Personal Firearm Storage in the United States

Recent Estimates, Patterns, and Effectiveness of Interventions

By Rajeev Ramchand

July 11, 2022

Summary: Multiple stakeholder groups recommend that firearms be stored locked and unloaded and that ammunition be stored separately. To date, most empirical evidence indicates that approximately half of American gun owners store their firearms locked, and one-third store all of their firearms locked and unloaded. The greatest influence of storage practices among those who do not store their firearms as recommended are their perceptions of risk and protection. There is some evidence that clinical interventions, such as lethal means counseling, communication campaigns, or trainings, are effective at changing gun owners' storage practices, but distributing storage devices might be most effective. Although there is evidence that child-access prevention laws that impose penalties on adults who enable children to have unsupervised access to firearms might reduce suicide, unintentional injuries, and violent crime, these laws' influence on gun owners' storage practices specifically might depend on the other firearm-related policies within individual states. Given the importance of preventing unauthorized individuals' access to firearms and the importance of current gun owners' storage practices, new approaches are needed and evaluations must be conducted to improve firearm storage practices in the United States.

Introduction

Public health and gun rights advocates agree that gun owners should store their firearms in a manner that prevents unauthorized individuals from accessing them. Such storage practices may help prevent unintentional firearm deaths and injuries among children (Parikh et al., 2017). In addition, there is a compelling theoretical argument for preventing suicide by reducing access to lethal means. Findings from many studies are consistent with those theories, and they are supported by broad consensus among public health organizations, such as the World Health Organization and the U.S. Surgeon General. In the case of firearms, reducing access to lethal means entails storing firearms locked and unloaded (Azrael and Miller, 2016).[1] For these reasons, public health campaigns and policies have been created and implemented to promote the safe storage of personally owned firearms.

This essay discusses what is meant by safe firearm storage and provides estimates of U.S. gun owners' storage practices from nationally and state-representative surveys. This is supplemented by research on select populations with data from 2010 or later.[2] This includes populations of interest because of current events and risk for harm, including those individuals who purchased a firearm during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, households with children in them, persons with mental health conditions or at risk for suicide, and military/veteran populations. After describing how Americans typically store their firearms and the rationale for storage practices, the essay reviews research on the effectiveness of interventions that seek to change firearm storage practices. These interventions are categorized as clinical interventions, community-based interventions, and public policies.

The information for this essay was collected from a targeted search of the literature that relied on searching PubMed for citations after 2010, existing meta-analyses or literature reviews that describe interventions to promote safe storage, and reviews or analyses that describe the effectiveness of these efforts, and was complemented with reference list searches of identified, relevant studies.

What Constitutes Safe Storage?

Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund (undated), the American Academy of Pediatrics (Schaechter, 2021), the National Shooting Sports Foundation (as part of its Project ChildSafe program) (NSSF, 2016), and the U.S. Concealed Carry Association (Alcazar, 2021) recommend that firearms be stored locked and unloaded, and stored separate from ammunition, which they recommend should also be stored locked. Project ChildSafe states in its brochure:

Unloaded firearms should be stored in a locked cabinet, safe, gun vault or storage case. Be sure to place a locked storage case in a location inaccessible to children.

Unloaded firearms can also be secured with a gun locking device that renders the firearm inoperable. A gun lock should be used as an additional safety precaution and not as a substitute for secure storage. If firearms are disassembled, parts should be securely stored in separate locations.

Always re-check firearms carefully and completely to be sure that they are "still" unloaded when you remove them from storage. Accidents could occur if a family member has loaned or borrowed a gun and then carelessly returned it to storage while it was still loaded (NSSF, 2020, p. 8).

This is also consistent with guidance from Hunter Ed, a group that provides hunter education safety information. Hunter Ed provides additional storage advice that guns be "hidden from view" (Hunter Ed, undated). Hunter Ed provides an image in their training signaling that firearms stored in cases with other firearms should each be individually locked as well.

Such items as gun cases, strongboxes and security cases, locking steel gun cabinets, and gun safes are available for storing one firearm or multiple firearms. Organizations, including the National Rifle Association (NRA), Hunter Ed, and NSSF, promote specific storage tools in public-facing materials. For example, on its website, the NRA describes a variety of storage options, including trigger locks in addition to those referenced previously (Horman, 2021). Project ChildSafe describes similar tools, but also provides options for firearm storage in cars and other storage accessories (e.g., wireless gun safe monitors and electronic holsters) (NSSF, undated-a).

How Do Americans Currently Store Their Firearms (and Why)?

National Estimates

Two recent national surveys of the American public present the most up-to-date data on American gun owners' storage practices. The two surveys differ in terms of how they measure firearm storage practices, so responses are not necessarily comparable, but their findings are consistent. Key estimates are provided in Table 1.

Table 1. How Americans Store Their Firearms: Results from Two National Surveys

Source Measured Storage Practice Estimates Among Adult Gun Owners (%)
2015 National Firearms Survey Store all guns unloaded and locked 25
Store at least one gun loaded and unlocked 30
Store at least one gun loaded and locked OR unloaded and unlocked 46
2016 survey Locked or Unlocked
Store all guns "in a locked gun safe, cabinet, or case; locked into a gun rack; or stored with a trigger lock or other lock" 46
Store all guns unlocked 24
Store some guns unlocked 21
Loaded, Unloaded, or Assembled
Store all firearms assembled but unloaded 44
Store all firearms loaded but unchambered 8
Store all firearms loaded and chambered 7
Store all firearms disassembled 4
Ammunition Storage
Store ammunition locked 71
Store ammunition unlocked but physically separate from guns 9
Store ammunition unlocked and in same location as guns 7

SOURCE: Berrigan et al., 2019; Crifasi et al., 2018a.

