Op-Ed: A False Safety

By John R. Lott, Jr.
Published July 6, 2006
The Washington Times

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
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.
Click on 'Read More' for the complete editorial.

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.

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