Growing up in Florida, my twin sister and I never knew there were guns kept in our home.
My father’s unloaded firearms — a .22 pistol and a 20-gauge shotgun — were stored in a locked cabinet in the garage behind an array of boxes, bikes, and golf clubs. He worked across the country in California, and he kept the key with him at all times.
By most standards, my father’s weapons were safely stored, but he was in the minority of gun owners: 54 percent of the approximately 77 million gun owners in the US do not practice safe gun storage, according to a 2018 Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health survey. And one-third of these households with dangerously stored guns are also home to children.
This is a fact that should alarm us. In 2020, firearms surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of death for American children, with 4,357 children killed by gunfire that year. While the majority of child deaths from guns are due to homicide, an average of 35 percent between 2018 and 2021 were suicides, while 5 percent were caused by unintentional, accidental shootings.
“I often reflect on the day that our children walked out the door and one of my children returned home and for the other, I was picking out a casket,” said Julvonnia McDowell, a volunteer with the gun safety movement Moms Demand Action, whose 14-year-old son, JaJuan McDowell, was unintentionally shot and killed in 2016 by another teen who was playing with an unsecured gun. “Every time I say this, my heart breaks because our children deserve to live. They shouldn’t have to die like this.”
Despite the horrific toll of firearm violence, America remains deeply divided on guns, and hopes for any kind of comprehensive gun control reform is dim. But the US could reduce gun violence — both youth suicides and unintentional shootings — by adopting stricter secure storage laws and educating gun owners about proper storage methods.
That’s why the national gun control advocacy organization Everytown for Gun Safety on Wednesday released a new report on preventing unintentional shootings by children, which was first shared with Vox. The group found that nine of the 10 states with the lowest number of unintentional shootings by adolescents have some form of secure storage protection. In contrast, the 10 states with the highest rates of unintentional shootings by children have very limited or no secure storage laws.
And while tougher laws and norms to better store guns would do nothing about the sheer number of firearms in America, storage safety offers a rare opportunity to find political consensus on guns. “Often people feel like nothing can happen in the gun debate, and while it’s true that the state of gun laws in the US remains weak, relative to our peers around the world, that doesn’t mean that change is impossible,” said Matthew Lacombe, the author of Firepower: How the NRA Turned Gun Owners Into a Political Force. “But as bleak as things seem, and as dire and scary as this problem is, we’re in a better position to keep putting in the work to make change happen.”
What does a safely stored gun look like?
While American gun owners and non-gun owners disagree about many gun restrictions, they actually find common ground when it comes to gun storage, a 2019 APM Research Lab survey on Americans’ views on gun policies found. Over half of gun owners and non-gun owners support speaking to their children about gun safety, keeping guns in a locked place, and taking gun safety courses.
That means most American adults support at least one pillar of what Johanna Thomas — a licensed certified social worker, gun owner, and volunteer with Moms Demand Action — calls the “gold standard of firearm storage”: keeping stored firearms unloaded and locked away, with ammunition kept separately and locked as well.
An unloaded weapon prevents someone from using the device if they do not know how to load it, while keeping ammunition separate prevents unauthorized users who do know how to load a gun from doing so. For a firearm to be locked, it needs to be stored in a locked cabinet or safe, or, at minimum, with a trigger lock that needs to be removed.
These three rules — unloaded, locked, and separate — have been shown by researchers to provide protection for children who live in the home where guns are stored. And while some gun owners may argue that locking a weapon could put them in peril if they need to use it quickly, evidence from Everytown’s report shows that an unsecured weapon does not make an individual safer or more capable of defending themselves.
“When I tell people I keep [my gun] in a safe, and I keep the ammunition stored separately, there are always questions about that,” says Thomas. “But I can tell them, I have access to my firearm in three seconds if I need it. Those three seconds also help me to decide, do I actually need my firearm?” That’s time enough, Thomas says, to give her the opportunity to determine whether a possible intruder is actually her child or spouse entering her home.
The state of American gun violence and the policies meant to prevent it
In the first four months of this year alone, guns killed more than 13,200 people — 470 of whom were teens (ages 12 to 17) and 81 of whom were children. Of these thousands of deaths, 234 are from the 173 mass shootings that have occurred in the US this year so far. These mass shootings, including the recent March Nashville school shooting — the 377th school shooting since the 1999 Columbine High School shooting — often make national headlines.