The earlier of these surveys, the National Firearms Survey (NFS), was fielded in 2015 (N = 3,949) using a probability-selected and representative sample of American households (Berrigan et al., 2019). The next survey was fielded one year later, in 2016, using a probability sample representative of individuals who owned at least one gun (N = 1,444) (Crifasi et al., 2018a). The NFS was readministered to a representative national sample of U.S. adults (N = 4,030) in 2019, but prevalence of storage practices figures from that sample are not available as of this writing in late 2021.

As shown in Table 1, the 2015 NFS indicates that 25 percent of gun owners stored all guns unloaded and locked, 30 percent stored at least one gun loaded and unlocked, and the remainder either stored at least one gun loaded and locked or unloaded and unlocked (Berrigan et al., 2019). The 2016 survey found that 46 percent of gun owners stored all household guns locked, of whom 22 percent stored them in a gun safe or cabinet, 13 percent in a gun rack, 6 percent in a locked gun case, and 5 percent in another locked location. Among those who stored their guns in an unlocked location in their home, 24 percent stored all guns with a trigger lock or other lock. With respect to whether the firearm was stored loaded, almost half of gun owners (44 percent) kept their firearms assembled but unloaded, 8 percent kept all firearms loaded but unchambered, 7 percent kept all guns loaded and chambered, and 4 percent kept all firearms disassembled (Crifasi et al., 2018a).

The 2016 study also asked questions specifically about ammunition storage. Seventy-one percent of gun owners kept their ammunition locked in a gun safe or somewhere else; 9 percent kept their ammunition unlocked but physically separate from their gun(s), and 7 percent kept their ammunition unlocked and in the same location with their gun(s) (Crifasi et al., 2018a).

State-Level Estimates

Questions about firearm storage were also asked in the Washington State Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) survey, a random-digit dial survey of adults in Washington state, between 2013 and 2016 (N = 34,884). Survey results were weighted to generate results generalizable to the state population. Just more than one-third of adults surveyed lived in a firearm-owning household; of these, 37 percent kept all firearms locked and unloaded. Of the remaining gun owners, 44 percent kept at least one firearm either unlocked and unloaded or locked and loaded, and 19 percent reported having at least one unlocked and loaded gun (Morgan, Gomez, and Rowhani-Rahbar, 2018).

Influences and Correlates of Safe Firearm Storage

The 2015 and 2016 firearm surveys and some more-recent surveys have been used to understand characteristics of gun owners that influence their storage practices. Generally, these studies have examined direct influences (i.e., gun owners state directly their reasons for storing their guns the way that they do), sociodemographic characteristics of gun owners (e.g., sex/gender, veteran status), characteristics of households in which guns are present (e.g., whether there is a child under 18 in the household), geography (e.g., region of the country, urban/rural residence), and firearm-related characteristics (e.g., whether the gun owner received firearm training, the number of guns that the gun owner possesses).

When examining these factors, researchers often use regression models, which can be unadjusted or adjusted. Adjustment accounts for differences that might explain the relationship between a factor and gun storage. Factors that remain associated with firearm storage practices in adjusted regression models are considered "robust" and cannot be explained fully by differences explained through the other items in the model. These issues are important to consider when reviewing the evidence from studies that use regression models to examine factors that influence gun storage.

In some, but not all, studies, researchers use a three-category outcome for measuring firearm storage practices. These are the same categories used in the 2015 NFS and in the study based in Washington state: (1) storing all firearms locked and unloaded, (2) storing at least one firearm either unlocked and unloaded or locked and loaded, and (3) storing at least one firearm unlocked and loaded (Morgan, Gomez, and Rowhani-Rahbar, 2018).[3]

Direct Influences on Gun Storage

In the 2015 NFS, 64 percent of those surveyed reported that they owned at least one firearm for protection, and in adjusted regression models, these individuals were less likely to have all of their guns stored locked and unloaded (Berrigan et al., 2019).[4] In the 2016 survey, gun owners were asked: "Which of the following has influenced the way(s) you store your guns at home?" The top five most important factors were

  • concerns about home defense (endorsed by 43 percent and rated most important by 30 percent)
  • gun safety training course (35 percent/18 percent)
  • family discussions (30 percent/15 percent)
  • training from a family member (27 percent/12 percent)
  • training at a firing range (19 percent/9 percent).

In adjusted regression models, those who indicated that their storage practices were influenced by a gun safety training course or family discussions were more likely to report that they stored all of their guns locked, whereas those whose storage practices were influenced by concerns about home defense were less likely to store all of their firearms locked (Crifasi et al., 2018a).[5]

In addition to stated influences, two studies have examined how individual perceptions of firearm risk can influence firearm storage behaviors. Using data from the 2015 NFS, one study found that 58 percent of gun owners thought that guns made homes safer, 3 percent thought they made the home more dangerous, and 40 percent said "it depends." There were differences between the groups in terms of how they stored their guns, as shown in Table 2, with nearly opposite proportions storing all guns unloaded and locked versus at least one gun loaded and unlocked (Mauri et al., 2019).

Table 2. U.S. Gun Owners' Perceptions of Home Safety and Associated Firearm Storage Practices

Perception of Home Safety with Gun Storage Practices
Unloaded and Locked Loaded and Unlocked
Safer 18% (all guns) 39% (at least one gun)
It depends 33% (all guns) 18% (at least one gun)

SOURCE: Mauri et al., 2019.

In 2019, a new version of the NFS was administered to a representative national sample of U.S. adults (N = 4,030). Using four risk perception statements,[6] the authors created groupings of respondents among the subsample of 2,950 who personally owned firearms: Those who believe that guns are safe (47 percent of gun owners), those who believe guns can be safe and useful (34 percent), and those who think that "safe is responsible" (19 percent). Those who belong to the "guns are safe" or "guns can be safe" groups were much more likely to store at least one gun loaded and unlocked in adjusted models.⁠[7] In the 2019 NFS, owning a handgun for protection was also associated with storing at least one gun loaded and unlocked (Salhi, Azrael, and Miller, 2020).

