Among the measures being considered by Colorado Democrats for the 2020 legislative session is a so-called “safe storage” law requiring that firearms be locked in a safe when not in use. Like many gun control laws, “safe storage” requirements may sound reasonable at first blush, but in practice are unnecessary, counterproductive, and unconstitutional.
“Safe storage” laws are unnecessary because the firearms community has already accomplished the objective of reducing firearm accidents on its own volition—without burdensome government restrictions. Through safety programs like the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s Project ChildSafe and the NRA’s award-winning Eddie Eagle GunSafe initiative, the firearms community has successfully raised awareness of safe practices and dramatically reduced firearm accidents.
While the number of firearms in America has skyrocketed to an all-time high, the number of accidents has plummeted to an all-time low. Federal data show that the estimated number of civilian-owned firearms in America is 423,000,000. Yet, the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control show that only 486 deaths were caused by accidental discharges in 2017.
These 486 firearm deaths made up only 0.3 percent of all 169,936 accidental deaths. By comparison, there were 64,795 accidental fatal poisonings, 40,231 deaths from motor vehicle accidents, 36,338 deaths from accidental falls, 6,946 deaths from accidental hanging, strangulation, and suffocation, and 3,709 accidental drownings.
While the number of firearms per capita has increased 256 percent since 1948 (from 0.36 guns per person to 1.28), the fatal gun accident rate has decreased 90 percent in that same time (from 1.55 fatal accidents per 100,000 persons to 0.15). And since 1950 (when data first became available for children), the accidental fatality rate for children (ages 0 to 14) has dropped 91 percent (from 1.10 per 100,000 persons to 0.10). For every firearm used in an accidental fatality, roughly 870,370 firearms are not.
“Safe storage” laws are counterproductive—and misnamed—because they more often endanger than protect gun owners. During a home invasion, every second counts. For example, for an elderly homeowner who must get out of bed, find the light, find her glasses, find the key to her gun safe, open the safe, find the ammunition in the safe, and load her firearm—all while groggy and under the distress of having violent criminals lurking through her home—the additional steps of the storage requirement could be fatal. Especially in a home with no children present, why should a responsible adult have to accept that burden on her chances of survival?
In comparison to the 486 accidents (only a portion of which occur in the home), firearms are used for home defense over 950,000 times per year. “Safe storage” requirements necessarily make it more difficult to defend one’s home by making it more difficult to access a defensive firearm.
Moreover, many would-be home invasions never occur because the invaders are deterred by the possibility of an armed homeowner. Seventy-four percent of felons in a survey agreed that “burglars avoid houses when people are home [because] they fear being shot.” This is an important reason why victims are home in a relatively low 28 percent of burglaries in America. With a “safe storage” law, that deterrent effect is diminished.
A government mandate that all firearms be locked in a safe requires self-regulation by gun owners, as any discovery of a violation would be made only after misuse of the firearm. A more appropriate approach then would be to persuade gun owners that keeping firearms locked in a safe is the best practice. And if that argument cannot be made persuasively, then a mandate to that effect would be misguided anyway.
“Safe storage” laws are unconstitutional because they prohibit immediate self-defense in the home. In 2008, the Supreme Court struck down a law requiring that firearms be kept inoperable in the home, because it “makes it impossible for citizens to use them for the core lawful purpose of self-defense and is hence unconstitutional.” A “safe storage” law is another “prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense,” and is unconstitutional for the same reason.
Moreover, the Supreme Court has placed strict limitations on the government’s ability to regulate private conduct within the home. For example, the sanctity of the home prevents government from criminalizing the in-home possession of obscene materials (Stanley v. Georgia), homosexual conduct within the home (Lawrence v. Texas), and the use of contraception (Griswold v. Connecticut).
Indeed, the Supreme Court has acknowledged that the Constitution provides “protection against all governmental invasions of the sanctity of a man’s home and the privacies of life.” How Americans decide to store their arms inside their homes is therefore layers of constitutional protection beyond the reach of government.
Joseph Greenlee is an attorney in Steamboat Springs, Director of Research for the Firearms Policy Coalition, and a Policy Advisor for Legal Affairs at the Heartland Institute.