Because of the dangers of guns, the state has storage laws that govern them. When parents or businesses unsafely store guns, they may be criminally charged if children are able to gain access to them. If the children shoot or kill others with guns that have been improperly stored, the owners of the guns may also be liable in civil lawsuits against them.
Duties of owners to safely store their guns
In California, owners of guns are required to safely store them if they know that a child under the age of 18 might find them and access them or if they reasonably should know that it might occur. Firearms owners must keep their guns in locked containers so that children and teens are unable to access them. If they fail to do so, and a child or teenager gets the firearm and injures or kills themselves or others, the owners of the firearms may face criminal liability.
Under Cal. Pen. Code § 25100, owners of guns may be charged with criminal storage if the following elements apply:
- People who have control and custody of the premises keep loaded guns; and
- They know or reasonably should know that children may access the guns without parental permission; and
- The children are able to get the guns and either cause the death of themselves or of others or to cause them great bodily harm; or
- The children gain access to the firearms and cause an injury that is not a great bodily injury to themselves or to others.
In the case that the children cause great bodily injury or death when they access unsafely stored guns, the owners may be charged with first-degree criminal storage of firearms. This offense is punishable by incarceration in a state prison for up to 16 months, two years, or three years. People who are convicted may also be fined up to $10,000 or be assessed both prison time and a fine. They might also be sentenced to spend up to one year in county jail and a fine of up to $1,000. If the owners are convicted of second-degree criminal storage, they may face county jail time of up to one year, fines of up to $1,000 or both.
Owners whose firearms are stored in locked containers have a defense against criminal liability and are unlikely to be found to be negligent if the children or teens are able to access the weapons anyway. Owners will also avoid criminal or civil liability when the children or teens break into the premises and steal the weapons.
In addition to criminal liability for unsafe storage that leads to children injuring or killing themselves or others, the owners may also face civil liability when the victims or the parents file civil lawsuits against the owners for their negligence.
Civil liability when owners improperly store guns
Victims who are injured by children or teens who have accessed guns that were improperly stored may file lawsuits against the owners of the weapons. The parents of children who are killed because children or teens were able to access unsafely stored guns may also file lawsuits against the owners. If the owners already have criminal charges pending against them for criminal storage, the plaintiffs may still file civil lawsuits against them. Civil and criminal cases are allowed to proceed simultaneously. Civil lawsuit plaintiffs have lower burdens of proof than the prosecutors in criminal cases, meaning that it is possible for people to prevail in civil cases even if the defendants are found not guilty in the corresponding criminal cases.
Filing civil lawsuits against irresponsible firearms owners who fail to safely store their guns may allow the victims to hold them accountable for their actions. They will need to be able to prove that the owners were negligent, however.
Negligence per se in civil claims arising from improperly stored guns
It is possible for people to prove negligence per se when the defendants are shown to have improperly stored their guns, endangering the safety of children who might discover them or of others who might be injured by them. If the plaintiffs are able to show that the owners violated the statute requiring them to keep the weapons under lock and key and failed to do so, the plaintiffs may be able to prove that they were negligent. To prove that the owners were negligent per se, the plaintiffs must show the following elements:
- The defendant violated the statute; and
- The violation of the law was a substantial factor in the harm that resulted.
If the plaintiffs are not able to prove that the defendants were negligent per se, they may still be able to prove that they were negligent under the circumstances. This requires showing that the gun owner had a duty (imposed by one of the above statutes or similar law or simply a duty to act in a reasonably prudent manner) and breached this duty causing injury or death to a child. Parents of children who cause harm to others with guns may also be held to be liable to pay damages if the children use guns to injure someone else with weapons that they were allowed to use by their parents.
Talk to an experienced firearm safety lawyer in Los Angeles
Guns are dangerous instruments that should not be accessible to children and teens. When owners fail to store them properly, they may be both criminally and civilly liable. If you or your child has been injured by children or teens who were able to access guns, it is important for you to talk to an experienced lawyer in Los Angeles. Contact Steven M. Sweat, Personal Injury Lawyers, APC to learn about your rights and how you might be able to hold the owners responsible to pay damages for your losses.