OLYMPIA, Wash. — Following a toddler's shooting death, Washington state legislators are considering a bill that would require additional testing of gun locks and safes before the equipment is distributed to law enforcement officers for home use.
The bill was spurred by the 2010 death of the 3-year-old son of a sheriff's deputy after the toddler got ahold of a gun from a department-issued safe, which the family says was faulty.
"I never thought to question my husband's police-issued equipment," said Kristie Owens, the child's mother, at a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. "I assumed it would work properly. Why wouldn't it?"
The legislation, which would require testing by an outside laboratory and oversight by the attorney general's office, has advanced despite a swirl of accusations and lawsuits surrounding the death.
Former Clark County Sheriff's deputy Ed Owens was placed on administrative leave after the accident and fired in November after an internal affairs investigation found that he had improperly stored the gun and wrongly blamed his 11-year-old stepdaughter for little Ryan's death.
Owens responded this month by suing the department, calling the internal affairs report "a pack of lies." He says he was fired for speaking out against the department's practice of passing out cheap and faulty gun safes and refusing to replace them. Owens is demanding his job back and seeking $1 million in damages.
"As an employee you're told if you have a concern to take it to your boss. I did all of that," Owens says. "And every effort to get the safes pulled was stonewalled by the administration."
Clark County Sheriff Garry Lucas declined comment, citing the ongoing litigation.
If the bill is passed into law, Washington would join California as the only states to mandate gun safety device standards. In 2000, California required that any gun safety device sold in the state be approved by an outside lab — with the testing costs absorbed by the manufacturer.
Proponents of the Washington bill say it is necessary to protect the kids of police officers.
"We can't let our children be at risk," says Ed Owens Sr., a longtime Olympia lobbyist and Ryan's grandfather.
Sen. James Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, the prime sponsor of the bill, declined to discuss the measure with The Associated Press.
Not everyone is convinced of the bill's merit.
"We've already got trigger locks with all handguns," says Daniel Davies, owner of Mary's Pistols, a Tacoma gun store, referring to a 1999 federal law requiring all new handguns be sold with a child safety device. "And now we've got to pay someone to test them? Give me a break."
Police officials question both the proposed law's effectiveness and its associated costs, estimated at over $260,000 per year. The bill was first introduced last year but died amid concern over the projected expense, which has since been cut nearly in half.
"We're hard-pressed to support mandating that an expensive gun safe be issued when law enforcement officers have for years safely stored their firearms at home," says Don Pierce, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
A better solution, Pierce says, would be for his organization to educate chiefs and sheriffs about the relative merits of safety devices and let them decide for themselves.
Gun control advocates offer support for the measure, but acknowledge it is low on their list of priorities.
"Child safety locks should accomplish the task for which they're designed," says Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Washington D.C.-based Violence Policy Center.
About a decade ago, she says, her organization tested a range of gun safety devices and found them to "vary from complete junk to reasonably good quality."
There have been no recalls of the gun safety devices since 2001, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Each year, approximately 30,000 Americans die of gunshot wounds. More than half are suicides and fewer than a thousand are ruled accidental.
Scott Wolfson, a safety commission spokesman, said his agency does not track the number of fatalities stemming from faulty gun locks.
"There needs to be a safety defect or substantial product hazard" for the federal agency to act, he says.
Jon Vernick, co-director of the John Hopkins Center for Gun Policy, says the focus for gun control advocates has in recent years shifted toward keeping guns out of hands of dangerous people and making guns safer through personalization.
In 2002, New Jersey passed a law mandating that guns sold in the state come equipped with grip sensors identifying a user and preventing others from firing them three years after the technology was viable and commercially available. Millions of research dollars and a decade later, the so-called "smart gun" has yet to come to market.
Such technology would likely save more lives than even the strongest gun safe, which is subject to human error, Vernick says.
"The problem with gun locks is that to be effective the user has to remember to always use them," Vernick says, "to take the gun lock off when using the gun and always remember to put the lock back on."
Jonathan Kaminsky can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jekaminsky