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Lake County prosecutor launches gun safety lock initiative

Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter holds a gun lock during a press conference Jan. 26.
Michael Gallenberger
Lakeshore Public Media
Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter holds a gun lock during a press conference Jan. 26.

Preventing kids from finding unsecured weapons is the goal of a new initiative being led by the Lake County prosecutor.

At least five young people died in Lake County last year because of unsecured guns, according to Coroner David Pastrick. "I'm going to say it this way: decedent age 3, decedent age 5, decedent age 15, decedent age 17, decedent age 21. Those five young children passed away last year," Pastrick said during a press conference Friday.

And anyone who's been on the scene where a child's been shot isn't likely to forget it. "There's blood everywhere," said Lisette Guillen is with Case Files Chicago. "It's a crime scene like you've never seen before. Most of the time, there's blood on the parents or the siblings because the power of that gun, shooting off that child's head or face or chest wide open, has gotten on them."

State Senator Earl Harris Jr. (D-East Chicago) said it's something his family experienced firsthand, when a young cousin was shot by a friend who got a hold of his father's gun. "His parents [had] one less child in their life, their oldest child gone," Harris said. "That means his younger brother went from having an older brother to being an only child just like that."

Now, Prosecutor Bernard Carter is teaming up with the Lock It Down Foundation, faith leaders and other partners to hand out gun locks, focusing in particular on local churches. "These cost us about $3.50 apiece," Carter said. "So for $3.50, you could possibly save a life."

But he said convincing people to actually use them takes the entire community. "We have 500,000 citizens in Lake County. Everyone needs to have this on their lips and in action. And they can do that, and they can save a child," Carter added.

The gun locks will come with links to YouTube videos about gun storage and safety lock usage. Gun owners will also have an opportunity for in-person training.

"Part of the course is going to be classes, classroom classes," explained Supervising Deputy Prosecutor Bernie Johnsen. "Then, you're going to have live fire classes. And we're going to try to make a program like no other."

So far, the initiative has secured donations from Hard Rock Casino, NiSource and local churches. Andrew Holmes, whose Lock It Down Foundation has distributed more than 7,000 gun locks, hopes the program could serve as a model.

"Other states attorneys and prosecutors, get on board — because if they're taking initiative here to get this message out to you before you have to see the prosecutor's office, then that's what you need to do," Holmes said.

State Representative Mike Andrade (D-Munster) promised to look into funding a statewide program, during next year's budget session. "So I will work with my colleagues to ensure that we put a line item in the budget in a bipartisan manner, to ensure that there's funding available to change, to save someone's life," Andrade said.

Indiana State Police Superintendent Doug Carter said he wants to look into offering gun locks at state police posts, and he encouraged local law enforcement to carry them in their cars. "The opportunity that we would have with a family to give them something because we care about them means more than just a gun lock, especially if we talk about what that gun lock means," he said.

Superintendent Carter also challenged elected officials to donate some of their campaign funds to gun safety organizations.

During Friday's press conference, Prosecutor Carter announced criminal charges against two adults whose young family members died after finding their unsecured guns. He urged police officers not to quickly dismiss shootings as accidents.

"Treat it as a homicide. Treat it as a death investigation. Get all the information that your departments, that the coroner's office are going to have," Carter said. "We want to look at all of that. We want Q and A statements from every witness who was at the scene."

Promoting safe gun storage is also a priority at the federal level. On Thursday, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona sent a letter to school principals encouraging them to highlight the issue's importance. The U.S. Department of Justice also released a guide, outlining different ways of safely storing firearms.

Andrew Holmes
Lock It Down Foundation founder Andrew Holmes speaks during a press conference Jan. 26.

Michael Gallenberger is a news reporter and producer that hosts All Things Considered on 89.1 FM | Lakeshore Public Media.