Three-year-old Brayden Heath found his mother’s handgun in the living room of their home in Anchorage, Alaska. Brayden was playing with the gun when it discharged, shooting him in the head. He was taken to a local hospital and pronounced dead later that day.Judge sentences Morin to 18 months in jail for death of toddler in 2015. KTUU. February 2, 2017. https://bit.ly/2Xqf1lr.
There are an estimated 265 million civilian-owned firearms in the United States,Azrael D, Hepburn L, Hemenway D, Miller M. The stock and flow of US firearms: results from the 2015 national firearms survey. RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences. 2017;3(5):38-57. and more than one-third of homes contain at least one gun.Gun ownership reported in 34 percent of households. General Social Survey, 2018, Data Explorer. https://bit.ly/2BZhtky. Responsible gun owners can make our homes and communities safer by storing their firearms unloaded and locked, with ammunition kept in a separate place, to prevent access by children and other people who are at risk of harming themselves or others. Research shows that these storage practices can play a vital role in reducing the risk of gun violence, particularly among children, due to unintentional shootings and gun suicides.Monuteaux MC, Azrael D, Miller M. Association of increased safe household firearm storage with firearm suicide and unintentional death among US youths. JAMA Pediatrics. 2019;173(7):657-662.
The bottom line is this: Storing firearms unloaded, locked, and separate from ammunition prevents access and saves lives.
WHAT IS SECURE FIREARM STORAGE?
Experts agree: In order to prevent access, firearm storage practices should include three methods employed in combination—unloading the ammunition, locking the firearm, and storing the firearm and ammunition in separate locations.United States Government Accountability Office (GAO). Report to congressional requesters. Personal firearms: programs that promote safe storage and research on their effectiveness. September 2017. https://bit.ly/2Xk1yeG.
Unload: Gun owners should remove all ammunition from the firearm, including removing any chambered rounds
Lock: Unloaded firearms should be secured with a firearm locking device, such as a jacket lock, or in a locked location, like a safe or lock box. Locking devices, safes, and lock boxes are equipped with keys, combinations, or biometric technology that limit access. Remember: Firearm locks do not prevent gun theft.
Separate: Ammunition should be stored separately from the firearm in a secure location.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) concludes that the absence of guns from homes is the most reliable and effective measure to prevent suicide, homicide, and unintentional firearm-related injuries to children and adolescents. But if there are guns in the home, AAP notes that storing guns unloaded and locked, with ammunition kept in a separate place, can mitigate the risk of child firearm injury. Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention Executive Committee. Firearm-related injuries affecting the pediatric population. American Academy of Pediatrics. 2012;130(5):e1416-e1423.
Access to unsecured firearms contributes to gun violence among children and teens. Brayden’s tragic story is all too common. Every year, nearly 350 children under the age of 18 unintentionally shoot themselves or someone else.Everytown for Gun Safety. #NotAnAccident Index. 2019. Everytown tracks unintentional shootings by children that result in death or injury. Everytown researchers continually review media reports to identify shootings in which a person age 17 or under unintentionally fires a gun and harms themselves or someone else. For each identified incident, the researchers review available public records and, when necessary, follow up with local law enforcement to ascertain details about the incident, including location, type of firearm, and method of storage. Analysis includes incidents that occurred between 2015 and 2018. For more information on unintentional shootings by children, see: everytownresearch.org/notanaccident. That’s roughly one unintentional shooting per day, and nearly 77 percent of these incidents take place inside a home.Everytown for Gun Safety. #NotAnAccident Index. 2019. Analysis includes homes of the shooter, the victim, relatives’ homes, friends’ homes, and “other” homes. Another 637 children die by gun suicide each year,Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) Fatal Injury Reports. A yearly average was developed using five years of most recent available data: 2014 to 2018. Children defined as aged 0 to 17. most often using guns belonging to a family member.Johnson RM, Barber C, Azrael D, Clark DE, Hemenway D. Who are the owners of firearms used in adolescent suicides? Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior. 2010;40(6):609-611. Study defined children as under the age of 18. Over 80 percent of children who died by gun suicide used a gun belonging to a family member. Unsecured firearms also fuel gun violence outside the home. In incidents of gun violence on school grounds, up to 80 percent of shooters under the age of 18 obtained their guns from their own home, a relative’s home, or from friends.Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund. Keeping Our Schools Safe: A Plan for Preventing Mass Shootings and Ending All Gun Violence in American Schools. https://everytownresearch.org/school-safety-plan. February 2020.