Demographic and Household Factors

In regression models in the 2015 NFS (Berrigan et al., 2019), 2019 NFS (Salhi, Azrael, and Miller, 2020), and 2016 survey (Crifasi et al., 2018a), the following demographic and household factors were associated with firearm storage practices:

  • Households with at least one child under the age of 18 in the home were more likely to store all household firearms "safely" (as operationalized by the study authors; storage in households with children is discussed in more detail later in this essay).
  • Gun owners with a bachelor's degree or higher and gun owners who earned $60,000 or more were more likely to store all firearms locked and unloaded in the 2015 NFS (Berrigan et al., 2019); in the 2016 survey, gun owners with a bachelor's degree or higher also were more likely to store firearms locked, but this difference was attenuated and no longer significant when controlling for other factors (Crifasi et al., 2018a).
  • Those who identified as politically conservative were less likely to store firearms locked and unloaded, but these differences were attenuated in fully adjusted models in the 2015 NFS (Berrigan et al., 2019).
  • Veterans were less likely to store all of their firearms locked (discussed in more detail later in this essay) in the 2016 survey, but this difference was attenuated and no longer significant when controlling for other factors (Crifasi et al., 2018a).
  • Gun owners over the age of 60 were less likely to store firearms locked in the 2016 survey of firearm owners, but this difference was attenuated and no longer significant when controlling for other factors (Crifasi et al., 2018a).

The 2015 NFS divided all respondents into four geographic regions within the United States (Northeast, Midwest, South, and West) and found that gun owners in the Northeast were more likely to store all firearms locked and unloaded relative to gun owners in all three other regions (Berrigan et al., 2019), but this finding was significant only after covariate adjustment. The 2016 survey used nine geographic regions and found that those who lived in the East–South Central region of the United States (Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee) were less likely to store all of their guns locked compared with those who lived in New England (Crifasi et al., 2018a). Similar to the 2015 NFS, in the 2016 study, the observed geographic difference emerged only after adjustment for other covariates. In the 2019 study, gun owners who lived in the South were more likely to store at least one firearm loaded and unlocked after adjustment (Salhi, Azrael, and Miller, 2020).

These studies also examined differences by regional rurality. In the 2015 NFS, rurality (urban, suburban, rural) was not associated with storing any firearm loaded and unlocked (Berrigan et al., 2019), but in the 2019 NFS, gun owners living in metropolitan areas (versus nonmetropolitan areas) were less likely to store a firearm loaded and unlocked regardless of the region of the country in which they lived (Salhi, Azrael, and Miller, 2020).

Firearm-Related Characteristics

In both the 2015 NFS and 2016 studies, firearm-related characteristics consistently were associated with storage practices after adjustment. In both surveys, households with multiple guns were less likely to have them all stored securely as defined by the study authors (locked and unloaded for the 2015 NFS and locked for the 2016 survey) (Berrigan et al., 2019; Crifasi et al., 2018a). Surprisingly, in the 2015 and 2019 NFS studies, those who owned handguns (though not necessarily exclusively) were more likely to keep them stored loaded and unlocked (Berrigan et al., 2019; Salhi, Azrael, and Miller, 2020), whereas in the 2016 study, those who owned only handguns were more likely to store them locked (Crifasi et al., 2018a). In the 2015 NFS study, 21 percent of gun owners reported carrying a handgun in the past 30 days; these individuals were also less likely to have all of their guns stored locked and unloaded (Berrigan et al., 2019). The 2015 and 2019 NFS surveys asked about firearm training, and although it was associated with storage practices in unadjusted models, its estimate was attenuated and no longer significant after adjustment (Berrigan et al., 2019; Salhi, Azrael, and Miller, 2020).

Other Estimates of Storage Practices

COVID-19 Pandemic–Era Firearm Purchasers

There is some evidence to indicate that there were as many as 4.3 million excess firearms purchased from March to July 2020 (Schleimer et al., 2021). In a convenience sample (N = 1,105) drawn from Amazon's Mechanical Turk, which recruited individuals who did and did not buy a firearm between January and May 2020, 57 percent of those with at least one firearm kept all of their firearms locked (Lyons et al., 2021). However, this varied based on whether the individual procured their own firearm but already was living in a household with firearms, whether the individual bought a new firearm but was an existing firearm owner, and whether they purchased a firearm in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the low end of the range, 48 percent of prior firearm owners who purchased a new firearm during the COVID-19 pandemic kept all of their firearms locked; at the high end, 64 percent of new purchasers who were not prior owners but lived in a household with firearms stored all of their firearms locked (Lyons et al., 2021).

Households with Children

As described earlier, in all three recent national surveys, living in a household with a child under the age of 18 was associated with more-secure firearm storage practices (as operationalized by the authors) and was one of the only factors significantly associated with storage practices in fully adjusted models (Berrigan et al., 2019; Crifasi et al., 2018a; Salhi, Azrael, and Miller, 2020). Researchers have looked more closely at this population to better understand storage practices in households with children. In analyses of the 2015 NFS, among households with firearms and children, 29 percent stored all guns unloaded and locked, 50 percent stored at least one gun either loaded and locked or unloaded and unlocked, and 21 percent stored at least one gun loaded and unlocked. In adjusted models,[8] individuals reporting that they own guns for protection or own at least one handgun and females were more likely to store at least one firearm loaded and unlocked (Azrael et al., 2018). Using these data multiplied with national household data from the 2015 U.S. Census, the authors estimated that 13 million households with children (34 percent) have at least one gun, and that a firearm is kept loaded and unlocked in 2.7 million of these homes. The authors further estimated that approximately 4.6 million children under 18 live in a household with a loaded and unlocked gun.

