By Aara Ramesh
It’s not uncommon these days, unfortunately, to see stories of children or toddlers coming upon an unsecured firearm at home and accidentally setting it off. Research from the Gun Violence Archive and the Associated Press found that gun violence has steadily been claiming the lives of, or injuring, an increasing number of American children and teenagers over the years, with that trend continuing strong thus far in 2021 as well.
For instance, in August, Shamaya Lynn, 21, was accidentally shot and killed in Florida by her toddler while she was on a Zoom call for work. The child had found the handgun, which belonged to the father, allegedly inside a children’s Paw Patrol backpack. The gun was both unsecured and loaded. The toddler accidentally set it off, hitting Lynn in the head. The father has been charged with manslaughter and failure to securely store a firearm.
Gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety says that since 2015 there have been nearly 2,300 unintentional shootings by children, resulting in nearly 850 deaths. The group estimates that so far in 2021 there have been at least 284 unintentional shooting incidents by children, with 116 deaths and 113 injuries. When they come across unsecured guns, children risk not just injuring or killing themselves, but also their siblings, friends, parents, or other adults in the vicinity.
In another incident earlier this year, a two-year-old in Maine shot his father and mother while they were asleep when he came across a handgun on their nightstand. Luckily, the injuries sustained were not fatal, though it could have been more tragic, the local sheriff said, pointing out that the child suffered facial contusions due to the kickback from the weapon and that a three-week-old baby was also present in the bedroom at the time. However, said Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry, “current law only allows for a misdemeanor offense to be charged.”
In addition, a majority of all gun deaths in the U.S. every year are suicides — much more than homicides or mass shootings. Research cited by Harvard Medical School found that 87% of all youth homicides can be tied to a firearm injury, with some estimates saying that 78 children, teenagers, and young adults are killed or injured by guns every day in the U.S.
Unsecured guns could be stolen and used later on in violent crimes by adults or children, and have also been frequently used in school shootings. Per one study, gun owners who do not store their guns safely are “at higher risk to have their guns stolen.”
Studies seem to indicate that having guns within homes, especially those that also have children, is dangerous. Roughly one-third of American homes that have children in them also have a gun. Astoundingly, three in four children (including those younger than ten years old) know where the gun in their home is kept, even if their parents think they don’t.
Further, it is estimated that 20% of American gun owners never lock up their firearms, with some studies pegging this number at nearly half (46%) of all gun owners. In states that require guns to be stored safely, there has been noted a 68% lower suicide rate, according to one 2015 study.
But are there laws that govern or mandate gun storage and what are they?
There is no comprehensive federal law that mandates guns be stored safely at home, nor are there any federal minimum standards for gun storage or safety devices. An executive order from 2013 asked the Consumer Product Safety Commission to “review the effectiveness of gun locks and gun safes, including existing voluntary industry standards, and take any steps that may be warranted to improve the standards,” but no concrete legislation has emerged from this.
The 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act makes it illegal for a gun manufacturer, dealer, or importer to sell or transfer a handgun unless the recipient is “provided with a secure gun storage or safety device.” It does not, however, mandate that the recipient use the security device. This provision does not apply to transfers or sales between federal firearms licensees or private sellers, nor for federal, state, or local law enforcement officers or agencies.
On a state level, the laws and requirements vary. The broad types of safe storage laws include firearms being kept locked up; dealer sales including locks; private sales including locks; and minimum standards for locks. Individual cities like San Francisco and New York City have their own rules for gun storage.
Massachusetts, Oregon, and the District of Columbia (D.C.) mandate all firearms must be stored with a locking device in place. New York, California, Colorado, and Connecticut only require this if the gun owner resides with someone who is not legally allowed to possess a firearm, like someone convicted of a felony or someone with a history of mental illness that would make them ineligible to buy a gun.
California, Oregon, and Massachusetts require — to varying degrees and under different circumstances — that locking devices accompany all firearms manufactured, sold, or transferred within the state. Colorado, New York, Michigan, and Ohio have similar laws to the federal one requiring that licensed dealers sell locking devices alongside all firearms they sell or transfer. New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, MAryland, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania require the same, but only for handguns, not all firearms.
When it comes to mandating minimum standards that all locking devices must adhere to, only California, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York have them in place and/or maintain a “roster” of devices that are approved.
In addition to the laws described above, many states have child access prevention (CAP) laws. These are mostly retroactive laws that make a person criminally or civilly liable if they fail to store guns safely away from children. One study by the RAND Corporation found CAP laws might help lower gun suicide and accidental shooting rates in the states that have them. Another estimated that, among children aged 14–17, CAP laws lowered overall suicide rates by around 8% and firearm suicide rates by 11%.
Currently, 27 states and D.C. have some form of CAP law. CAP laws vary in strength and penalties for violating them. In California, a personal is criminally liable if a minor is “likely to gain access to a negligently stored firearm,” regardless of whether the minor actually does access it. On the other end of the spectrum, in Georgia, a parent or guardian is just prohibited from directly giving a minor a firearm.
Though the most foolproof method of safety is to ensure that there is no gun in the house at all (especially if anyone in the house has a history of depression or other mental health issues), gun control advocates say, the next best option is to safely secure the gun.
Best practices dictate that guns should be secured with “a trigger or cable locking device,” experts say. Alternatively, they can be locked up in a cabinet or biometric safe only accessible to the owner. It is imperative that guns be stored unloaded and that ammunition be stored separately under lock and key.
In a future edition of this series we will explore CAP laws more and will look at tips on how to safely store guns.