America has become habituated to stories of teenagers too young to purchase a firearm who commit mass shootings with guns belonging to family members. Recent gun violence in Santa Fe, Tex., and Noblesville, Ind., are only the latest in a long line of attacks committed by teens with other people’s weapons.
One common suggestion after mass shootings is that the best way to prevent such incidents would be to lock guns and ammunition away when not in use, so the weapons stay out of the hands of the wrong people. This year, bills or ballot measures to require safe storage have been proposed in Delaware, Washington, Oregon, Missouri and Virginia. Even a figure as staunchly pro-gun as Texas’s Republican lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, called on gun-owning parents to lock up their weapons after the Santa Fe shooting. Newspaper editorial boards and opinion writers from gun-friendly locales such as St. Louis; Gainesville, Fla., and Racine, Wis., have endorsed the practice. A survey released this May by Johns Hopkins University found that almost 60 percent of gun owners support laws that require safe storage.
Yet what seems like a common-sense safeguard runs contrary to the dominant rationale for gun ownership, which is self-defense. And the National Rifle Association has fostered an ideology of perpetual vigilance against nightmare scenarios such as home invasions. The gun industry caters to buyers motivated by fear of other people: Handgun manufacturer Glock, for instance, has marketed its weapons with ads that depict break-ins and other confrontations with criminals.
When gun owners prepare first and foremost to quickly retaliate against hypothetical bad guys, there’s little room for more immediate considerations such as who might get hold of a gun the rest of the time. Which may be why a growing body of research shows that even though gun owners support the idea of requiring safe storage, most of them don’t actually use gun safes or take other precautions to keep all their weapons secure when not in use.
A February survey by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that 54 percent of gun owners say they do not keep guns locked in a safe, locked into a gun rack or stored with a trigger lock. Researchers at the University of Washington School of Public Health published a survey last month that found only 37 percent of gun owners in that state lock away guns. One analysis published in the Journal of Urban Health estimated that 4.6 million children live in homes with unsecured guns.
Gun owners do not appear to exercise greater caution even when they live with at-risk teens. A survey published in Pediatrics in February found that only 35 percent of gun-owning parents whose children displayed risk factors for self-harm, such as depression, stored all guns locked and unloaded.
“It’s the social norms that have to change,” said Deborah Azrael, a professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health who studies the habits of gun owners.
State laws on safe storage — there is no federal requirement — vary widely. According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 27 states, including Texas, have laws that may penalize gun owners for negligently allowing their weapons to fall into the hands of children. However, only one, Massachusetts, requires guns to be locked up when not in use. The rest impose liability on gun owners only under certain conditions. The Texas law, for example, applies only to children under 17 (exempting the shooter in the Santa Fe rampage) and requires prosecutors to prove that a weapon was loaded when a child got hold of it, which can be difficult to document.
Safe-storage laws do work. An analysis of scientific literature on gun laws by the RAND Corporation found child-access prevention statutes were the sole category of intervention whose effectiveness was backed up by significant empirical research. The RAND review found that such laws reduced both suicide and accidental shootings. In a 2002 survey, researchers found that in Massachusetts, which has the strictest firearm storage law, gun owners leave weapons loaded and unlocked at the lowest rate of any state in the country.
The risks of unsafe storage range from tragic to horrifying.
A 2016 investigation by USA Today and the Associated Press, relying on local news reports, counted 113 children and teens killed by unintentional firearm discharges in 2014, a total 10 percent higher than federal estimates for homicides during break-ins. The laws could help prevent suicide and school shootings, too: A 2017 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found approximately 500 minors take their own lives with guns each year. According to the U.S. Education Department, state authorities recorded 1,600 incidents of gun possession in schools during the 2015-2016 academic year.
Failure to secure firearms can also indirectly fuel crime. A survey published last year by public health researchers at Harvard and Northeastern found gun owners who don’t lock up their guns are more than twice as likely than those who do to have weapons stolen. Stolen weapons are then often trafficked on the black market, and, as my colleague Brian Freskos has reported, used in violent crimes.
Of course, there are the horrifying school shootings committed by teenagers who got hold of adults’ legally purchased guns, which stretch back decades: Before Santa Fe, there was Marshall County, Ky.; Newtown, Conn.; Chardon, Ohio; Marysville, Wash.; Red Lake, Minn.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Springfield, Ore.; Pearl, Miss.; Paducah, Ky.; Moses Lake, Wash., and Santee, Calif., to name a few.
Yet even as the country confronts these horrors, few new safe-storage laws have been enacted. According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, there hasn’t been a new state safe-storage law passed since 2013, when New York and California both tightened their statutes after the Newtown shooting.
The NRA opposes safe-storage legislation: Ensuring the easiest possible recourse to armed self-defense has become the organization’s driving purpose. The NRA contends that mandatory safe-storage laws are “a solution to a nonexistent problem.” It has effectively torpedoed recent bills, including a proposal in Tennessee after the killing of an 8-year-old girl by an 11-year-old boy who had used his father’s loaded, unlocked shotgun. If anything, the group argues, these requirements put gun owners at risk.
In a statement urging members to oppose the bill under consideration in Delaware, which uses nearly identical language to communiques issued in other states, the NRA argued that the “mandatory use of a locking device can greatly diminish reaction times under duress. Being forced to fumble with a lock and key in a self-defense situation could mean the difference between life and death.” The NRA’s logic would suggest that even voluntary use of a locking device would be unwise because it could diminish reaction times in home self-defense situations.
Statistics on defensive gun use are notoriously difficult to find, but the scenario sketched by the NRA — of gun owners left defenseless by safe-storage laws — is most likely very rare. FBI crime data suggest there are only about 100 homicides during burglaries of homes or businesses per year.
Nonetheless, the NRA’s line of reasoning has thoroughly shaped the worldview and habits of gun owners such as activist Ralph Myers. In an interview, Myers said he keeps a loaded handgun unlocked on his bedside table “in case of intruders.” Myers lives in Washington, one of the states considering whether to impose a new storage law. He opposed the legislation in defiant terms. “That’s a major infringement on our Second Amendment right to bear arms,” he said. If his state passes the storage law, he won’t comply. “I am not going to have my ability to defend myself if someone breaks into my home hampered or impaired by the fact that I can’t get quick access to my firearm.”
Myers acknowledge the risk presented by unsecured guns — “particularly if people just leave their firearms out where small children could get ahold of them” — but maintained that this danger must be weighed against the threat of crime. For him, the desire for self-defense takes precedence.
Gun owners like Myers fixate on an unquestionable right to self-defense against ever-present threats and say locking up guns could inhibit them in a crisis. Experts say this mind-set could have deadly unintended consequences, citing the Santa Fe shooting as an example.
The NRA and gun companies will caution gun owners to “secure weapons when not in use — but when is the gun in use? When you need protection. And that’s always,” says Azrael says. “It makes you wonder about the [dangers] of a campaign to convince people they are always deeply unsafe.”