Doudera, D-Camden, is hard at work trying to change. As she put it in a separate interview, “Why not make it crystal clear and spell out that you can’t leave loaded guns around where kids are going to get them?”

To see how out of whack Maine’s statute is, one need only scan the first few lines: A person is guilty of endangering the welfare of a child when that person “knowingly permits a child to enter or remain in a house of prostitution.”

Just under that, the statute assigns guilt when a person “knowingly sells, furnishes, gives away … to a child under 16 years of age any intoxicating liquor, tobacco product … air rifles, gunpowder, smokeless powder or ammunition for firearms.”

And what does the statute say about allowing kids to get their hands on actual guns?

Not a word.

And why is that?

Because this is Maine, where injecting a little common sense into our gun laws long has been akin to moving Katahdin.

Doudera latched onto the issue while running for her first term in the Legislature in 2018. Time after time as she knocked on doors, mothers told her how worried they were about their kids visiting homes in which there were unsecured weapons.

So, as a freshman lawmaker, Doudera decided to do something about it. She drafted a straightforward bill for the previous Legislature that would have required the safe storage of guns.

“It didn’t go anywhere,” she recalled. “I was told by the (Criminal Justice and Public Safety) committee that, they didn’t want to create any new crimes.”

This time, a little wiser for the effort, Doudera set her sights on the existing child-endangerment statute. If it went to such lengths to specify everything from allowing a child inside a house of ill repute to giving a kid alcohol, tobacco and (irony alert) ammunition, why not add firearms to the list as a clear warning to those with limited grasps of the obvious?

In addition, why not add “criminal negligence” in the case of firearms to the “recklessness” standard that applied to the existing law? In effect, that would provide prosecutors more maneuvering room in pursuing charges – regardless of whether the defendant outright ignored the risk of a loaded weapon or was somehow oblivious to it.

It’s worth noting that the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee’s hearing on Doudera’s bill took place three weeks before the incident in West Bath. But even then, the panel had ample evidence that Maine has a problem.

Only four months ago, another 2-year-old was critically injured after an older sibling found a gun in a closet in the family’s home, loaded it and, as Waterville police reported, “a round was fired.”

In August, Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols Sr. confirmed that a 16-year-old boy from New Sharon died after accidentally shooting himself with a gun that was reportedly stored unloaded in the family closet.

And just last month in Richmond, a student at the Marcia Buker Elementary School turned himself in to school authorities after coming to school with a loaded handgun.

All of that might help to explain why Doudera’s bill has gained unusual momentum this spring. The committee voted 8-5 that the measure “ought to pass.” It now awaits floor votes in the House and Senate.

As Bickford at the Maine Gun Safety Coalition noted, the typical scenario at legislative hearings on gun-safety bills – a relative few proponents outmatched by a phalanx of gun-industry lobbyists and 2nd Amendment zealots – was turned on its head this time.

“Public testimony was 35 in favor to 3 against,” Bickford said, noting a similar split (29-4) in favor of a bill that would close the so-called “gun-show loophole” when it comes to background checks on gun buyers.

A big part of that, as Doudera is quick to point out, stems from ever-improving organization on the part of those who want to inject a little sanity into Maine’s gun laws.

The Maine Gun Safety Coalition has created SUN, short for the Show Up Network, that mobilizes citizens who want to testify in support of gun safety bills – much like the National Rifle Association has long done with those in opposition.

Moreover, such groups as Moms Demand Action, the Maine Medical Association, the Maine Psychological Association and the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics have all lined up in support of the child-endangerment bill.

And at the State House, Doudera has spearheaded the Gun Safety Caucus, an alliance of some 40 lawmakers – the vast majority Democrats – determined to break the historic logjam on gun-safety legislation.

Will it be enough?

It’s too soon to tell. The NRA is still out there, although in a diminished capacity following repeated scandals that have rocked the organization.

There’s talk from the gun-rights proponents, as there always is, about the need for more education, sans punishment, to keep gun owners from doing things that are beyond dumb.

And there’s even some hand-wringing about whether Gov. Janet Mills, a former prosecutor, might withhold her support. The grounds: The current law already contains a catch-all prohibition on behavior that “otherwise recklessly endangers the health, safety or welfare of the child by violating a duty of care or protection.”

In rebuttal to that dodge, here are two questions:

First, if the current law is sufficient, why was last week’s West Bath shooting the first time, according to Bickford, that it’s been used against a person who didn’t properly secure a firearm?

Second, allowing a child to access a loaded gun is so far beyond the pale, why shouldn’t state law simply say so?

Like we do for prostitution.


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