Whether on a city street, at school or in their own home, American children are the victims or perpetrators of gun violence more than ever, and far more than young people anywhere else in comparable countries.

Each act of violence has its own drivers. But in the end, they all come back to someone who has made a poor decision with a firearm, whether that is involving one in a heated dispute, mishandling the weapon, or leaving it unlocked and loaded for someone else to find.

The problem is too many guns, and too many guns available to young people who do not yet have the capacity to handle them responsibly. In response, Congress at the very least should pass Ethan’s Law, which would require adults keep firearms safely locked away.

Maine may be one of the safest states when it comes to homicides, but it has experienced a series of horrible gun-related tragedies. State laws new this year, including one that, like Ethan’s Law, criminalizes the unsafe storage of firearms, take aim at those tragedies.

Every state should be under those same rules. In no way do they prevent responsible, law-abiding Americans from owning or using firearms.

They would, however, prevent the gun violence that right now is taking the lives of so many children.

The rate of firearm deaths of children under 14 rose by about 50% from the end of 2019 to the end of 2020, and it appears to have gotten worse last year. The number of youths 19 and younger who committed a homicide rose by nearly 20%.

Last year, even with schools open irregularly, there were at least 42 acts of gun violence during regular school hours, the most since at least 1999.

All of it is part of an overall rise in homicide. It is centered in a few dozen major cities — in Philadelphia, for example, more than 30 children and teens died by gun violence last year alone — but can be found throughout the U.S., in areas big, small and in between.

The pandemic hasn’t helped. Kids of all ages were left with more downtime, at home or out. Downtowns emptied, making them less safe. Frustration and desperation mounted. Mental health deteriorated. Personal disputes escalated. All roads led to more violence.

What’s more, the uncertainty and fear surrounding COVID-19 led to an increase in gun purchases, putting more firearms out in communities where they could be misused — during the pandemic, newly purchased weapons have been used in crimes more quickly and often than before.

In one of the most infuriating examples, a Michigan couple has been charged after authorities said they bought their teenager a handgun for Christmas, then left it unlocked in a drawer. The teen used the handgun to kill four students at his school.

But there have been plenty more. Just in Maine in the last year, a 4-year-old in Temple died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, a 2-year-old in Bath injured his parents and himself with a loaded handgun left on a bedroom nightstand, and a 2-year-old in Waterville was shot by a sibling with a gun found in a closet at their home.

That’s not to mention all the other accidental shootings, fatal and otherwise, that have been reported in Maine in recent years.

After the Michigan school shooting, 15 U.S. senators and 99 House members — all Democrats — sent a letter to the Department of Education about the need to raise awareness of secure gun storage.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., has introduced Ethan’s Law, named after a teen who accidentally shot and killed himself with a neighbor’s unsecured gun.

The gun lobby, unsurprisingly, is opposed, just as it is opposed to other commonsense measures that would curtail gun violence, such as universal background checks. “We believe (safe gun storage) should be a personal decision based upon the specific needs of the firearm owner or household versus mandating one specific method for every gun owner in the state,” an NRA spokeswoman told The Washington Post.

But what if gun owners keep making the wrong “personal decision,” putting not only themselves but also their families and their communities at risk for violence?

How many kids have to die before we make responsibility an absolute requirement for gun ownership?

Reprinted from The Portland Press Herald.

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