Every year, firearms cause thousands of unintentional deaths and injuries. Recent research on unintentional shooting deaths has found that such shootings “occurred roughly twice as often as the records indicate, because of idiosyncrasies in how such deaths are classified by the authorities.”1 Nevertheless, between 1999 and 2010, over 8,300 people in the United States were reported as dying from unintentional shootings, including 2,383 children and young people ages 0-21.2 On average, over 16,000 individuals in the United States are treated each year in hospital emergency rooms for unintentional gunshot wounds,3 and a 1991 study found that 8% of accidental shooting deaths resulted from shots fired by children under the age of six.4
The unsafe storage of firearms is a public health and safety issue in the United States. A 2000 study of firearm storage patterns in U.S. homes found that “[o]f the homes with children and firearms, 55% were reported to have 1 or more firearms in an unlocked place,” and 43% reported keeping guns without a trigger lock in an unlocked place.5 A 2005 study on adult firearm storage practices in U.S. homes found that over 1.69 million children and youth under age 18 are living in homes with loaded and unlocked firearms.6 In addition, 73% of children under age 10 living in homes with guns reported knowing the location of their parents’ firearms.7 For more information about children and firearms, see our summary on Child Access Prevention.
The presence of unlocked guns in the home increases the risk not only of unintentional gun injuries but of intentional shootings as well. A 1999 study found that more than 75% of the guns used in youth suicide attempts and unintentional injuries were stored in the residence of the victim, a relative, or a friend.8 At least two studies have found that the risk of suicide increases in homes where guns are kept loaded and/or unlocked.9
In July 2004, the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education published a study examining 37 school shootings from 1974-2000. That study found that in more than 65% of the cases, the attacker got the gun from his or her own home or that of a relative.10
The U.S. General Accounting Office has estimated that 31% of accidental deaths caused by firearms might be prevented by the addition of two devices: a child-proof safety lock and a “loading indicator,” a safety device that indicates whether a firearm is loaded and a round remains in the chamber.11 A study released in 2005 found that the practices of keeping firearms locked, unloaded, and storing ammunition in a locked location separate from firearms serve as a “protective effect” and may assist in reducing youth suicide and unintentional injury in homes with children and teenagers where guns are stored.12
Researchers have also shown that laws requiring use of gun locks are effective at preventing suicides and saving lives. States with a law in place that required handguns be locked at least in certain circumstances have 40% fewer suicides per capita and 68% fewer firearm suicides per capita than states without these laws.13 This correlation is unchanged even after controlling for the effects of poverty, population density, age, education, and race/ethnicity.14 After controlling for these variables, handgun lock requirements were associated with 27% fewer suicides and 37% fewer firearm suicides per capita.15
The safe storage of firearms also helps prevent firearms from being stolen. Firearms stolen from residences play a significant role in gun trafficking. For more information, see our summary on Reporting Lost & Stolen Firearms.
Firearm locking devices include a wide range of disabling devices designed to keep unauthorized users from gaining access to guns and to make unintentional deaths and injuries less likely. These mechanisms include: 1) internal locks, which are normally mounted in the grip of the gun, and either lock the manual thumb safety into place or internally secure the hammer; and 2) external trigger locks, the most common of which cover the trigger mechanism on either side with two metal or plastic pieces that clamp around the trigger guard and completely cover the trigger.
Americans strongly support laws requiring the safe storage of firearms. A national survey conducted in January 2013 found that 67.2% of respondents support laws requiring gun owners to lock up any guns in the home when not in use to prevent handling by children or teenagers without adult supervision.16
Summary of Federal Law
In October 2005, as part of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, Congress passed and the President signed into law legislation making it unlawful for any licensed importer, manufacturer or dealer to sell or transfer any handgun unless the transferee is provided with a secure gun storage or safety device.17 The law includes various exceptions, including transfers to other federal firearms licensees, law enforcement officers, and federal, state or local agencies.18 The legislation does not apply to transfers by private sellers, and does not require that transferees use the device.
