More than half of American gun owners do not store their weapons safely, increasing the risk that their firearms will be used unintentionally, a new survey by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has found.
The Hopkins researchers surveyed 1,444 gun owners in the United States about their storage practices and found that 54 percent didn’t put them in a safe place when not in use. The researchers defined safe storage as being in a locked gun safe, cabinet or case; locked into a gun rack, or stored with a trigger lock or other lock.
The findings were published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health.
They come as the issue of gun violence is once again in the spotlight after 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz massacred 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. In television interviews, the couple who took in Cruz after he was orphaned last year said they believed his guns were stored in a locked safe, but they were unaware that the teenager had a duplicate key.
The survey findings indicate a public health emergency, said Cassandra Crifasi, the study’s lead author, who is also an assistant professor with the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Bloomberg School.
Guns that are not stored safely can be stolen and used for crimes such as homicides, she said. A child may find the gun and accidentally shoot someone or themselves, or a gun may be taken by an mentally unstable person to commit suicide.
“I was disappointed to not see more gun owners safely storing their guns,” Crifasi said. “There are lessons there that we can learn from about what influences safe gun storage.”
Some gun owners who bought weapons for security reasons, such as protecting their homes from intruders, were 30 percent less likely to safely store their guns, the survey found.
Having children in the home made people more likely to safely store a gun. The survey found that gun owners were 44 percent more likely to report safely storing all their firearms if they had children under the age of 18 in the home.
The researchers hope to use the findings to come up with ways to influence people to practice safe gun storage. Improving storage practices can reduce the risk of gun violence and injury, Crifasi said.
Public health officials have long thought that doctors can spread the message about safe gun storage. The survey found gun owners are more likely to trust people such as military veterans or law enforcement.
“We wanted to see who would be a good messenger to talk about this,” Crifasi said. “Many of them don’t see physicians as having experience with guns. They perceived the people who had more experience with guns as more credible.”
Whlie Crifasi still believes there are ways to involve doctors in promoting gun safety, she said the researchers would explore methods to get law enforcement involved as well.
“There are health benefits to storing guns safely,” she said. “If there are things we can do, I think we would see a reduction in gun violence and injury.”