If you have a gun, you probably keep it for protection. You don't expect someone to handle it without your permission and injure themselves or another person. However, if something like that happens, can you be held responsible for the wrongful death of another?
Child Access Prevention Laws and Criminal Liability
In 28 states and Washington D.C., there are child access prevention (CAP) laws, some of which impose criminal liability if a gun owner negligently allows a minor access to a firearm. Other laws are less severe, and only impose criminal liability when there's reckless behavior on the part of the gun owner.
Negligent behavior might include leaving the gun where the child can access it, even if you think that it's hidden or you've expressly forbidden your child to touch it. Reckless behavior might include giving the child free access to the weapons in your house, leaving them where they are in easy reach, and leaving them full of ammunition.
However, you can be held liable in other ways, whether the person who used your gun was a child or an adult.
Negligence and Civil Liability
The question of whether or not you could be held responsible in a civil lawsuit—like a wrongful death claim—due to a stolen gun comes down to whether or not you could reasonably have foreseen the accident or event.
For example, if a neighbor breaks into your home and steals a gun that he or she knows that you have and uses it to commit a crime, you had no way of anticipating the whole event. A court would have a hard time finding you negligent for any resulting crime or injury committed with that gun.
However, imagine that you habitually leave a loaded shotgun in your unlocked bedroom and your teenage son and his friends start playing around with it one day after school when you aren't home. What happens if the shotgun goes off and one of the kids gets injured? Since you routinely kept the shotgun loaded, available, and knew that your son (and others) could easily access it, a court could decide that you could have foreseen just that sort of event happening. That would make you liable for any civil penalties in a lawsuit, such as financial damages.
Defenses and Unusual Circumstances
All circumstances are unique. If someone handled your gun and an accident happened, there are numerous factors that need to be considered. For example, was the person who took your gun intoxicated or on drugs? Was the person handling the gun experienced in handling weapons previously? Was your gun and ammunition kept separately? If someone else's teenager was involved in the accident, was that teenager's parent properly supervising the child? It's possible that you aren't responsible, or that the responsibility is shared between you and another, which can mitigate your liability.
Contact a wrongful death lawyer promptly if your gun has been involved in an accident of any sort so that you can discuss the situation and understand the extent of your legal liabilities.