Firearm storage practices relate to whether youth in homes with a firearm can access that firearm. In households where all firearms were locked, 24 percent of youth said they could access the firearm in under five minutes, whereas in households with at least one unlocked firearm, 45 percent of children could access a firearm in under five minutes. In homes with at least one unlocked and loaded firearm, 60 percent of children 13 to 17 years of age reported being able to access a firearm in less than five minutes relative to 28 percent of adolescents in homes where none of the unlocked guns were stored loaded (Salhi, Azrael, and Miller, 2021).[9]

Persons with Mental Illness

Because mental health conditions increase suicide risk (Ahmedani et al., 2014), researchers have examined firearm storage practices among those with mental health conditions. Using representative data from the BRFSS survey from eight states collected in 2016 and 2017, researchers found no differences in storage practices among those with or without mental health conditions, measured as either a past diagnosis of depression or frequent mental distress (i.e., being in poor health for more than 13 days in the past month), after model adjustment (Horn et al., 2021).[10] In a separate study using only the Washington state BRFSS survey, there was evidence that gun owners who reported binge drinking, chronic alcohol use, and being in poor health for more than 13 days in the past month were more likely to store at least one firearm unlocked and loaded (Morgan, Gomez, and Rowhani-Rahbar, 2018);[11] this finding was replicated in another study that used the same data (Morgan et al., 2019a). In a study using the Washington state BRFSS survey but restricted to residents 65 and older, 39 percent reported having a firearm in the home, of whom 24 percent reported at least one gun that was stored unlocked and loaded (33 percent stored all firearms locked and unloaded). Storage practices did not vary by depression, frequent mental distress, or recent memory loss in the previous year (Morgan et al., 2019b).

A handful of studies have examined the influence of mental health on firearm storage practices among military personnel and veterans. Among 1,652 active-duty military personnel who received primary care in select settings between 2015 and 2018, just more than one-third reported owning a firearm, of whom 32 percent kept all of their firearms unloaded and locked, 10 percent kept at least one unloaded but not locked, 15 percent kept at least one gun locked and loaded, and 21 percent kept at least one firearm loaded and unlocked. (Twenty-one percent refused to answer.) Those who had ever thought about taking their own lives and those with recent thoughts of death or self-harm were less likely to keep their firearms unloaded and locked, again after adjustment (Bryan et al., 2019).[12] According to data from the 2015 NFS, veterans did not differ in firearm storage practices based on whether they reported chronic pain or a mental health diagnosis (Simonetti, Azrael, and Miller, 2019). In a survey of 327 National Guardsmen who attended a training, higher levels of hyperarousal (one of the four posttraumatic stress disorder symptom clusters) were associated with storing personal firearms unlocked and loaded (independently and jointly), even when accounting for the other three symptom clusters (i.e., intrusion, avoidance, and numbing) (Stanley and Anestis, 2021).

Data from the 2015 NFS also reveal that the presence of a child with a mental health condition in the household does not affect firearm storage practices. Specifically, there was no statistically significant difference in storage practices among those living in a household with a child with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, depression, or other mental health conditions (32 percent stored all firearms locked and unloaded) relative to those who lived in a house with children who did not have these mental health conditions (35 percent of those stored all firearms locked and unloaded) (Scott, Azrael, and Miller, 2018).

Other Populations

Storage practices among other populations have been studied recently. In the 2015 NFS, 45 percent of veterans owned a firearm, 33 percent of whom stored at least one firearm loaded and unlocked; 23 percent stored all of their firearms unloaded and locked (Berrigan et al., 2019; Simonetti, Azrael, et al., 2018). Data from representative surveys in California and Texas revealed no difference in firearm storage between lesbian, gay, or bisexual gun owners and heterosexual gun owners (Blosnich et al., 2020). In a convenience sample of 13- to 18-year-olds based in rural Iowa, 67 percent of those in homes with rifles or shotguns and 63 percent of those in homes with handguns reported that the firearms in their homes were, at least sometimes, stored loaded and/or unlocked; males, older adolescents, and those who lived on farms were more likely to report this storage practice (Jennissen et al., 2021).

Among 194 16- to 29-year-olds who presented at an emergency department in Flint, Michigan and reported owning or carrying a firearm with them (including in their car) in the prior three months, 18 percent kept at least one firearm unlocked. Those who reported having a firearm for protection were more likely to keep it unlocked, although there was an interaction by parental status, whereby respondents who were parents motivated to have a firearm for protection were not more likely to store them unlocked, relative to other parents (Sokol et al., 2021). Finally, among participants at firearm safety events in Washington state who were given a free safety device, 60 percent reported that, as of the time of the survey, all of their firearms were kept locked; 61 percent reported that all of their guns were stored unloaded; and 49 percent reported storing their ammunition locked; the presence of children in the home was not associated with having an unlocked firearm in the home after adjustment for age and gender (King et al., 2019).

Qualitative Research

This review has described quantitative studies to provide estimates of firearm storage practices in the United States. There are qualitative studies, which also provide pertinent information about storage practices, that were not extensively reviewed. For example, the 2016 survey was informed by focus groups with gun owners (Crifasi et al., 2018a). Another example contained data from a series of eight focus groups with 57 gun-owning parents in Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Many parents reported the need for an easily accessible loaded pistol for "quick use," with one participant stating that, "[M]y son needs access to our pistol in case he is home alone and there is an emergency. . . ." Others recognized that

having it (the gun) out is dangerous because you might not know what's going on with your kid, they can just kill themselves and that would be on you. But then if you didn't have it out, that'll also be on you if something's happened in the house. It's kind of a hard decision (Aitken et al., 2020).

