It seems simple enough to require that handguns sold in the United States have gun locks. Yet, last week the House of Representatives voted 230-191 to bar using federal funds to enforce the law that was passed only last year as part of a law to shield gun makers from reckless lawsuits. It is now up to the Senate.
Touting locks as a way to reduce accidental gun deaths among children, Sarah Brady of the Brady Campaign, a gun-control organization, immediately responded to the House vote by saying, “as a mother, this makes me ill.” But despite the obvious feel-good appeal of these rules, gun locks and safe-storage laws are more likely to cost lives than to save them. Possibly the worst thing about mandating that handguns be sold with locks is that it exaggerates the risks of guns in the home and scares some people into not owning them.
Accidental gun deaths among children are, fortunately, much rarer than most people believe. With 40 million children in the United States under the age of 10, there were just 20 accidental gun deaths in 2003, the latest year with data from the Centers for Disease Control. While guns get most of the attention, children are 41 times more likely to die from accidental suffocations, 32 times more likely to accidentally drown and 20 times more likely to die as a result of accidental fires. Looking at all children under 15, there were 56 accidental gun deaths in 2003— still a fraction of the deaths resulting from these other accidents for only the younger children.
Given that there are over 90 million adults in America who own at least one gun, the overwhelming majority of gun owners must have been extremely careful, even before the 2005 law, or the figures would be much higher.
Despite the image of children firing these guns and killing themselves or other children, the typical person who accidentally fires a gun is an adult male, usually in his 20s. Accidental shooters overwhelmingly have problems with alcoholism and long criminal histories, particularly arrests for violent acts. They are also disproportionately involved in automobile crashes and are much more likely to have had their driver’s licenses suspended or revoked. Even if gun locks could stop children from using guns, gun locks are simply not designed to stop adult males from firing their own guns — even if they were to use the gun locks.
Academic studies of safe-storage and gun-lock laws have also overwhelmingly found no evidence that they reduce the total number of suicides — although a few studies have found some small reductions in suicides committed with guns. There are simply too many ways to commit suicide. If people are intent on killing themselves, they will still do it, with or without a gun.
Yet, gun locks also pose real risks. Besides the costs that may deter poor people from buying guns, locked guns are also not as readily accessible for defensive gun uses. Since potentially armed victims deter criminals, storing a gun locked and unloaded may therefore increase crime.
Exacerbating this problem are serious reliability issues. Even though the police are extremely important in reducing crime, they simply can’t be there all the time and virtually always end up at the crime scene after the crime has been committed. Having a gun is by far the safest course of action when one is confronted by a criminal.
Even if one has young children, it does not make sense to lock up a gun if one lives in a high-crime urban area. Laws, or for that matter exaggerations of the risks involved in gun ownership, which make people lock up their guns or cause them not to own a gun in the first place will result in more deaths, not fewer deaths.
Research that I have done examining juvenile accidental gun deaths or suicides for all U.S. states from 1977 to 1998 found that safe-storage laws had no impact on either type of death. The families that obeyed the laws were the ones where there were essentially no accidental deaths occurring. What did happen, however, was that law-abiding citizens were less able to defend themselves against crime.
The 16 states that adopted safe-storage laws during this period faced over 300 more murders and 4,000 more rapes per year. Burglaries also increased dramatically.
Laws frequently have unintended consequences. Sometimes even the best intentioned ones cost lives.
John R. Lott Jr. writes frequently on the issue of crime and guns.