The death of a 5-year-old girl in Scarborough who police say shot herself after finding her father’s loaded pistol last week has renewed questions about what safety precautions Mainers who own guns should take – or should be required by law to follow.

Maine State Police said Elise Dorr of Belfast accidentally shot herself Monday evening with a .45-caliber pistol in a bedroom of a home on Milliken Road, where her family was house-sitting for her grandparents.

The gun belonged to Todd Dorr, Elise’s father, and was fully loaded and unsecured in a backpack. Police say Dorr and his daughter were watching TV in the bedroom, and when Dorr got up to adjust the television, Elise found the gun. Police have not filed charges; the investigation will be forwarded to a prosecutor, who will determine whether to take legal action.

William Keith, a retired Maine state trooper of 27 years who served for a decade as the lead firearms instructor for the state police, said even basic preventative measures could have avoided this death.

“Knowing (children) are coming around, I’d put it at least out of reach,” said Keith. “Kids are curious. And who knows what kind of access this child had before? Maybe grandpa had candy in his backpack.”

Dorr could have also stored the gun separately from its ammunition as another way to reduce risk.

“Don’t think of the best-case scenario,” Keith said. “Think of the worst-case scenario.”

Another common way to secure a firearm is with a security-type holster, which depending on the design, can have two or three different mechanisms that must be disengaged before the gun can be removed and the trigger accessible.

“That’s not going to say it will completely prevent a child from getting it out,” said Keith, who now teaches classes at the Windham Indoor Shooting Range & Retail Store. “It might not be perfect, but it could at least delay, if not prevent altogether.”

RESEARCH SLOWED

Definitive statistics on accidental gun deaths are difficult to come by. In 1997, Congress voted to withhold funding for research by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention into gun deaths that gun advocates feared could be used to advocate for gun control. Although not an explicit prohibition, government-funded research into gun violence has slowed dramatically.

But a study funded by the CDC and published in June in the journal Pediatrics found that nearly 1,300 children die and 5,790 are treated for gunshot-related injuries each year. The study, relying on data from 2012 to 2014, found that about one in five of the 5,790 injuries was unintentional.

In 2015 Maine passed a law that removed the permit requirement to carry a concealed firearm. Before the law was enacted, applicants had to complete a firearm safety course before they could obtain a concealed carry permit. Today, the only state-mandated gun safety course is for hunting permit applicants, a requirement in place since 1986.

By contrast, Massachusetts has stringent requirements for buying a firearm and obtaining a permit to carry a concealed weapon. All Massachusetts gun buyers must acquire a firearm identification card, approval for which requires passing an approved safety course. All guns sold in Massachusetts also must come with an approved gun lock, which must be in place when the gun is in storage. Local police departments in the Bay State are in charge of issuing concealed carry permits.

Two bills in Maine that were introduced in the most recent legislative session would have implemented similar firearm safety requirements, but the proposals died in committee. One bill would have required firearm dealers to sell a gun lock with every firearm sold. Another would have required that everyone who purchases a gun take a safety course. The only person who submitted testimony in favor of the mandatory gun lock bill was its sponsor, Rep. Deane Rykerson, D-Kittery.

Whether Todd Dorr might face criminal charges after Elise’s accidental shooting is still in question.

The prosecutor’s decision whether to pursue charges in Elise’s death would likely depend on the specifics of what occurred in the bedroom that evening, said Richard Berne, a former federal prosecutor who now practices criminal law in Portland.

Berne said law enforcement officials have to decide whether the public interest in charging someone with criminal negligence is outweighed by the fact that the family is already dealing with a tragic loss.

“It’s the age-old balancing test between public policy, the facts and circumstances surrounding the case, and (whether) the extent of the tragedy that’s befallen this family far outweighs any public policy in prosecuting,” Berne said.

In the Dorr case, Berne said, “I don’t know where a prosecutor is going to come out, but obviously the cops are coming out that the terrible tragedy outweighs the possible negligence.”

Some prior accidental shootings have resulted in criminal charges.

Dylan Grubbs of Thomaston was indicted in the 2015 accidental shooting death of his fiancee. He was showing a 9 mm Taurus pistol to a potential buyer in his SUV in a supermarket parking lot in Bath in November of that year. The gun discharged, striking Chelsea Jones in the head. She died three days later. Grubbs was sentenced in November 2016 to 2½ years in prison.

But no charges were filed after M.D. Harmon, a longtime conservative columnist for the Portland Press Herald and an advocate for gun rights, was killed in December 2016 when a gun he thought was unloaded went off in the basement of his home in Sanford. The firearm was being handled by a teenager, a friend of Harmon’s family.

TRAGIC REMINDER

Advocates on both sides of the gun control debate in Maine say Elise Dorr’s tragic death is a reminder for gun owners to take commonsense precautions around all guns, and especially when children are present.

A poll in 2013 conducted by the Press Herald found that 55 percent of Maine adults have a gun on their property, a number 8 points higher than the response to the same question in a national Gallup poll conducted in 2012. The same Press Herald poll found 79 percent of Mainers support some restrictions on owning guns.”Young children are incredibly curious about guns,” said William Harwood, president of the board for the Maine Gun Safety Education Coalition. “They see them too often on movies and TV. The question (of) whether the state or the federal government can do more is a harder one.”

In the last 10 years, Harwood said his group, formerly known as Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, has given away more than 25,000 gun locks, small, inexpensive devices that cover the trigger area of a firearm, making it difficult for someone to access the trigger without a key or combination.

The group has also pushed parents to ask other parents whether guns are present in their homes and whether they are safely locked and secured before allowing their children to play at another family’s home.

While Harwood’s group advocates for more education around gun safety, it has not pursued legislation in Maine that would require gun owners to lock up their guns when not in use, or require that trigger locks be included in gun sales.

“We’d like to see a nongovernmental solution, but we think the government can do more to educate people about the risks of unsafe storage,” Harwood said.

David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said he does not favor a state law requiring firearms to be locked in a home when not in use.

“Firearms in the home are for personal protection,” Trahan said. “If it’s locked up in a gun cabinet at 2 in the morning, you’ve placed a barrier to getting access to that firearm.”

Trahan is also critical of gun locks, which he said can be knocked off a firearm and are less safe than lock boxes or gun safes.

Trahan has advocated for a state-sponsored tax credit to help Maine residents pay for gun safes, which he said is a more feasible option than mandating locking firearms, which he said would be unwieldy and difficult to enforce.

“We’re not ready to go down that road,” Trahan said. “I think it would be extremely expensive; it would be a huge mandate. It’s too far over the top, particularly when you can do this through public education and incentives.”

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