Efforts to Promote Safe Storage

There are a variety of interventions to encourage gun owners to safely store their firearms, and there is varying evidence as regards these interventions' effectiveness. This essay reviews these interventions, and the evidence supporting their effectiveness, in this section. The evidence here is drawn primarily from existing literature reviews and synthesis with updated information if available. Interventions are assigned to one of three categories:

  • Clinical interventions include interventions that are designed to promote firearm storage practices that are delivered in clinical settings. These can be universal interventions for an entire clinical population (e.g., all parents in a pediatric setting) or individuals at high risk (e.g., emergency department patients deemed at high risk for suicide). Interventions include lethal means counseling (i.e., assessing whether an individual has access to a firearm and counseling that person and/or their family on strategies for limiting access) and safety planning (i.e., working with the client to identify strategies to cope with suicidal thoughts and reduce risk for suicide, including reducing access to such lethal means as firearms) and can be delivered in emergency departments, pediatric practices, primary care, or other clinical settings.
  • Community-level interventions are those delivered locally through communities in nonclinical settings (e.g., nonclinical military settings). There are a variety of community-level interventions that include lethal means counseling in nonclinical settings, partnerships with gun retailers, communication campaigns, distribution of storage devices, firearm safety training and demonstrations, and safe storage maps. These often are implemented in conjunction with one another.
  • Policy-level interventions that encourage the safe storage of firearms include child-access prevention laws and laws that require firearms to be safely stored or sold with storage devices.

A 2017 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) produced a similarly scoped review (Crosse, 2017). Noting the lack of evaluative data, the GAO identified 12 studies that evaluated the distribution of firearm storage devices (reviewed under Community-Based Interventions in this essay) and physician consultation (reviewed under Clinical Interventions). The GAO found promising results on lock distribution programs but mixed results on physician consultation. This essay examines a larger variety of studies than did the GAO but generally reaches similar conclusions with respect to these two intervention typologies.

Clinical Interventions

Lethal Means Counseling

A 2016 systematic review identified 13 patient-level intervention studies that were published between 1990 and 2014; these studies reviewed programs that sought to reduce firearm-related risk or improve firearm storage practices (two were focused on adolescent weapon carriage and are not reviewed here) (Roszko et al., 2016). Of the remaining 11 studies, the highest-quality study showed that a structured intervention based in motivational interviewing that was delivered by practitioners to parents in pediatric settings and tested in a randomized controlled trial (RCT) increased parents' usage of firearm storage with a cable lock (Barkin et al., 2008). In the three other RCTs—two of which were delivered to parents in pediatric settings and one of which was delivered to parent and adolescent pairs—no change in firearm storage was observed.[13] Of the remaining seven quasi-experimental or prospective cohort studies, five found changes in firearm storage practices, including one universal intervention that was delivered to parents in pediatric settings, two that were delivered to parents of youth with mental health conditions, one universal intervention to adult patients in a family medicine practice, and one that was delivered to adult patients with mental health conditions themselves. Two quasi-experimental studies found no effect. A limitation of many of these studies was the reliance on self-reported outcomes and the potential for social desirability bias among participants (i.e., reporting on safe storage if respondents perceive this to be the more desirable response).

At least three additional RCTs have tested clinical interventions for safe firearm storage since 2015, after data collection ended for the Roszko et al. (2016) review. In one, caregivers for 11- to 17-year-old patients who presented to emergency departments were counseled on safe storage of firearms and medications: This intervention showed robust changes in medication storage but not firearm storage (Miller et al., 2020). The other two were interventions based in emergency departments for adults who themselves were at risk (versus parents or caregivers of youth). In an emergency department pilot RCT, a web-based intervention did not yield statistically significant differences in firearm storage practices (Betz, Knoepke, et al., 2020). Finally, one RCT provided case-management services for six months to patients who presented to the emergency department with gunshot wounds, but this study found no changes in "firearm exposure," which was a combined measure that included changes in firearm ownership, carrying, and storage (Lyons et al., 2019). Thus, across seven RCTs of lethal means counseling that have been conducted since 1990, the strongest evidence suggests that lethal means counseling has been effective primarily among parents of youth.

There is suggestive evidence that lethal means counseling offered in conjunction with the provision of a free safe storage device might be more effective at changing storage practices than counseling alone, based on the results of two RCTs included in a 2016 review (Rowhani-Rahbar, Simonetti, and Rivara, 2016). A more recent study that evaluated a pamphlet distributed to parents after pediatric surgery discharge found that approximately 20 percent of all parents were interested in storing their firearms safely after receiving the pamphlet and 10 percent (five out of 49) were interested in receiving a free safety device (Hoops et al., 2021). Later in this essay, there will be discussion of community-level interventions that involve the distribution of safe storage devices.

A training, Counseling on Access to Lethal Means (CALM), is designed for mental health professionals and freely available via the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (2018). RCTs that examine the usefulness of the CALM training are not readily available. There is evidence that mental health care providers' attitudes (e.g., confidence in discussing means restriction) and behaviors (e.g., counseling on access to lethal means) change after the providers receive the training (Johnson et al., 2011; Sale et al., 2018). In emergency department settings that have implemented the CALM training, safe firearm storage behaviors increased among parents whose children received care for suicidality (Runyan et al., 2016). On the other hand, in a study of adults with suicide-related visits to the emergency department, although patients reported changes in their plans to store lethal means more safely immediately after counseling, there was less evidence that their storage behaviors changed in the 48 to 72 hours following discharge from the hospital (Mueller, Naganathan, and Griffey, 2020).[14] Other trainings are also available for clinicians, including BulletPoints (2020), which is offered by the American Medical Association (American Medical Association, undated), and a recent article that was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine (Pallin et al., 2019).

Use and Acceptability of Clinical Interventions

The review by Roszko et al. (2016) also described studies that assessed health care providers' perspectives about counseling on firearm safety and storage during clinical visits. According to the review,

[M]ultiple studies reported a large disparity between the percentage of clinicians believing that firearm screening and interventions were important and the percentage of clinicians who reported actually using evidence-based screening or intervention practices (Roszko et al., 2016, p. 103).

