Foster Parents Sue to Tote Guns & Tots

An Oklahoma couple is suing over restrictions that require them to practice gun safety in front of their foster children.

01.14.16 5:01 AM ET

An Oklahoma couple who love carrying guns without government interference, but who also love being foster parents to children whom the government is charged with protecting, have run into quite the quandary: Store their guns according to best safety practices or lose their foster kids.

So, they’re suing.

The lawsuit was filed last Thursday in federal court on behalf of Stephen and Krista Pursley by The Second Amendment Foundation (SAF), a pro-gun media and legal action group that claims over 650,000 members and supporters nationwide, including the two plaintiffs. In the complaint, the Pursleys argue that Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services (DHS) restrictions violate their Second Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights and ask for an injunction against the policy and attorney’s fees.

Sometime in 2014, according to the complaint, part of the foster care family assessment started including a “weapon safety agreement” requiring prospective parents to maintain weapons in locked storage while in the foster/adoptive home or when not in use; not be carried on the parent’s body while the child is present; and to be kept unloaded or disabled and stored in a locked container while in an automobile.

It’s not that Stephen and Krista Pursley—who say they have fostered 34 children, one of whom they’ve adopted—can’t own guns as foster parents (they can). Rather, it’s that DHS requires gun-toting foster parents to adhere to the four practices that the American Academy of Pediatrics says can best protect children and adolescents from accidents and self-harm: keeping guns locked and unloaded, and storing ammunition locked and in a separate location.

Stephen carries a firearm for protection “whenever possible,” according to the suit. As such, he says the provision barring him from openly carrying a loaded weapon in his car or being strapped while playing with his foster child is burdensome.

“The Pursleys would possess and carry loaded and functional firearms for self-defense and defense of family, but refrain from doing so because they fear their foster and adoptive children being taken away from them by the state, and/or being prohibited from being foster and/or adoptive parents in the future,” according to the complaint.

Noting the agency never took away foster parents’ rights to gun ownership, communications director Sheree Powell called the safety measures “reasonable” in order “to protect the children in DHS care, many of whom come from traumatic and tragic circumstances.”

Foster children are most often taken from their homes because of neglect and physical abuse, according to government survey statistics. Foster children often come from homes surrounded by violence and are more likely to have mental disorders and substance-use disorders (PDF). They’re also more than 2½ times more likely to think about suicide and four times as likely to commit suicide than their counterparts who aren’t removed from their homes.

“This mandate for foster parents is not just restrictive, it’s ridiculous,” the Second Amendment Foundation’s founder, Alan M. Gottlieb, said in a statement posted on the group’s website. “Why should a foster parent be stripped of his or her right to self-defense, or their ability to defend their foster child, simply to appease some bureaucrat’s anti-gun philosophy?

“We’re in a new era, when people not only must be concerned with violent crime, but also acts of urban terrorism,” Gottlieb said.

Notwithstanding the threat of terrorists descending on Moore, Oklahoma, we know that when guns are present in the home, the risks of homicide, suicide, and accidental shootings skyrocket.

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Since the start of the year, 13 days ago, 19 children under the age of 11 have been shot and injured or killed, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which tracks gun-related violence in the U.S. This includes: a 3-year-old who shot himself with the gun kept in his father’s North Carolina store for protection; a 9-year-old shot in the head by his little brother with a gun found in the car as his father pumped gas; and a 2-year-old who shot himself in the face with his grandfather’s gun, found in a toolbox. All accidents, and all avoidable.

State procedures on firearm ownership and usage for foster parents vary. A 2004 literature review (PDF) found most states had some sort of policy regarding safe storage and locking of firearms while foster children were present, though language varied.

A Nevada couple lobbied successfully last year to change the state’s rules that require guns and ammunition to be stored separately and locked up in foster homes. The Wilsons testified before the legislature that they wanted to start a foster family and were “heartbroken” when the DHS denied their application.

Assembly Bill 167 was approved in June 2015, and provides concealed-permit holders, including Brian and Valerie Wilson, with the ability to carry a loaded weapon in the presence of foster children.

Brian Wilson, whose Twitter feed consists mostly of gun-related news, told The Daily Beast they’re still waiting for the county to approve their foster application, but in the meantime, he said several gun-owning foster families have called him to thank him.

“We’ll get our chance too,” Wilson said. “It’s just going to take some time for the county to see the sky didn’t fall, and realize this was a good thing for everyone.”