The law also immunizes any person who is in lawful possession and control of a handgun and who uses a secure gun storage or safety device with the handgun, from a “qualified civil liability action.”19 “Qualified civil liability action” is defined as a civil action for damages resulting from the criminal or unlawful misuse of a handgun by a third party if: 1) the handgun was accessed by another person who did not have the authorization of the lawful possessor; and 2) at the time the handgun was accessed it had been made inoperable by the use of a secure gun storage or safety device.20
There are no current federal standards for locking devices.21 On January 16, 2013, President Obama signed a series of executive orders to address gun violence and school safety in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut school massacre in December 2012. One of these orders calls for the Consumer Product Safety Commission to review the effectiveness of gun locks and gun safes, including existing voluntary industry standards, and take any steps that may be warranted to improve the standards. As stated by the President: “We also need to make sure that gun locks and gun safes work as intended. Several gun locks have been subject to recall due to their failure to function properly; that is not acceptable.”22
Summary of State Law
Eleven states have laws concerning firearm locking devices. Massachusetts is the only state that generally requires that all firearms be stored with a lock in place; California, Connecticut, and New York impose this requirement in certain situations. Other state laws regarding locking devices are similar to the federal law, in that they require locking devices to accompany certain guns manufactured, sold, or transferred. Five of the eleven states also set standards for the design of locking devices or require them to be approved by a state agency for effectiveness.
|State||Firearms Must Be Kept Locked||Locks Must Accompany Dealer Sales||Locks Must Accompany Private Sales||Locks Must Meet Standards or Be Approved|
|Connecticut24||Sometimes||Handguns only||Handguns only||Yes|
|Massachusetts27||Yes||Handguns and assault weapons only28||Handguns and assault weapons only||Yes|
|New Jersey30||Handguns only||Handguns only|
|Rhode Island34||Handguns only|
Description of State Laws Regarding the Safe Storage of Firearms
For citations to these laws, please see the chart above.
1. States Requiring that All Firearms be Stored with a Locking Device in Place:
Massachusetts is the only state that requires that all firearms be stored with a locking device in place. The state bars storing or keeping any firearm unless it is secured in a locked container or equipped with a tamper-resistant mechanical lock or other safety device. This requirement does not apply to any firearm “carried by or under the control of the owner or other lawfully authorized user.”
The District of Columbia has established a strong, yet non-binding, policy that each firearm registrant should keep any firearm in his or her possession unloaded and either disassembled or secured by a trigger lock, gun safe, locked box, or other secure device.35
2. States Requiring that Firearms be Stored with a Locking Device in Place if the Person Resides with a Prohibited Person:
Three states require firearms to be stored with a locking device if the person resides with someone who is ineligible to possess firearms. New York enacted a law in 2013 that requires a firearm owner to keep his or her firearm locked if he or she lives with a convicted felon, a domestic abuser, or a person with a federally prohibitive mental health history. California enacted a similar law that requires a firearm owner to keep his or her firearm in a locked container or secured with a locking device if he or she lives with a person prohibited under state or federal law from possessing a firearm. Connecticut’s law is also similar, but it only applies to loaded firearms.
A number of states require safe storage of firearms in circumstances where children are likely to access the firearms. These laws are discussed in our summary on Child Access Prevention.
3. States Requiring Locking Devices with All Firearms Manufactured, Sold or Transferred in the State: California has the most comprehensive laws with respect to firearm locking devices. In California, all firearms manufactured in the state, or sold or transferred by a state licensed dealer, including private transfers conducted through licensed dealers, must include or be accompanied by a firearm safety device approved by the California Department of Justice. A firearm safety device is defined as “a device other than a gun safe that locks and is designed to prevent children and other unauthorized users from firing a firearm. The device may be installed on a firearm, be incorporated into the design of the firearm, or prevent access to the firearm.” Sales and transfers by licensed dealers are exempt if the purchaser provides proof of ownership of an approved safety device or gun safe meeting state standards.
In Massachusetts, any handgun or assault weapon sold without a safety device designed to prevent discharge by unauthorized users is considered to be defective. The sale of such a weapon constitutes a breach of warranty and an unfair or deceptive trade act or practice.36
4. States Requiring Locking Devices on All Firearms Transferred by Licensed Dealers: New York prohibits retail sales of firearms without a locking device, which may be an external device or integrated in the design of the firearm. Michigan prohibits licensed dealers from selling a firearm unless the sale includes a trigger lock or gun case or other storage container. This does not apply if the purchaser presents to the dealer at the time of sale of the firearm a trigger lock, gun case or storage container, together with a copy of the receipt for the trigger lock or storage container. In Ohio, at the time of sale of any firearm, a dealer must offer to sell the purchaser a trigger lock, gun lock or gun locking device appropriate for that firearm.
