Child’s death puts spotlight on gun safes

Boy’s father, a fired sheriff’s detective, questions reliability

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

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Concern over gun safety has received renewed attention in the aftermath of the accidental shooting of a former sheriff’s deputy’s 3-year-old son.

Clark County law enforcement agencies sent out memos last year to officers, instructing them to double-check their gun safes for a malfunction, following the Sept. 14, 2010, shooting of Ryan Owens. The 3-year-old opened his father’s gun safe and picked up a loaded Kel-Tec pistol and shot himself. Investigators said the department-issued safe was faulty and occasionally didn’t lock when it should have.

The shooting death has led to the question: How reliable are department-issued gun safes?

Detective Ed Owens, who was fired Tuesday, has told several media outlets this week that he didn’t know his safe was defective. But after his son’s death, he thought his Stack-On safe had been subject to a recall.

That’s not true, said Clark County sheriff’s Chief Criminal Deputy Mike Evans. After sending out an agency-wide memo last year, Evans said there was no evidence of widespread faulty safes. None of the dozens of deputies and custody officers reported having problems with their gun safes.

Evans and Vancouver police investigators also said that Owens’ safe wasn’t among a batch of safes manufactured by Stack-On that had been subject to a recall.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled 1,320 Stack-On safes in 2004.

“They were from a specific manufacture lot,” Evans said this week. “The safes we issued weren’t subject to the recall. “

Officials at Stack-On Products Co. could not say without a serial number whether the safe in question was recalled; they did

say, however, there hasn’t been a batch of Stack-On safes recalled in a long time.

Vancouver police Sgt. Scott Creager said the police department’s officers underwent a training session to ensure they knew how to lock the safes properly in wake of the Owens shooting, as did the Battle Ground Police Department.

Further, Battle Ground police Lt. Roy Butler said his department also inspected all officers’ safes, he said.

Both Vancouver and Battle Ground police said they thought none of their department safes were among those recalled. A Stack-On representative told the lead investigator on the Owens case that all the recalled safes had been returned and accounted for.

Malfunction dispute

Owens was fired Tuesday for a number of violations in the shooting death, most of them relating to his treatment of his 11-year-old stepdaughter. Owens and his wife blamed the girl for the death and allegedly coerced a false confession from her. Owens has denied the coercion allegation.

In hundreds of pages of police reports and internal affairs reports, there’s dispute over whether Owens knew his safe was malfunctioning. Internal affairs investigators said he did know the safe was faulty — he was overheard by a neighbor saying the safe had been open for three days — and that it was his responsibility to have it replaced. Owens said in reports that he didn’t know of any malfunction.

According to police reports, investigators inspected Owens’ gun safe and discovered a three-second locking delay. Also, if the handle is turned slightly to the right after locking it, the safe can be opened, police said.

“Sometimes the door knob can be turned to the unlocked position and the door can be pulled open, allowing unwanted entry into the safe,” Vancouver police Detective Lawrence Zapata wrote in police reports. “Other times, the safe is locked and unwanted entry can’t be made.”

Still, both Vancouver Police Department and Clark County sheriff’s officials say it’s the officer’s responsibility to ensure their equipment is working properly.

“The Clark County Sheriff’s Office provides safe storage devices to all employees who are issued department-owned firearms, with the requirement that employees are to maintain such safe storage devices in proper working condition, and that they shall immediately replace any malfunctioning or non-working safe storage device,” according to the internal affairs report on Owens.

Randall case

The Owens case has brought to mind the 2003 shooting death of Emilee Randall. The daughter of Sgt. Craig Randall, she was accidentally shot by her brother, Matthew, after he picked up their father’s loaded pistol from a bedroom dresser.

Sheriff Garry Lucas made it a policy for all his deputies to have department-issued safes for their service weapons following the death. The pistol that killed Ryan Owens was his father’s personal gun; still, officials said the same policy applies regarding firearms storage.

“Deputy Owens violated our firearms storage policy by not replacing the department-issued safe which he believed to be malfunctioning,” according to the internal affairs report.

Owens was in Olympia on Thursday and unavailable for comment. In an on-air interview with Fox 12 Oregon on Wednesday, however, Owens spoke pointedly about the gun safes. He denied any responsibility for the faulty safe.

“By these safes being out there, it’s like playing Russian Roulette. Sooner or later, another gun is going to go off,” he told Fox 12.

Laura McVicker: www.twitter.com/col_courts;www.facebook.com/reportermcvicker;laura.mcvicker@columbian.com; 360-735-4516.