We are all safer when guns are stored unloaded, locked, and separate from ammunition. One study found that households that locked both firearms and ammunition were associated with a 78 percent lower risk of self-inflicted firearm injuries and an 85 percent lower risk of unintentional firearm injuries among children, compared to those that locked neither.Grossman DC, Mueller BA, Riedy C, et al. Gun storage practices and risk of youth suicide and unintentional firearm injuries. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2005;293(6):707-714. Another study estimated that if half of households with children that contain at least one unlocked gun switched to locking all their guns, one-third of youth gun suicides and unintentional deaths could be prevented, saving an estimated 251 lives in a single year.Monuteaux MC, Azrael D, Miller M. Association of increased safe household firearm storage with firearm suicide and unintentional death among US youths. JAMA Pediatrics. 2019;173(7):657-662.
Despite the risks to safety, the majority of gun owners do not secure their firearms. While millions of responsible gun owners follow recommended storage practices, an estimated 54 percent do not lock all of their guns, let alone store them unloaded, locked, and separate from ammunition.Crifasi CK, Doucette ML, McGinty EE, Webster DW, Barry CL. Storage practices of US gun owners in 2016. American Journal of Public Health. 2018;108(4):532-537. Gun owners with children in the home are slightly more likely to lock all of their guns,Ibid. but an estimated 4.6 million American children live in households with at least one unlocked and loaded firearm.Azrael D, Cohen J, Salhi C, Miller M. Firearm storage in gun-owning households with children: results of a 2015 national survey. Journal of Urban Health. 2018;95(3):295-304. Study defined children as under the age of 18.
Contrary to popular belief, storage devices do not prevent owners from readily accessing their guns. There is a common myth that storage devices negate the self-defense purpose of owning a gun by putting time-consuming barriers between the gun owner and their means of defense.Lott JR, Whitley JE. Safe‐storage gun laws: accidental deaths, suicides, and crime. Journal of Law & Economics. 2001;44(S2):659-689. The reality is that there are many affordable options for firearm storage that provide owners with access to guns in a matter of seconds while still preventing access by children and people at increased risk of harming themselves or others.Hung E. 4 best bedside pistol gun safes for quick access. Pew Pew Tactical. January 23, 2019. https://bit.ly/2Rb2DiI. Further, it is possible that unsecured guns may actually increase the likelihood of crime and violence through an increased risk of gun theft.Everytown for Gun Safety. Stolen Guns Pose a Tremendous Risk to Public Safety. everytownresearch.org/stolen-guns. March 2019. Each year, an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 guns are stolen,For more information on stolen guns, see: everytownresearch.org/stolen-guns. The exact number of firearms stolen is difficult to determine because many stolen guns are not reported to law enforcement. Estimates included in this range are derived from the following sources: Langton L. Firearms stolen during household burglaries and other property crimes, 2005–2010. US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2012. https://bit.ly/2D9ujOd; US Department of Justice, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. 2012 Summary: Firearms reported lost and stolen. https://bit.ly/2D5qVnM; Cook PJ, Ludwig J. Guns in America: results of a comprehensive national survey on firearms ownership and use. Police Foundation. 1996. and many are funneled into the underground market, where once-legally-owned firearms can be transferred to people with dangerous histories.Everytown for Gun Safety. Stolen Guns Pose a Tremendous Risk to Public Safety. everytownresearch.org/stolen-guns. March 2019.
CURRENT POLICY AND PROGRAM LANDSCAPE
Various laws and public awareness programs are in place throughout the country to promote secure storage and provide incentives for gun owners to follow recommended storage practices.