5. States Requiring Locking Devices with Handgun Sales: Connecticut and New Jersey require locking devices on all handguns sold. The laws in four other states (Illinois, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island) are similar to federal law, and require trigger locks only on all handguns sold by retail dealers. New Jersey prohibits the delivery of a handgun to any person unless it is accompanied by a trigger lock or locked gun case, gun box, container or other secure facility. Similarly, in Connecticut, all handguns sold or transferred (other than at wholesale) must be equipped with a trigger lock or other locking device.
In Illinois, the device may be an external safety device or an integrated mechanical safety device. Maryland’s statute provides that handguns manufactured after Jan. 1, 2003, must have an integrated mechanical safety device. (Both Illinois and Maryland define “integrated mechanical safety device” as a disabling or locking device that is built into the handgun and designed to prevent the handgun from being discharged unless the device has been deactivated). In Rhode Island, licensed retail dealers may not deliver any handgun to a purchaser without providing a trigger lock or other safety device designed to prevent unauthorized users from operating the handgun. In Pennsylvania, sales of handguns by licensed dealers must be accompanied by a locking device. “Locking device” is defined as either: 1) a device that, when installed on a firearm, is designed to prevent the firearm from being operated without first deactivating the device; or 2) a device that is incorporated into the design of a firearm and designed to prevent the operation of the firearm by anyone not having access to the device.
6. States that Set Standards for Locking Devices or Maintain a Roster of Approved Devices: California has the most comprehensive standards for locking devices. Through rules promulgated by the Attorney General, California requires testing of and sets standards for firearm locking devices. Locking devices are tested by certified laboratories, and those found to meet standards are listed in a roster of approved devices that may be sold in the state. The state may randomly retest samples to ensure continued compliance. California prohibits any person from keeping, offering, or exposing for commercial sale, or commercial selling, any firearm safety device that is not listed on the roster.
Maryland and Massachusetts maintain rosters of approved locking devices. In Maryland, the list of “Approved Integrated Mechanical Safety Devices” is issued by the state Handgun Roster Board. In Massachusetts, safety devices must be approved by the Colonel of the Department of State Police.
The New York State Police has also promulgated general standards for locking devices, requiring, among other things, that the device must: 1) open only by either a numeric combination, key, magnetic key or electronic key; and 2) be constructed with such quality of workmanship and material that it may not be pried open easily, removed or otherwise defeated by the use of “common household tools.” Similarly, Connecticut law requires that locking devices be constructed of material strong enough to prevent them from being easily disabled, and must be accessible by key or electronic or mechanical accessory specific to the locking device to prevent unauthorized removal.
SELECTED LOCAL LAW
New York City
New York City requires any lawful owner or custodian of a firearm to render his or her weapon inoperable by use of a safety locking device while the weapon is out of his or her immediate possession or control.37 New York City also requires the inclusion of a safety locking device with the transfer of a firearm. The city prohibits the transfer of any firearm without a “safety locking device,” defined as “a design adaptation or attachable accessory that will prevent the use of the weapon by an unauthorized user.”38 In addition, no person may obtain a firearm without purchasing or obtaining a safety locking device at the same time.
In 2012, a New York trial court upheld the City’s ordinance39 on the basis that the law was not a complete ban on handgun possession in the home as was the case in Heller v. District of Columbia,40, the seminal case in which the United States Supreme Court held that law abiding, responsible citizens have a right to possess a handgun in the home for self-defense. Because individuals could easily and quickly enable their guns for self-defense, the court found that the ordinance did not violate the Second Amendment.41
San Francisco, California
San Francisco prohibits any person from keeping a handgun within a residence unless the handgun is stored in a locked container or disabled with a trigger lock unless the handgun is carried on the person.42 Unlike the laws of some other jurisdictions, San Francisco does not exempt a person who keeps his or her handgun within his or her immediate control from the requirements of the statute.
The National Rifle Association and individual plaintiffs sued in federal court to overturn San Francisco’s safe storage law on Second Amendment grounds.43 The law was upheld by both the district court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In upholding the law, the Ninth Circuit recognized that unlike the District of Columbia law at issue in Heller v. District of Columbia,44 the San Francisco ordinance does not prohibit a person from carrying a loaded handgun while in his or her home. The Court also held that a safely stored gun can be accessed from a safe or enabled within a few seconds. The increased time it takes for a gun owner to access his or her gun is negligible, therefore, it does not place an impermissible burden on the Second Amendment rights of gun owners.45
The City of Sunnyvale prohibits a person from keeping a firearm in any residence owned or controlled by that person unless the firearm is stored in a locked container, or the firearm is disabled with a trigger lock, when it is not carried on the person or in his or her immediate control and possession.46 The ordinance requires a person who choses to use a trigger lock to use one that is listed on the California Department of Justice’s list of approved firearms safety devices.