In the strongest of the studies, 16 percent of family practitioners "sometimes" or "usually" counseled their patients on firearm storage (Everett et al., 1997). Since then, one study of clinicians in four emergency departments in Colorado found that approximately half of the clinicians asked their patients about firearms, although many more behavioral health care providers in emergency departments asked compared with emergency physicians and midlevel practitioners (Diurba et al., 2020). Screening might be higher among pediatricians: Across two health systems that represent 83 pediatric primary care clinics, more than 80 percent of providers reported sometimes screening and counseling about firearms (Beidas et al., 2019). However, according to the 2019 NFS, among those living in a home with firearms, 12 percent of those living with children and 5 percent of those living without children recalled having had a discussion with a health care provider about firearm safety (Conner, Azrael, and Miller, 2021). Looking at data from the 2019 NFS, 79 percent of caregivers to persons with Alzheimer's disease and related dementias thought that health care providers should "always" or "sometimes" talk about firearms with patients or caregivers, but only 5 percent of those caregivers said that a health care provider had ever had such a discussion with them (Betz, Azrael, et al., 2020).

Similar to the caregivers to those with Alzheimer's disease and related dementias, patient groups also have been surveyed about whether they think it is acceptable to be asked and counseled about firearm storage practices. Roszko et al. (2016) identified seven such studies, all of which were identified as having methodological limitations. Although some groups expressed interest in screening and counseling (e.g., parents of pediatric patients, 15- to 34-year-old urban African American men), in general, the review found that firearm owners were unlikely to want to discuss firearm storage with their health care providers, that they did not prioritize firearm storage over other topics to discuss, that they did not see their clinician as authoritative on firearm storage, and that they were unlikely to follow physicians' advice regarding firearms. However, a few studies published since 2016 suggest that patients might be becoming more accepting. In the 2015 NFS, two-thirds of American adults reported that it was at least sometimes appropriate for providers to talk to patients about firearms—46 percent of gun owners felt such discussions were never appropriate, while around 30 percent of non–gun owners felt such discussions were sometimes appropriate (Betz et al., 2016). Among patients who were receiving care for mental health or substance use disorders in a large health system, between 83 and 92 percent answered a question about firearm access in a mental health monitoring questionnaire, which suggests that most were willing to respond to a question about firearm access (Richards et al., 2021). In emergency departments in Atlanta, more than 50 percent of patients agreed or strongly agreed that gun safety should be discussed with providers, similar to the proportion who agreed on other preventive topics, such as alcohol, cigarette, and helmet use (Hudak et al., 2021). A qualitative study of 27 veterans who screened positive for depression or posttraumatic stress disorder in primary care found that most were amenable to discussions about safe firearm storage with their primary care provider (Newell et al., 2021).

Safety Planning Intervention

The safety planning intervention is designed for persons at risk of suicide. In this intervention, the clinician works with the client to identify strategies to cope with suicidal thoughts and reduce the risk of suicide. This includes reducing access to lethal means, such as firearms. Included among the six components of safety planning is one component that is focused on reducing access to lethal means. A recent review of the safety planning intervention by Ferguson and colleagues (2021) included 26 studies, of which only one examined firearm storage practices. Specifically, Stanley et al. (2020) found that college students who received an intervention that was tailored to firearm storage were more likely to intend to limit their access to firearms, per the clinician's recommendations.

Community Interventions

Lethal Means Counseling in Nonclinical Settings

The same type of lethal means counseling that might be offered in clinical settings has been tested in nonclinical environments. A recent RCT of firearm owners who were members of the Mississippi National Guard but not necessarily at risk for suicide were randomized to receive single-session motivational-interviewing–based lethal means counseling and up to ten cable locks; lethal means counseling without trigger locks; or a control condition, which included health and stress counseling with and without a cable lock provided by clinical psychology doctoral students in a university setting. Although at three months post-intervention there was no difference between those who received lethal means counseling and those who did not in terms of whether they stored their guns locked (46 percent versus 43 percent, respectively), by six months post-intervention, the lethal means counseling group was more likely to report storing guns locked (55 percent versus 39 percent; results on the cable lock distribution are presented later in this essay) (Anestis, Bryan, et al., 2021).[15]

Partnerships with Gun Retailers

Public health and mental health advocates have partnered with gun retailers and other gun owner groups to promote firearm storage practices among gun owners and purchasers to prevent firearm suicides. These collaborations take many forms, including displays of storage or suicide prevention materials at gun shops, on gun dealer association websites, and at gun shows; as well as incorporating suicide prevention strategies into required firearm training courses (Barber, Frank, and Demicco, 2017). Central to these efforts is that the process entails collaboration between "firearm retailers, guns rights advocates, health professionals, and suicide prevention groups" (Barber, Frank, and Demicco, 2017). A list of such partnerships is available at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Means Matter (undated). There is one ongoing evaluation of this type of collaborative effort (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021).

Education and Communication Campaigns

The RAND Gun Policy in America project reviewed the evidence regarding communication campaigns for safe storage in 2018 (RAND Corporation, 2018b), drawing largely on a 2016 review of the same topic (Rowhani-Rahbar, Simonetti, and Rivara, 2016). Using that review, the RAND authors wrote: "Although education campaigns have been found to produce behavior change in other domains, evidence that they have successfully promoted safe storage of firearms is limited." Since then, there has been one RCT to investigate the effectiveness of a public service announcement on firearm storage practices; this RCT found no evidence that veterans exposed to the public service announcement intended to change their firearm storage practices in the month after seeing it (Karras et al., 2019). However, two recent studies on firearm owners' perceptions of who should be messengers of safe storage campaigns provide insights. In the 2016 national survey of gun owners, respondents were asked to rate which groups should teach gun owners about safe firearm storage: the highest-rated were law enforcement (77 percent rated excellent or good potential messengers), hunting and outdoor organizations (73 percent), active-duty military (72 percent), military veterans (72 percent), and the NRA (71 percent), while only 19 percent rated physicians and 11 percent rated celebrities as "excellent" or "good" messenger options (Crifasi et al., 2018a); a subsequent study of a Qualtrics panel yielded comparable results: There were no significant differences in preferred messengers between White and Black, male and female, or military/veteran and nonmilitary/veteran gun owners (Anestis, Bond, et al., 2021).