Federal Policy: There is no federal law requiring secure storage by gun owners. Federal law requires gun dealers to provide a secure gun storage or gun safety device with the sale of every handgun.18 USC. § 922(z)(1); 18 USC. § 921(a)(34). A “secure gun storage or safety device” is defined as: (A) a device that, when installed on a firearm, is designed to prevent the firearm from being operated without first deactivating the device; (B) a device incorporated into the design of the firearm that is designed to prevent the operation of the firearm by anyone not having access to the device; or (C) a safe, gun safe, gun case, lock box, or other device that is designed to be or can be used to store a firearm and that is designed to be unlocked only by means of a key, a combination, or other similar means. However, the law does not require that gun owners actually use the device—or any other best practices—to secure their firearms.
State-Level Policies: State-level laws regarding firearm storage vary widely. The strongest state laws mandate that gun owners secure firearms when they are not in the owner’s possession. Other laws further encourage people to secure their firearms in order to keep them out of the hands of children or persons legally prohibited from having them.
Six states and the District of Columbia have laws mandating that owners secure their firearms. CA, DC, MA, MN, NV, NY, VA. In addition, several cities, including New York City and San Francisco, have local firearm storage ordinances requiring gun owners to secure their firearms when they are not in their possession.New York City Administrative Code 10-312; San Francisco Police Code 4512.
Fourteen states have passed another form of firearm storage laws, known as child access prevention (CAP) laws.CT, DE, FL, HI, IA, IL, MD, NC, NH, NJ, RI, TX, WA, WI. These laws vary by state but generally stipulate that if a minor accesses a firearm, the person who failed to adequately secure the firearm is liable. Four states have storage laws that are aimed at preventing access to firearms by persons legally prohibited from having guns.CA, CT, DE, NY (limited to situations when a person resides with a person legally prohibited from having guns).
States with CAP laws saw an 8 percent decrease in overall suicide rates, and an 11 percent decrease in firearm suicide rates, among adolescents aged 14 to 17.Webster DW, Vernick JS, Zeoli AM, Manganello JA. Association between youth-focused firearm laws and youth suicides. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2004;292(5):594–601.
Public Awareness and Community Actions: Across the country, lawmakers, community members, and local leaders are working together to promote public awareness campaigns—such as Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America’s Be SMART program—that encourage secure gun storage practices and highlight the public safety risks of unsecured guns and the role of guns in suicide.For more information on Be SMART, see: besmartforkids.org/.
The Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition and the Utah Shooting Sports Council recognized their shared interest in preventing firearm suicide in their state and joined together to raise awareness.Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition. Firearms Safety—Teen Suicide. https://bit.ly/2JEdBsl. To deliver their message directly to gun owners, they incorporated a public service announcement about guns and suicide into mandatory training sessions for concealed-carry permits.Barber C. Pushing on an open door: gun owners groups & suicide prevention. Harvard School of Public Health. 2017. https://bit.ly/2KjUQyE.
Additionally, in New Hampshire, a coalition of researchers, gun owners, and gun dealers worked together to increase awareness of firearm suicide at a unique intervention point: when the individual enters the gun shop. Known as the Gun Shop Project, this campaign provided educational materials, including posters, brochures, and cards, to all the gun shops in the state.Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Gun Shop Project. https://bit.ly/2c4QKah. The project has now been adopted in 11 states.Ibid.
Gun owners understand that with rights comes responsibility, and promoting secure firearm storage is integral to public safety. Lawmakers and community members should work together to encourage recommended firearm storage practices through a combination of requirements and incentives for gun owners.
Federal law should be expanded to include a firearm storage law. States—and where permissible, cities—should enact new firearm storage laws and strengthen existing ones. These laws are demonstrably effective at increasing secure firearm storage and decreasing gun deaths.
Community members and local leaders should encourage secure firearm storage through outreach to gun owners and general public awareness campaigns. Researchers, clinicians, and gun owners should work together to develop messaging and recommend storage options that are relevant to local values and context.Barber C, Azrael D, Berrigan J, Miller M, Sobelson M, Hemenway D. Suicide and firearm injury in Utah: linking data to save lives. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. October 2018. https://bit.ly/2HP2kG3.
Research suggests that clinicians can positively influence secure storage practices, especially when they provide free storage devices.RAND Corporation Gun Policy in America. Education campaigns and clinical interventions for promoting safe storage. March 2018. https://bit.ly/2KPD71h.