A study published this week in JAMA Pediatrics reinforces a sobering reality: that far too many minors are gaining access to firearms and either committing suicide or accidentally killing themselves — or others. Last year more than 4,500 children age 17 or younger were killed or wounded with guns. While suicide statistics for 2018 aren’t available, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported a sharp rise in recent youth suicides, about half of which historically have involved a gun.
But the new study also concluded that up to a third of accidental gun deaths and suicides among children could be avoided if the adults with whom they lived locked up their guns. “Results of this modeling study suggest that a relatively modest uptake of a straightforward safe storage recommendation — lock all household firearms — could result in meaningful reductions in firearm suicide and unintentional firearm fatalities among youth,” the study concluded. That’s a big “if.” An earlier study found that only 30% of self-identified gun owners who lived with children safely stored their guns. Even people who should know better fail at such a basic safety step. Last weekend, a 4-year-old boy in Toledo found one of his father’s unsecured guns and fatally shot himself in the face. The boy’s father is an Ohio state trooper.
Easy access to firearms is a significant part of our current state of our national carnage.
Frustratingly, only one state — Massachusetts — has a law requiring that all firearms be locked or safely stored when not in use, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. California, one of 10 states with more limited storage laws, requires firearms owners to keep guns locked up or safely stored if they know children will be present, and requires that trigger locks be sold with firearms unless the buyer provides proof that he owns a gun safe. Note that it doesn’t require the owner to actually use them. Los Angeles adheres to a tougher standard, requiring all guns in the home be secured unless they are within immediate reach of the owner. Nationwide, the vast majority of states leave the decision on whether to store firearms safely up to the gun owner. And as studies show, that’s dangerous. The Violence Policy Center has reported that states with the toughest gun laws also tend to have lower rates of gun ownership and lower rates of gun deaths. Easy access to firearms is a significant part of our current state of our national carnage.
Meaningful gun control laws have proved difficult to pass in most states, and all but impossible nationally. Even something as simple as a mandatory background check for anyone buying or receiving a gun as a gift has been stalled in Congress as the gun lobby argues that it would place an onerous burden on law-abiding people seeking to exercise their 2nd Amendment rights. That’s spurious. A background check helps ensure that people who are barred from owning a firearm cannot get one. Even most gun owners support such a measure.
The argument against safe-storage laws by gun advocates is that when the bad man breaks into the house, a trigger lock or a gun in a locked cabinet makes the weapon useless for self-defense. But that’s not the case. Vendors have designed trigger locks and gun safes that users can quickly access. Besides, unsecured guns are much more likely to be fired accidentally or used in a suicide than they are in self-defense. Also, unsecured firearms in the home are more likely to get stolen in a burglary. In fact, gun thefts from cars, homes and gun dealers are a main source of black-market gun sales. So failing to secure firearms increases chances of accidental deaths and suicides, including among children, and increases the chances a lawfully purchased firearm will find its way to violent criminals. The weight of evidence in favor of requiring owners to properly secure their firearms is overwhelming.
Of course, enforcement is an issue, and often law enforcement won’t know that a storage law has been violated until someone dies. But in adopting such laws society sends a message about what behavior we expect. As long as Americans insist on owning firearms, it is reasonable for the rest of us to insist that they do so safely.