Distribution of Storage Devices

There is evidence that the distribution of gun-storage devices changes storage practices. For example, in the RCT of members of the Mississippi National Guard described earlier, those who received a cable lock were more likely to report using the lock than those who did not receive a safety device at both three months (60 percent versus 30 percent) and six months (58 percent versus 36 percent) following the intervention (Anestis, Bryan, et al., 2021).[16] In safe storage events held at sporting goods stores in Washington state, attendees who had been recruited via social media, flyers, and radio and print advertisements were offered a trigger lock or a lockbox. Nine in ten opted for the lockbox versus a trigger lock, and there was a 14 percent change in those who stored all of their firearms locked (64 percent to 78 percent) and a 9 percent change in those who stored them unloaded (63 percent to 71 percent), but no significant changes were observed in ammunition storage (Simonetti, Rowhani-Rahbar, et al., 2018).

Firearm Safety Trainings or Demonstrations

There is no federal training requirement for firearm owners, although some states impose training requirements, often in conjunction with requirements that owners have a firearm license or permit (in RAND Corporation [2020b], the Gun Policy in America team reviewed these policies, but found no qualifying evidence on the effects of these laws). In the 2015 NFS, 61 percent of firearm owners reported having received safety training, although those who received such training were not more likely to store all of their firearms locked and unloaded (Berrigan et al., 2019; Rowhani-Rahbar et al., 2018). On the other hand, in the 2016 national survey, just more than one-third of firearm owners who were surveyed reported that a gun safety training course influenced their storage practices (Crifasi et al., 2018a). In an audit of 20 firearm safety training courses, the majority (90 percent) discussed using a gun safe, and 50 to 70 percent discussed using cable locks and trigger locks and storing guns unloaded when not in use; 10 percent recommended keeping handguns loaded and unlocked (Hemenway et al., 2019b).

Safe Storage Sites and Maps

For persons at risk of suicide, the best storage option might be to temporarily store the firearm outside the home. To support such practices, organizations have developed local maps that display law enforcement agencies and gun retailers who are "willing to consider requests for voluntary, temporary gun storage" (Kelly et al., 2020). Such maps exist for Colorado (Kelly et al., 2020) (available at Colorado Firearm Safety Coalition, undated), Washington (available at University of Washington, Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center, undated), Mississippi (available at Suicide and Emotion Dysregulation Lab, undated), and Maryland (Bongiorno et al., 2021; available at Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, undated). As of this writing, there is one ongoing evaluation of these maps (National Institute of Mental Health, 2020).

Policies

Finally, some states have enacted policies that require firearms to be stored safely. As described in RAND Corporation (2020a) on the Gun Policy in America website, "Child-access prevention (CAP) laws allow prosecutors to bring charges against adults who intentionally or carelessly allow children to have unsupervised access to firearms." The RAND Gun Policy in America policy analysis team found that CAP laws may decrease suicide, unintentional injuries and deaths, and violent crime, although the review did not specifically examine firearm storage practices. A study by Prickett, Martin-Storey, and Crosnoe (2014) found that CAP laws were associated with safe firearm storage practices only among parents of young children in states with additional firearm-related laws.

The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence highlights other state and local laws promoting the safe storage of firearms. These laws generally require that (1) firearms be kept locked, (2) locks must accompany dealer or private sales,[17] and/or (3) locks must meet safety standards. There is variation across these categories: For example, Massachusetts requires that all firearms be stored with a locking device, whereas in New York, California, and Connecticut, a similar law applies only to those gun owners who are living with persons who are prohibited from possessing a firearm or similar criteria. Similarly, some firearm sales requirements apply only to the sale or transfer of handguns; in Ohio, the seller is required only to offer the sale of a storage device (More information on these policies is available at Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, undated-j). Kivisto et al. (2021) provide some evidence that laws requiring that all gun sales include the provision of locks, and that locks meeting state safety standards are associated with reductions in adolescent firearm suicides. Thus far, there is just one study that has examined the effects of these policies on firearm storage practices. Miller et al. (forthcoming) found that after adjusting for state differences in gun ownership rates and other demographic and economic differences, gun owners in states with CAP laws were not statistically significantly more likely to store all of their weapons locked than would be expected if the state had no CAP laws. Miller et al. interpret this result to suggest that the benefits of CAP laws might be overstated.

Conclusion

Multiple stakeholder groups recommend that firearms be stored locked and unloaded and that ammunition be stored separately. Most empirical evidence to date indicates that approximately half of firearm owners store their firearms locked, and one-third of firearm owners store their firearms locked and unloaded. The greatest influence of storage practices among those who do not store their firearms as recommended are perceptions of risk and protection. Those with more guns and those with only handguns are less likely to store firearms as recommended, and those in homes with children under 18 are more likely to store them as recommended. But there is also disagreement between how accessible parents think their firearms are and how quickly their children report that they could access those firearms.

Few evaluations of interventions designed to improve how gun owners store their firearms have been conducted. Limited evidence exists to suggest that clinical interventions, such as lethal means counseling, are effective; most evidence to date has focused on effects observed among parents or caregivers of children. Although clinicians think that this information is important to discuss with patients, few do so (with the potential exception of pediatricians). Only around half of gun owners think that it is acceptable to have these discussions with their health care providers, and in national surveys, clinicians are the least-preferred messengers of firearm-storage practices.

