On the three-year anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, President Biden announced that he wants Congress to pursue several pieces of legislation, including universal background checks. The recent tragedies in Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado, have amplified this call for action.
In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration has made firearm safety a priority, facilitating two firearm-focused legislative packages and creating the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center. Even still, New Jersey cities have seen a surge in shootings over the past year, with Black and brown communities being disproportionally impacted.
When policymakers consider how to tackle gun violence, their attention often focuses on addressing who can acquire firearms. An exclusive focus on managing future sales, however, overlooks the fact that the United States already houses more firearms than people and that 2020 saw an unprecedented surge in firearm purchases, including a more than 300% increase in permit applications in New Jersey. Startlingly, new research shows individuals who purchased firearms during this surge are more likely than others to have experienced suicidal thoughts. The hundreds of millions of firearms already in American homes are not subject to rules regulating sales, but they will play a role in future homicides, suicides and unintentional shootings.
So what can we do? Our best solution may be safe firearm storage. From the gun-violence prevention perspective, safe storage means storing firearms unloaded, separate from ammunition, in a secure location like a gun safe. This type of storage should be encouraged at all times and, in moments of stress, the firearm should be stored safely and legally away from home. Just as we let someone else hold our keys when we have had too much to drink, we need to let someone else keep our firearms in difficult moments.
Safe firearm storage offers several potential benefits. For suicide prevention, it puts time and space between suicidal people and the most lethal method of suicide. For domestic violence prevention, safe storage decreases the odds of a fight becoming fatal. For unintentional shooting prevention, safe storage reduces the odds that a child will gain access to a firearm and unwittingly shoot themselves or someone else. For homicide prevention, safe storage reduces the odds of theft and subsequent trafficking of legally purchased firearms for use in crimes. Safe storage does not guarantee the prevention of any of these outcomes, but it lowers the odds of all of them while still respecting the Second Amendment.
There will be resistance
Safe storage will be met with resistance among firearm owners, and it is vital to understand their perspective. The most common reason for owning a firearm is protection at home, and many firearm owners keep a firearm loaded and readily accessible in case of home invasion. Safe storage feels dangerous to them, leaving them without a tool to protect their homes.
For any safe storage effort to work, we must convey accurate information regarding the risk of unsafe storage. To do this effectively, trusted community members must provide the voices for the message.
For this reason, we need to train trusted community members to talk about safe firearm storage. This could include faith leaders, barbers and others. In fact, a recently released report by the office of the Surgeon General promoted this idea. The New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center stands ready to help lead such efforts.
To successfully promote safe firearm storage, we also need to address the drive to feel safe. One potentially valuable tool could be incentivizing the sale and acquisition of alternative forms of home protection. For instance, a broad effort to promote home security systems could provide a sense of safety, particularly if high-crime neighborhoods were prioritized with respect to access.
Firearms are here to stay. Just as we encourage safe sex rather than abstinence to reduce the burden of teenage pregnancy, we can encourage safe firearm storage rather than simply discouraging firearm ownership altogether in our efforts to reduce gun violence.