In September, 2015, the City of Albany enacted an ordinance prohibiting any person who owns or is a custodian of a firearm from storing or leaving out of his or her possession and control, a firearm that is not disabled by a locking mechanism or securely locked in a safe storage depository.47 The depository must be incapable of being opened without the key, combination or other unlocking mechanism and capable of preventing an unauthorized person from obtaining access to and possession of the firearm contained therein.48
Key Legislative Elements
The features listed below are intended to provide a framework from which policy options may be considered. A jurisdiction considering new legislation should consult with counsel.
- All firearms are required to be kept disabled with a locking device except when an authorized user is carrying it on his or her person or has the firearm under his or her immediate control (Massachusetts, New York City)
- Locking devices are required on all firearms manufactured, sold or transferred in the jurisdiction (California)
- Standards are set for locking devices (California, Connecticut, New York)
- Locking devices are tested and approved by a certified independent lab before they may be sold in the jurisdiction (California)
- A roster is maintained of approved locking devices (California, Massachusetts; Maryland maintains a roster of approved locking devices, but only for handguns)
- See Michael Luo & Mike McIntire, Children and Guns: The Hidden Toll, N.Y. Times (Sept. 28, 2013), at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/29/us/children-and-guns-the-hidden-toll.html?ref=michaelluo&_r=0. ⤴︎
- Nat’l Ctr. for Injury Prevention & Control, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Web-Based Injury Statistics Query & Reporting System (WISQARS) Injury Mortality Reports, 1999-2010, for National, Regional, and States (Sept. 2013), http://webappa.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/dataRestriction_inj.html. Note: Users must agree to data use restrictions on the CDC site prior to accessing data). ⤴︎
- Karen E. Gotsch et al., CDC Surveillance Summary No. SS-2, Surveillance for Fatal and Nonfatal Firearm-Related Injuries – United States 1993-1998 2 (Apr. 13, 2001), at http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/ss/ss5002.pdf. See also, National Center for Injury Prevention & Control, U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) Nonfatal Injury Reports, 2001-2011, at http://webappa.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/nfirates2001.html. ⤴︎
- U.S. General Accounting Office, Accidental Shootings: Many Deaths and Injuries Caused by Firearms Could Be Prevented 17 (Mar. 1991), at http://126.96.36.199/d20t9/143619.pdf. ⤴︎
- Mark A. Schuster et al., Firearm Storage Patterns in U.S. Homes with Children, 90 Am. J. Pub. Health 588, 590 (Apr. 2000), at http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/reprints/2005/RAND_RP890.pdf. ⤴︎
- Catherine A. Okoro et al., Prevalence of Household Firearms and Firearm-Storage Practices in the 50 States and the District of Columbia: Findings from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 2002, 116 Pediatrics e370, e371-e372 (Sept. 2005), at http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/116/3/e370. ⤴︎
- Frances Baxley & Matthew Miller, Parental Misperceptions About Children and Firearms, 160 Archives Of Pediatric & Adolescent Med. 542, 544 (2006). ⤴︎
- David C. Grossman, Donald T. Reay & Stephanie A. Baker, Self-Inflicted and Unintentional Firearm Injuries Among Children and Adolescents: The Source of the Firearm, 153 Arch. Pediatr. Adolesc. Med. 875, 875 (Aug. 1999), at http://archpedi.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=347593. ⤴︎
- Matthew Miller & David Hemenway, The Relationship Between Firearms and Suicide: A Review of the Literature, 4 Aggression & Violent Behavior 59, 62-65 (1999) (summarizing the findings of multiple studies). ⤴︎
- U.S. Secret Service & U.S. Dep’t of Education, The Final Report & Findings of the Safe School Initiative – Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States 27 (July 2004), at http://www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/preventingattacksreport.pdf. ⤴︎
- Accidental Shootings, supra note 4, at 17. ⤴︎