There is emerging evidence (consistent with the GAO's 2017 findings) that the distribution of firearm-storage devices could improve storage practices, although more-rigorous evaluations are needed to further test these interventions and investigate the types of storage devices that gun owners prefer and that would facilitate changes in gun owners' storage practices. Conversely, there is less evidence that other community-based efforts (e.g., communications campaigns and trainings) are effective, largely because of a lack of evaluation but also based on the existing data. Evaluations are needed to test the utility of other community-based interventions, including partnerships between public health practitioners and gun retailers and other gun owner groups and safe storage maps. CAP laws are likely to reduce suicide, unintentional injuries, and violent crime, but their influence on gun owners' storage practices specifically might depend on the other firearm-related policies within individual states.

Notes

  1. Other essays that are part of the RAND Corporation's Gun Policy in America project describe the relationship between (1) firearm availability and accessibility and (2) suicide and violent crime. Return to content
  2. For further reading, Johnson, Coyne-Beasley, and Runyan, 2004, reviewed studies on firearm ownership between 1992 and 2002. Return to content
  3. Some researchers (including Morgan, Gomez, and Rowhani-Rahbar, 2018) describe these categories as safest, safer, and least safe. These labels are not used in this essay because of the lack of empirical evidence that distinguishes between these different storage practices and outcomes. Return to content
  4. In this analysis of the 2015 NFS, adjusted regression models controlled for: direct influences (owns any firearm for protection), sociodemographics (age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, income, political affiliation [liberal, moderate, conservative], and veteran status), geography (region, community type [urban/suburban/rural]), household characteristics (children under the age of 18 in the household), and firearm characteristics (one or more guns in the home in childhood, firearm training, owns at least one handgun, number of firearms carried in last 30 days [among handgun owners]). Return to content
  5. In this analysis of the 2016 survey, adjusted regression models controlled for: direct influences (storage practices influenced by: gun safety course, family discussions, concerns about home defense), sociodemographics (age, education, marital status, race/ethnicity, sex, and served in active-duty military), geography (census region, metropolitan statistical area), household characteristics (any child under the age of 18 in the home); and firearm characteristics (owns handguns only, number of guns). Return to content
  6. The four risk perception statements are (1) "Do you think having a gun in the house makes it a safer place to be or a more dangerous place to be?" (2) "Having a gun in the home increases the risk of suicide," (3) "If a gun owner has to take the time to unlock or load their gun, it's no good for protection," and (4) "Guns should be stored locked and unloaded with the ammunition stored separately." Return to content
  7. In this analysis of the 2019 survey, adjusted regression models controlled for: sociodemographics (gender, age, race/ethnicity, veteran status, income), geography (metropolitan area, region), household characteristics (having a child under the age of 18 in the home), and firearm characteristics (owning a gun for protection, owning a handgun, having prior firearm training). Return to content
  8. In this analysis of the 2015 survey, adjusted regression models controlled for direct influences (owns any firearm for protection), sociodemographics (age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, income, political affiliation [liberal, moderate, conservative]), geography (region, community type [urban/suburban/rural]), household characteristics (age of children at home), and firearm characteristics (owns at least one handgun). Return to content
  9. There is general discordance in parent and child reports of access to household firearms. In the new 2019 NFS, parents with children between 13 and 17 and their children were interviewed independent of one another. In households with guns, 70 percent of parents said that their children could not independently access a gun in the home, but 42 percent of children said that they could access a gun in the household in less than two hours, with 22 percent reporting they could access a gun in under five minutes. More children reported being able to access the gun in less than five minutes if the household had five or more firearms (43 percent versus 19 percent in homes with one firearm) (Salhi, Azrael, and Miller, 2021). Return to content
  10. The model additionally adjusted for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education level, employment status, marital status, veteran status, health insurance status, and presence of at least one child in the household, with states included as a fixed effect. The eight states were California, Idaho, Kansas, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Washington. Return to content
  11. The model additionally adjusted for age, race/ethnicity, gender, income, education, employment, marital status, and urbanicity. Return to content
  12. The model additionally adjusted for age, sex, race/ethnicity, military branch, having been deployed, and having had a lifetime suicide attempt. Return to content
  13. Roszko et al., 2016, notes problems with the interventions that were tested (e.g., less–theoretically based, part of a variety of injury prevention topics) or in the study design (e.g., low rates of participation or retention). Return to content
  14. This trial also suffered from low follow-up rates (i.e., 31 percent) and did not look at storing firearms separately from other lethal means. Return to content
  15. At baseline, rates of storing guns locked were greater in the group that did receive lethal means counseling (27 percent) than in the group that did not receive lethal means counseling (20 percent), but the difference was not statistically significant. The findings were robust when restricted to the sample that did not lock their guns at baseline (i.e., no difference at three months but a significant difference at six months). Return to content
  16. At baseline, rates of storing guns locked were greater in the trigger lock group (27 percent) than in the group that did not receive trigger locks (20 percent), but the difference was not statistically significant. The findings were robust when restricted to the sample that did not lock their guns at baseline (i.e., at three months, 43 percent of those who received a cable lock kept their firearm locked relative to 15 percent of those who did not receive a cable lock; at six months post-intervention, the estimates were 43 percent among those who received a cable lock and 22 percent among those who did not). Return to content
  17. With certain exceptions, it is currently unlawful only for a "licensed importer, manufacturer or dealer to sell or transfer any handgun unless the transferee is provided with a secure gun storage or safety device" (Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, undated-j). Return to content

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View the full project bibliography

Citation

Rajeev Ramchand, Personal Firearm Storage in the United States: Recent Estimates, Patterns, and Effectiveness of Interventions, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, RR-A243-5, 2022. As of July 11, 2022: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA243-5.html