At gun safety events, 40% of gun owners reported not locking all household guns — even around kids

While waiting for free firearm storage devices at gun safety events held in sporting goods stores across Washington, nearly 3,000 people filled out a one-page survey asking how they stored guns at home and other household information.

What the participants reported emphasizes the need for these public events, Seattle Children’s and University of Washington researchers say, because 40% of gun owners at the events reported having at least one firearm in their home that was not locked up. In addition, 39% of survey takers indicated they kept a loaded gun at home, and 14% stored all guns unlocked and loaded.

“Even in this population, which clearly had some interest in or awareness of firearm safety, there was a high prevalence of unlocked firearms,” said lead author Aisha King, who worked on the study while a graduate student at the UW’s School of Public Health and as an intern with Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center’s INSIGHTsummer research program.

Gun with locked storage devices

Firearm safety devices on display at a recent pubic firearm-safety event put on by Seattle Children’s.Kelsie Cleboski/Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center

Furthermore, results of surveys conducted at the events in 10 Washington cities between 2015 and 2018 determined that the presence of children in the home did not make a difference. The study is available online now and is part of the February 2020 edition of the journal Preventative Medicine.

The firearm safety events were put on by Seattle Children’s in partnership with UW Medicine’s Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center, public health agencies, local hospitals in each city, community organizations and Safe Kids coalitions.

In addition to taking a survey and receiving a free firearm lockbox or trigger lock, people at the public events received training on safe firearm storage and proper use of storage devices. The events were held in Monroe, Tacoma, Kirkland, Wenatchee, Seattle, Lacy, Mount Vernon, Moses Lake, Silverdale and Federal Way.

“The purpose of the events is to increase the use of safe firearm storage, an evidence-based strategy to reduce firearm related injuries and deaths,” said Elizabeth Bennett, co-author and director of community health and engagement at Seattle Children’s. “Our goal is to create a comfortable environment to learn about locking up firearms and to have the devices ready to use right away.”

Public gun safety events are an effective tool for improving the safety of kids living around firearms, a previous study found, and the events reach an key audience: male gun owners.

This is an important demographic to reach, King said, because men make up the majority of gun owners and typically take responsibility for how guns are stored in the home. When gun safety interventions are held in pediatrician offices or similar clinic settings, most parents or guardians who attend are female.

Importantly, nearly all of the roughly 3,000 who submitted surveys said they planned to use the free safety device within the following week. Storing firearms locked and unloaded, the researchers point out, is associated with a greater-than 70% reduction in risk of unintentional and self-inflicted firearm injuries among young people.

Holding a gun with trigger lock

A trigger lock is demonstrated at a recent firearm-safety event put on by Seattle Children’s.Kelsie Cleboski/Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center

King, who is currently a project coordinator at Columbia University, added that when it comes to firearm storage some adults might think that younger children don’t know where the guns are or don’t know how to access them, but that is not always the case.

“A lot of times, the kids do know,” King said. “Also, guardians might think that training adolescents or older children is enough to keep them safe, that training means they don’t have to lock their guns. Unfortunately, a lot of adolescents are at high risk of suicide, and unlocked guns add to that risk – regardless of training.”

Co-authors include Alison C. Roxby, Department of Global Health, UW schools of Medicine and Public Health; Ali Rowhani-Rahbar, the Bartley Dobb Professor for the Study and Prevention of Violence, Department of Epidemiology, UW School of Public Health; Joseph Simonetti, University of Colorado School of Medicine and Veterans Health Administration, Colorado; and Cassie Simeona and Lauren Staneck, Seattle Children’s.

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