Opinion: An often overlooked solution to prevent accidental gun deaths
Editor’s Note: Jamie Gold is a wellness design consultant and author of “Wellness by Design: A Room-by-Room Guide to Optimizing Your Home for Health, Fitness and Happiness.” The opinions expressed in this article are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Tuesday seeking to increase the number of background checks for gun purchasers. The measure does something else that doesn’t get nearly enough attention: It would promote the secure storage of firearms.
I’m a city girl whose family didn’t own guns but as a teenager, I got to see what secure gun storage looks like. I lived with my cousin’s family in Brooklyn during my senior year of high school. My uncle, a retired New York City police detective, enjoyed deer hunting upstate and would take his sons with him on many of those outings.
I remember seeing trophy photos in their house, but never the rifles. Those were secured out of sight and reach from young hands. Kids were only allowed to safely handle them while he was supervising. It’s the way many responsible parents teach their children to respect the power of firearms and protect their families from harm.
Many, but unfortunately, not all.
There were news reports this week of what has become a spate of incidents in which young children get their hands on unsecured firearms, with tragic consequences.
A 3-year-old girl fatally shot her 4-year-old sister in Houston, Texas over the weekend in an incident authorities called “tragic” but “very preventable.” Law enforcement officials said the child got hold of a loaded semi automatic pistol in the home.
And in January, a six-year-old Virginia boy allegedly shot a teacher with his mother’s handgun. While the state prohibits anyone from leaving a loaded gun in a place or manner to endanger a child younger than 14, or providing a firearm to a child younger than 12, it does not require that guns be locked away.
This meant that a schoolboy was able to swipe his parent’s firearm and smuggle it to school in his backpack, a teen could use it to commit suicide, a person with dementia or other mental illness could harm a loved one, or someone could just take your gun from your home and use it to commit other crimes.
Broadly speaking, gun owners are doing a better job of securing their weapons. According to a 2021 survey by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA Network), the percent of firearm owners with children who were more likely to safely store their weapons increased to 44.1% from 29% six years earlier.
But that still leaves more than half of gun-owning parents ignoring this vitally important safety measure. In 2020, (the most recent year in which data was available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), firearms were the number one cause of death for children ages 1-19 in the United States, claiming the lives of 4,357 children, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. This drives home the importance of safely securing one’s guns in the home, especially for parents and guardians of the estimated 30 million children who lived in households with these weapons as of April 2021, according to JAMA.
A growing number of states have secure storage laws to keep guns away from minors. And while Americans are deeply divided on guns, one policy with broad bipartisan support, (87%, according to Pew Research), is keeping them away from people with mental issues. Secure storage is one of the ways to do that in shared households with people of all ages and household members whose diagnoses suggest that they shouldn’t have access to firearms.
Secure storage is also one of the few measures that’s accepted by both sides of the gun debate – from the firearm industry’s trade organization to gun safety advocates to a broad swath of the healthcare community.
Research has shown that personal protection tops the list of reasons why gun owners say they keep a firearm. It’s certainly understandable that people want to protect themselves and their families. I know that feeling as a survivor of violent crime myself.
Women often feel more vulnerable – with some justification. (The first fact on Harvard’s School of Public Health page about firearms research blares, “Across states, more guns = more female violent deaths.”)
So having a firearm close at hand adds a measure of security and comfort when something goes bump in the night. If she shares her home with others, though, that weapon can become a safety risk to her or her housemates.
How do you balance safety and risk with firearms at home? And how does this fit into my professional focus as a wellness design consultant? The answer to both is that secure gun storage contributes to safer home environments.
Safety and security is a key facet of wellness design, the practice of creating spaces that support the well-being of their occupants.
Since I concentrate on spaces where people live, and four in 10 American adults say they live in a home where someone owns a gun, that becomes a wellness design concern. What can be done to make their living spaces safer, respecting both well-being and rights?
For the person who wants a firearm within reach while sleeping, there are gun safes designed to fit inside nightstands, and even nightstands with built-in gun safes. The latter is a better option, as it doesn’t allow someone to easily walk off with a small, portable lockbox.
You also want your safe to have either biometric access, so you’re not fumbling for a key in the dark and only your fingerprint can open it, or a keypad if you have no problem remembering obscure numbers, even when your adrenaline is pumping.
If you own a shotgun or rifle, or a collection of firearms, they’re not going to fit into a bedside safe. Then you have other secure storage options and considerations, including the best (and worst) locations in your home, access, weight (vis-à-vis floor joists), flooring type, fire and theft. Gun safes are not simple purchases, and some larger solutions benefit from professional insight and installation.
You’ll quickly realize that the elegant closet system you chose probably isn’t going to suffice to secure your firearms either. As one luxury designer shared in a message, “Secure? I can put a lock on anything, but it’s not a safe. We can build around and hide safes or secret hiding places where you need a code to get in. But with TFL, [thermally-fused laminate, formerly called melamine], if you put enough force, it can be broken.” That set-up might keep your kids or their friends out of your closet-housed gun storage, but not necessarily an angry ex or serious thief.
You need a firearms storage expert to help secure your weapons, especially if you own more than one. (Since there are about 120 guns for every 100 Americans, according to one survey, it’s not a small number of owners who are in need of larger safe storage.)
There are numerous online guides to choosing and buying gun safes. Many are published by the safe companies themselves, sources that aren’t owned or tied to a manufacturer or seller are going to be your best bet for unbiased advice.
The 79-year-old publication Gun Digest published a buying guide on its site. The Gun Safe Reviews Guy posted a four-minute Gun Safe FAQ on his site, along with extensive buying and installation guides. His self-described background as an engineer with residential construction experience comes through in his site’s advice.
The dealer who sold you your guns can possibly recommend a secure storage dealer. Or once you’ve chosen a make and model after reviewing the advice sites, the company’s website can likely refer a local professional to sell and install it – an improperly-installed safe may not work as it should.
Will secure gun storage prevent every gun injury or death? No, but it can help reduce the number of accidents, suicides and access to firearms by those who shouldn’t have them – including under your roof.