Opinion: An often overlooked solution to preventing gun deaths

Editor’s Note: Jamie Gold is a wellness design consultant and author of “Wellness by Design: A Room-by-Room Guide to Optimizing Your Home for Health, Fitness and Happiness.” The views expressed in this article are her own. Read more views on CNN.


President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Tuesday seeking to increase the number of background checks for gun buyers. The measure does something else that doesn’t get nearly enough attention: It would promote the safe storage of firearms.

I’m a city girl whose family didn’t own guns, but as a teenager, I got to see what safe gun storage looks like. I lived with my cousin’s family in Brooklyn during my senior year of high school. My uncle, a retired NYPD detective, enjoyed deer hunting up north and took his sons with him on many of these outings.

I remember seeing pictures of trophies in their house, but never the rifles. These were secured out of sight and out of reach of young hands. The children were only allowed to handle them safely while he was supervising. It’s how many responsible parents teach their children to respect the power of firearms and protect their families from harm.

Many, but unfortunately not all.

There has been a spate of incidents in the news this week in which young children get their hands on uncovered firearms, with tragic consequences.

A 3-year-old girl fatally shot her 4-year-old sister in Houston, Texas over the weekend in an incident that authorities called “tragic” but “very preventable.” Law enforcement said the child kept a loaded semi-automatic handgun in the home.

And in January, a six-year-old Virginia boy allegedly shot a teacher with his mother’s gun. While the state prohibits anyone from leaving a loaded gun in a place or manner that endangers a child under 14 or providing a firearm to a child under 12, it does not require that guns be locked away.

This meant that a student could wipe out their parent’s gun and smuggle it to school in their backpack, a teenager could use it to kill themselves, a person with dementia or other mental illness could harm a loved one or someone could just take your gun from your home and use it to commit other crimes.

Generally speaking, gun owners are doing a better job of keeping their guns safe. According to a 2021 survey by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA Network), the percentage of gun owners with children who were more likely to store their guns safely increased to 44.1% from 29% six years earlier.

But that still leaves more than half of gun-owning parents ignoring this vital safety measure. In 2020, (the most recent year for which data was available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), firearms were the number one cause of death for children ages 1-19 in the United States, claiming 4,357 lives children, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. This drives home the importance of safe gun insurance at home, especially for parents and guardians of the approximately 30 million children who lived in households with these guns as of April 2021, according to JAMA.

A growing number of states have safe storage laws to keep guns away from minors. And while Americans are deeply divided on guns, a policy with broad bipartisan support (87 percent, according to Pew Research) keeps them away from the mentally challenged. Safe storage is one way to do this in shared households with people of all ages and household members whose diagnoses suggest they should not have access to firearms.

Safe storage is also one of the few measures that is accepted by both sides of the gun debate – from the trade association of the firearms industry to gun safety advocates across a broad spectrum of the health care community.

Research has shown that personal protection tops the list of reasons gun owners say they keep a firearm. It’s certainly understandable that people want to protect themselves and their families. I know that feeling too as a survivor of violent crime.

Women often feel more vulnerable – with some reason. (The first fact on the Harvard School of Public Health’s gun research page screams, “In all states, more guns = more violent deaths of women.”)

So having a firearm nearby adds a measure of safety and comfort when something goes bump in the night. However, if she shares her home with others, this gun may pose a safety hazard to her or her roommates.

How do you balance safety and risk with firearms in the home? And how does this fit into my professional focus as a wellness design consultant? The answer to both is that safe gun storage contributes to safer home environments.

Safety and security is a key aspect of wellness design, the practice of creating spaces that support the well-being of their occupants.

Since I focus on places where people live, and four in 10 American adults say they live in a home where someone has a gun, this becomes a wellness design issue. What can be done to make their living spaces safer, respecting both welfare and rights?

For the person who wants a firearm close at hand while sleeping, there are gun safes designed to fit inside nightstands, even nightstands with built-in gun safes. The latter is a better option as it doesn’t allow someone to easily get away with a small, portable lock box.

You also want your safe to have either biometric access so you’re not fumbling for a key in the dark and only your fingerprint can open it, or a keypad if you have no problem remembering obscure numbers even when your adrenaline is pumping .

If you have a shotgun or rifle or a collection of firearms, they are not going to fit in a bedside safe. Then you have other safe storage options and considerations, including the best (and worst) locations in your home, access, weight (vis-à-vis floor joists), floor type, fire and theft. Gun safes are not simple purchases, and some larger solutions benefit from professional insight and installation.

You will quickly realize that the stylish locker system you chose probably won’t even be enough to secure your firearms. As one luxury designer shared in a message, “Safe? I can put a lock on anything, but it’s not a safe. We can build around and hide safes or secret hiding places where you need a code to enter. But with TFL, [thermally-fused laminate, formerly called melamine]if you put enough force, it might break.” This setup might keep your kids or their friends out of your closet gun stash, but not necessarily an angry ex or serious thief.

You need a gun storage expert to help you secure your guns, especially if you have more than one. (Given that there are about 120 guns for every 100 Americans, according to one survey, the number of owners who need more secure storage is not small.)

There are many online guides to choosing and buying gun safes. Many are published by the safe companies themselves, sources not owned by or affiliated with a manufacturer or vendor will be your best bet for unbiased advice.

The 79-year-old publication Gun Digest has published a buying guide on its website. Gun Safe Reviews Guy posted a four-minute Gun Safe FAQ on his site, along with extensive buying and installation guides. His self-described background as an engineer with experience in home construction comes through in his website advice.

The dealer who sold you your guns may be able to recommend a safe storage agent. Or, after choosing a make and model after reading advice sites, the company’s website can probably refer a local professional to sell and install it – an incorrectly installed safe may not work as it should.

Will safe gun storage prevent every gun injury or death? No, but it can help reduce the number of accidents, suicides and access to firearms by those who shouldn’t have them – even under your roof.

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