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Lawsuit takes gun owner duty too far

With the decision to own a gun comes the responsibility to control access to it, but there are limits to that responsibility. A case now before a federal appeals court in Boston will test those limits in ways that are important to the one-third to one-half of all New Hampshire households that own firearms.

Michael Woodbury, a 31-year-old felon, went on a crime spree almost as soon as he was released from a Maine prison. That spree ended at a military surplus store in Conway where on July 2, 2007, Woodbury killed the store's manager and two young tourists who tried to stop the holdup.

Woodbury obtained the gun used in the robbery by breaking into his grandfather's camp in Wentworth Location and removing it from its hiding place beneath a water heater. The mother of one of the Massachusetts victims alleged that cabin owner Lawrence Secord's negligence led to the wrongful death of her son. A lower court judge disagreed - and got it right.

The grandfather had no way to foresee that a grandson he'd had no relationship with for 14 years would break into his camp, steal the gun and use it to commit murder. He thus had no responsibility to do more than he had: hide the gun and lock the camp.

The woman appealed and now, in the first case of its kind in New Hampshire, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, has been asked to find Maine resident Secord liable for the harm inflicted with his stolen 22. caliber handgun. It was one of what one study estimates as the 250,000 guns stolen in the United States each year.

New Hampshire law makes it a violation to negligently store a firearm in a manner that allows a child access to it without permission, but that law neither applies to adults nor is cited in the Woodbury shooting case. The question the court has been asked to decide is not whether Secord stored the gun safely but whether he had a duty to do so. We find it difficult to separate those two questions. And even recognizing that firearms present a hazard that justifies regulation, it's not easy to draw distinct lines. For example, would a homeowner be liable if a knife or an ax stolen in a burglary were used in a murder, or the owner of a stolen vehicle responsible if it were used to ram a police cruiser? We believe not.

Leaving a handgun, loaded or not, on the dashboard of a car, locked or unlocked, would be negligent. Yet in hunting season plenty of guns can be seen in racks in the rear window of pickups, which are presumably locked when unoccupied. Storing a firearm in a gun rack opposite a picture window would be unwise, but would it be negligent if the home were locked? Not typically. But what if that window faced a half-way house for felons or a home for troubled teens?

Gun owners associations, law enforcement, educators, physicians, firearms makers: all should strongly encourage safe firearm storage practices. Ideally, all guns should be kept in a locked safe in locked home with ammunition kept separately under lock and key when not in use. But in numerous surveys a big percentage of households admit to storing firearms unsafely. One 2007 study put the figure at 70 percent. Should those households be liable for the unforeseeable harm done with their weapon if it's stolen? We don't believe so.

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