A recent Sunday saw two young people grievously injured by loaded guns left unsecured. At 3 a.m. on the morning of September 20, a teen ended up in an Ohio emergency room with a gunshot wound in her leg. She and a friend had been playing with a loaded gun at a relative’s house; they weren’t sure who owned it. Later that day, an 11-year-old girl and her 13-year-old sister in Ogden, Utah, came upon a revolver in their grandparents’ bedroom. The gun was loaded, and the younger girl accidentally shot her sibling in the neck.
As traumatic as those incidents were, both girls were lucky to survive. Accidental shootings kill more than one person per day. In 2013, the last year for which Center for Disease Control statistics are available, there were 505 unintentional firearms deaths. The National Safety Council drilled down on the statistics and found that 400 of these unintentional shooting deaths occurred in homes.
Incidents like the shootings in Ohio and Utah are especially shocking because of how easily children and teens were able to get their hands on guns. A parent may be an upstanding citizen and easily pass a background check, but an unsecured firearm can easily fall into untrained hands. A RAND Corporation study showed that a plurality of gun-owning families with children stored their weapons with safety in mind, but nonetheless, 1.4 million households (with an estimated 2.6 million children) had firearms stored unlocked and either loaded or with ammunition nearby.
Safe gun storage devices — like trigger locks and safes — present one option for reducing these tragic accidents. They have a common sense appeal. After all, new parents put child-proof locks on everything from electrical outlets to cabinet doors. If you’re going to try to keep cleaning fluids out of the wrong hands, why not deadly weapons? Even the National Rifle Association agrees, saying in its safety guidelines that guns should be stored “so they are not accessible to unauthorized persons.” Much more controversial, though, are regulations that make failure to store guns safely a crime.
The laws on the books
There exists no federal firearm storage requirements, nor any law to establish consequences for gun owners who allow their unsecured weapons to fall into a child’s hands. However, the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act requires all importers, manufacturers, and federally licensed firearms dealers (FFLs) provide a gun safety device (usually a trigger lock) with every gun sold or transferred. The legislation does not apply to private transactions.
Eleven states have their own laws mandating storage requirements for firearms, ranging from in-house storage rules to the regulation of approved locking devices. In states like Connecticut and California, gun locks must accompany private sales. Massachusetts currently has the strictest storage laws — gun owners there risk punishment of 18 months in prison and fines up $7,500 if they don’t store their guns with a lock or in a safe.
A handful of municipalities have passed their own safe storage laws, including San Francisco, which has had one in place since 2007. The ordinance has survived a legal challenge, with the Supreme Court refusing to hear appeals from gun groups after lower courts found that modern gun locks and safes could be opened fast enough to allow for effective self-defense. Last month Los Angeles’ City Council adopted a nearly identical measure. New York City has long had such a law, and Albany passed one this month.
There are 27 states that penalize gun owners who allow their firearms to fall into the hands of a child, known as a “Child Access Prevention,” or CAP laws. While these laws do not require gun owners to stow their weapons in a particular way, they strongly encourage safe storage. Florida enacted the first CAP law in 1989, which established harsh penalties for offenders. The state legislature passed the bill after an astonishing five children were involved in accidental shootings in a single month, and three died. Gunmaker O.F. Mossberg & Sons started distributing gun locks free of charge with all its firearms that same year. Objections to the Florida law were raised immediately. State Representative Joe Johnson, a Democrat, told the Miami Herald he thought the law would primarily punish parents who had seen their children hurt or injured, saying “I’m not sure I agree with the premise of putting grieving parents in jail.”
The sponsor of the bill, Republican Harry Jennings of Sarasota, was more swayed by the testimony of William Berger, whose son was killed at a friend’s house by a hunting rifle stored under a bed. Testifying before the legislature, Berger said the friend’s father approached him after the accident: “[He] said the same thing that everyone says: ‘I didn’t know the gun was loaded.’”
The home invasion nightmare
Emotional appeals from lawmakers and grieving parents are certainly effective, but those who stay up at night worrying about criminals wearing ski masks believe they have more to fear from not having their gun available at a moment’s notice. The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2007 decision in the case District of Columbia vs. Heller, which endorsed the right to self defense with a firearm, not only struck down the capital’s ban on handguns within city limits, but also invalidated a D.C. law requiring guns be stored locked, unloaded, and disassembled. Many gun advocates believe safe storage devices negate the very purpose of owning a handgun for self defense: to be ready to use in dangerous situations like home invasions. As opposed to locks or safes, these gun owners might suggest storing firearms in a bedside rack or holster.
Ardent pro-gun author John Lott cautions against safe storage and CAP laws on the grounds that they result in an increase of crime in the home. Lott and a colleague wrote a paper to this effect, arguing that states with CAP laws saw increases in burglary, rape, and robbery without influencing the number of unintentional gun deaths. Even in some liberal cities, efforts to pass these ordinances have run into staunch opposition. A public meeting this summer in Poughkeepsie, New York, ended in a “shouting match” when local gun rights advocates showed up in large numbers to protest any possible law dealing with gun storage.
Safe as houses?
As with many areas of gun policy and gun violence, there’s limited research on the effectiveness of safe storage and CAP laws, but one 1997 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association indicates they have a clear benefit. The authors found that states with safe storage and CAP laws saw unintentional shooting deaths of children and teens younger than 15 fall 25 percent between 1990 and 1994. That same study suggested a relationship between these laws and a decrease in teen suicide.
Other researchers have found that information on non-fatal accidental shooting injuries is hard to come by. Staff at Public Health Law Research, a program sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, struggled to measure how effective CAP laws are at preventing unintentional gun injuries, death, or youth suicide. The program labeled the impact of the laws “uncertain,” citing “insufficient evidence.”
That said, the argument against safe storage seems particularly thin. The encyclopedia Guns in American Society rebuked Lott’s paper concluding that storage laws lead to increased crime in the home on the grounds that guns are almost never used against home invaders, and that most burglaries don’t involve contact between the criminal and the victim. The horrible fantasy of a violent home invasion may be little more than that — fantasy. Meanwhile, hundreds die every year in avoidable gun accidents.
[Photo: Getty Images]