- David C. Grossman et al., Gun Storage Practices and Risk of Youth Suicide and Unintentional Firearm Injuries, 293 JAMA 707, 711-13 (2005), at http://depts.washington.edu/hiprc/pdf/LockboxJAMA.pdf. ⤴︎
- Michael D. Anestis, et al, The Association Between State Laws Regulating Handgun Ownership and Statewide Suicide Rates, Am. J of Pub. Health (2015). ⤴︎
- Id. ⤴︎
- Id. ⤴︎
- Colleen L. Barry et al., Perspective: After Newtown — Public Opinion on Gun Policy and Mental Illness, 368 New Eng. J. Med. 1077-1081 (March 21, 2013) at http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1300512?query=featured_home&&. ⤴︎
- 18 U.S.C. § 922(z)(1). A “secure gun storage or safety device” is defined under 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(34) as: (A) a device that, when installed on a firearm, is designed to prevent the firearm from being operated without first deactivating the device; (B) a device incorporated into the design of the firearm that is designed to prevent the operation of the firearm by anyone not having access to the device; or (C) a safe, gun safe, gun case, lock box, or other device that is designed to be or can be used to store a firearm and that is designed to be unlocked only by means of a key, a combination, or other similar means. ⤴︎
- 18 U.S.C. § 922(z)(2). ⤴︎
- 18 U.S.C. § 922(z)(3)(A). ⤴︎
- 18 U.S.C. § 922(z)(3)(C). ⤴︎
- The federal Consumer Product Safety Act, which imposes health and safety standards on consumer products, exempts firearms and ammunition from its requirements. 15 U.S.C. § 2052(a)(5)(E), referencing 26 U.S.C. § 4181 et seq. Therefore, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has no authority to mandate that firearms include locking devices. Locking devices themselves, however, are not exempt, and therefore the CPSC has the authority to adopt national safety standards for locking devices. ⤴︎
- The White House, Now is the Time: The President’s Plan to Protect Our Children and Our Communities by Reducing Gun Violence 10, Jan. 16, 2013, at http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/wh_now_is_the_time_full.pdf. ⤴︎
- Cal. Penal Code §§ 16540, 16610, 16870, 23635-23690, 31910(a)(1), (b)(1), 25135, 32000; Cal. Code Regs. tit. 11, §§ 4093 – 4099. ⤴︎
- Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 29-33(d), 29-37b, 29-37i. ⤴︎
- 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/24-9.5. ⤴︎
- Md. Code Ann., Pub. Safety § 5-132. ⤴︎
- Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, §§ 131K, 131L(a); 940 Mass. Code Regs. 16.02, 16.04 – 16.07. ⤴︎
- An entity responsible for the manufacture, importation or sale as an inventory item or consumer good of these weapons that does not include or incorporate a locking device shall be individually and jointly liable to any person who sustains personal injury or property damage resulting from the failure to include or incorporate such a device. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, §§ 131K. ⤴︎
- Mich. Comp. Laws § 28.435. ⤴︎
- N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:58-2a(5)(d), (e). ⤴︎
- N.Y. Gen. Bus. Law § 396-ee; New York Penal Law § 265.45; N.Y. Comp. Codes R. & Regs. tit. 9, § 471.2. ⤴︎
- Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2923.25. ⤴︎
- 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 6142. ⤴︎
- R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-47-60.3. ⤴︎
- D.C. Code Ann. § 7-2507.02(a). ⤴︎
- California and Massachusetts also require internal safety features on handguns, including chamber load indicators and/or magazine safety disconnect mechanisms. These provisions are discussed in our summary on Design Safety Standards. ⤴︎
- New York, N.Y., Admin. Code §§ 10-311, 10-312(a). ⤴︎
- The ordinance provides the following two examples of acceptable safety locking devices: 1) a trigger lock that prevents a weapon from firing without a key; and 2) a “combination handle, which prevents the use of the weapon without the alignment of the combination tumblers.” ⤴︎
- Tessler v. City of New York, 952 N.Y.S.2d 703 (Sup.Ct. New York Co. 2012). ⤴︎
- 554 U.S. 570 (2008). ⤴︎
- Tessler, 952 N.Y.S. 2d 703. ⤴︎
- S.F. Police Code § 4512(a), (c)(2). ⤴︎
- Jackson v. City and County of San Francisco,746 F.3d 953 (9th Cir. 2014). ⤴︎
- 554 U.S. 570 (2008). ⤴︎
- Id. ⤴︎
- Sunnyvale Municipal Code § 9.44.040. ⤴︎
- Albany Municipal Code § 193-6. ⤴︎
- Id. ⤴︎