However, suicides are a significant and overlooked portion of American gun deaths and account for well over half of all annual gun deaths. An encouraging finding from a RAND Corporation report is that child access prevention laws — laws that require guns to be made inaccessible to children — reduce the rate of suicides among young people in states where they are implemented, simply by making it more difficult for a child or adolescent in mental distress to get access to a weapon that could instantly end their lives.
“Part of what I think makes gun storage laws or safe gun storage practices important is that the studies show that they can help reduce the risk of adolescent suicide, and that isn’t necessarily what we think of when we think of a gun violence problem in this country,” said Lacombe. “I think gun storage is an example of a policy that could make a real difference in terms of combating one of these underdiscussed but unfortunately really common types of gun misuse.”
Currently, 25 states and Washington, DC, require gun owners to take responsibility for the secure storage of their guns to some capacity. These laws range in intensity and level of protection, with the most comprehensive enacted in Massachusetts and Oregon, where gun owners are required to secure their guns when they are not in possession of the weapon. In Massachusetts, the penalty for not properly securing a gun ranges from a $2,500 fine to 15 years in prison depending on the type of gun.
Along with reducing suicides, these two states with the strongest policies have a 78 percent lower rate of unintentional shootings when compared to states without secure storage laws.
“Secure storage laws are some of the most evidence-proven gun safety laws that there are,” said Sarah Burd-Sharps, senior director of research for Everytown. “I think the hopeful news of this report is that nearly all of these shootings are preventable.”
Ending the stigma around asking about gun storage
When you send your children to someone else’s home, you often ask questions to keep them safe: Do you have pets? Do you have a pool, and if so, how is it secured? My child has an allergy, do you have peanuts in your house? “All of those things are routine,” says Burd-Sharps. “Asking about firearms and how they’re stored should be another routine safety precaution.”
“It’s a difficult conversation, but it’s one that we have to have,” said Thomas, a mom to a 13-year-old and 10-year-old who has this conversation every time she sends her children to a new home or in a new vehicle. In the few cases where Thomas felt a firearm was not stored properly, she found alternative solutions, such as driving her child herself or proposing an outdoor play date.
One way to make this conversation easier is to communicate via text and share information about your own home first, Thomas added. “Anytime my children are going to visit somebody else’s home or I have children coming to my home, I offer up that information,” she said. “A lot of times my conversation starts with, ‘We have three dogs in our home, we have a pool, it has an alarm, we have all of our liquor stored in a locked cabinet, medications are put in a safe, we have two firearms, they’re stored in our closet. Guns are in one safe, and ammunition is in another. Kids don’t have access.’”
Volunteering this information means parents often offer it in return without having to be asked, she said. Parents can also find more information on how to lead this conversation through Everytown’s gun storage campaign, Be SMART, Burd-Sharps added.
On top of checking in with other adults, parents should also be educating their children about the dangers of firearms and the need to find and notify an adult if they see an unsecured firearm. “I think that with children, you have to have that conversation about the dangers of guns,” said McDowell. But, she adds, “I always lead this back to it’s always the adults’ responsibility to prevent unauthorized access to guns and not a curious child’s responsibility to avoid guns.”
“We should talk to our kids about gun safety, but it’s a precaution, it is not a guarantee,” Thomas agreed. “The onus is on adults to keep children safe, always, at every point.”
Parents aren’t the only ones who should be leading these conversations. Everyone should be taking up the task. In fact, most gun owners believe law enforcement, hunting and outdoor organizations, active-duty military, and veterans would be good messengers for information on safe storage practices.
Health care professionals also play a critical role in promoting safe firearm storage, said Thomas Delaney, an associate professor of pediatrics who does suicide prevention work at the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.
“Particularly when there are children or youth in the home or people with identified risk for suicide, health care professionals have an opportunity to ask, ‘How are firearms in the home stored?’ and then provide guidance about how improving storage practices can increase the safety of everyone in the home,” said Delaney. “Health care providers in general have a lot of credibility and often trustful relationships with patients built up over many years, and their guidance can be a powerful tool for increasing safe storage and, downstream, helping prevent suicide deaths, homicide deaths, and theft or improper accessing of firearms.”
McDowell, who knows the devastation of these unintentional shootings firsthand, agrees that it is everyone’s job to educate and be concerned about this issue.
“I honor JaJuan by using my voice to talk to Americans all over the country, from all walks of life, about secure storage of firearms,” said McDowell. “For me, taking action isn’t a choice, it’s my new path, my new mission. But gun violence is an issue that we all need to worry about.”