This article was produced by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
An 11-year-old boy in eastern Tennessee grabbed his father’s shotgun and fired once, killing an 8-year-old neighbor girl—because she wouldn’t let him see her puppy. The boy was convicted of murder, but the adult gun owner was not charged with a crime.
In 2016, a few months after the shooting, Tennessee state Senator Sara Kyle introduced a bill that would have made it a crime for a gun owner to allow a child easy access to a loaded firearm. The National Rifle Association helped doom that legislation and Kyle’s subsequent efforts.
So last year the Memphis Democrat tried a different approach: She introduced a bill exempting from state sales tax the purchases of gun locks, gun safes, and other safety devices.
A permanent sales tax exemption had failed in the past, but a one-year sales tax exemption passed last year with bipartisan support. Through June 30, the state is waiving the 7% state sales and 2.5% local option tax on sales of firearm safety and storage items. This year, Kyle introduced a bill to make the exemption permanent.
“I want to assure you, I am not against the Second Amendment,” Kyle said in an interview, adding that her family owns guns. “After many years of talking and drawing attention to the issue, this is a step in the right direction. This is a way to tee up safe gun storage.”
Nearly every related special interest group agrees on the need for gun owners to store their firearms securely when they are not in use. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the nation’s largest association of pediatricians, and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for the firearms industry, concur that the best secure storage is a three-tiered approach. If firearms are in a home, they should be stored unloaded and locked—for example, in a gun safe—with ammunition stored in a separate locked location.
But both the sports foundation and the NRA oppose mandates, contending no “one size fits all” solution will work. And there is disagreement over what “in use” means, since someone who keeps a gun at home for personal protection may consider it always in use.
Tennessee is among a handful of states that now offer tax breaks to gun owners for safe storage purchases. Others include Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Texas, Virginia and Washington.
Twenty-nine states have taken a more punitive approach, enacting child access prevention laws that allow criminal charges to be brought against an adult who intentionally, recklessly or negligently allows children to have unsupervised access to firearms, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Colorado, Maine and Oregon enacted safe storage laws last year.
Federal law since 2005 has required licensed gun dealers to sell every handgun with a secure storage or safety device, but no federal law requires owners to use the devices. Bills in Congress would require safe gun storage if a minor could gain access.
Kyle hopes more Tennesseans will buy and use gun safes if they can save potentially hundreds of dollars in sales tax. A gun safe or safety device can cost $100 to upwards of $10,000, state budget analysts reported, and the exemption could result in more than $320,000 in lost tax revenue this year.
“The loss of revenue to the state of Tennessee is worth it if it saves one life,” she said.
Spike in Gun Sales
Gun sales have spiked nationally in the past couple of years, and so have gun-related deaths.
“More Americans died of gun-related injuries in 2020 than any other year on record,” according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics. (The Pew Charitable Trusts funds the center and Stateline.) Of the 45,222 gun-related deaths, 54% were suicides and 43% were homicides, Pew found.
An estimated 5.4 million children live in homes with unsecured firearms, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group.
“We’re working in state legislatures across the country to require secure firearm storage and require schools to send home information about secure storage,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, a grassroots group that is part of Everytown, said in an email. “The onus to keep guns out of reach is always on adults—we owe it to our kids to keep them safe.”
But Anne Teigen, who tracks firearms issues at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said state gun storage laws vary widely. Some states make child access to firearms a crime only if the child causes serious injury or death with a gun, while a few have criminal penalties for owners who allow a child access even if the child doesn’t use the gun. Owners who keep a gun in a locked container are usually exempt from criminal charges.
How effective these laws are in preventing suicides, unintentional deaths and injuries is unclear because research has been limited by lack of funding and data, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found.
A RAND Corporation study in 2020 found child access prevention laws may decrease violent crime, suicide and unintentional injuries and deaths, but more study is needed.
Education or Regulation?
Florida state Senator Tina Polsky, a Democrat whose district includes Parkland, site of a 2018 mass school shooting, has tried for four years to tighten her state’s safe storage law, which, she says, “doesn’t really do anything.” She wants to set criminal penalties for a person who stores a loaded firearm within easy access of a minor who uses it to inflict injury.
No Republicans cosponsor her bill—“They can’t support it,” she said—and it has never gotten a hearing.
“It is a little grim,” she said in an interview, “but every year I get interviewed and get to talk about it, and the attention may change behavior. It’s a behavioral issue.”
But industry groups such as the National Shooting Sports Foundation argue that “education is better than regulation,” according to Joseph Bartozzi, president and CEO of the foundation. “It’s much more impactful than writing laws,” Bartozzi said in an interview. “Just because someone passes a law doesn’t mean people will comply.”
Since 1999, when the National Shooting Sports Foundation started Project ChildSafe, it has distributed 40 million free cable locks in safety kits in 15,000 communities, working with law enforcement agencies and local groups. There are about 400 million guns in civilian hands in the United States, and about a fourth of them were sold with locks, Bartozzi said.
Albuquerque, New Mexico, City Councilor Brook Bassan, a registered Republican and a gun owner who has four children, said she keeps her guns locked up and hopes never to need them in self-defense. When Project ChildSafe contacted her in 2020, she was receptive to the idea of the education and gun lock giveaway program.
She worked with schools, law enforcement and a suicide prevention group to sponsor four events in 2020 and 2021, giving away 5,000 cable locks before running out. The effort will continue as the pandemic and supplies permit, she said.
Storing guns safely is “a responsible choice gun owners should make,” she said in an interview, “but it’s not something we should mandate.”
A Dual Approach
In 2018, Washington state voters overwhelmingly approved a safe storage measure as part of a gun access initiative. Under the storage measure, which went into effect in July 2019, a gun owner is not required to keep firearms securely stored, but if a “prohibited person,” such as a child, uses an unsecured firearm, the owner could be charged with a crime under some circumstances, according to the state attorney general’s office.
“Policies give people a motivation or a reason to take action. They’re a great idea in the abstract,” Karyn Brownson, community safety manager for violence and injury prevention with Public Health—Seattle and King County, said in an interview. “As far as we know, nobody has been prosecuted.”
But she added, “prosecution is not the point. We’re not enthusiastic about getting people into the legal system. We’re enthusiastic about getting people to lock up their guns.”
The health department’s Lock It Up educational program for safe gun storage offers brochures in 10 languages “and counting,” Brownson said, as well as radio ads in Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish and English.
“The language piece is very important,” she said. “Most gunowners tend to be White men, but those demographics are changing.”
Through a retail partnership, buyers can get a 10% discount on safe storage devices if they mention Lock It Up or the health department. Washington state also exempts safe storage items from sales taxes.
Brownson recently testified in favor of a state bill that would require school districts to convey information through social media and other methods about safe gun storage as well as drugs and other family health issues.
Since 2014, the Seattle Children’s Safe Storage Firearms Project, working with community organizations, hospitals and retailers, has distributed more than 10,000 safe storage devices—lock boxes, trigger locks and cable locks—to families across Washington state.
Most of the events take place at sporting goods stores. “We try to keep our messaging neutral,” said Isabell Sakamoto, suicide and injury prevention program manager at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
“We don’t engage politically. We aren’t asking why they have guns. We’re just want to keep kids safe,” Sakamoto said in an interview.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office’s “Personal Firearms” review of gun safety programs found free distribution of locks “influenced behavior to store firearms safely, but these results were largely based on self-reports.”
Kyle, the Tennessee state senator, this year proposed making the safe storage sales tax exemption permanent. She also introduced a bill that would create criminal penalties for anyone who allowed a child age 12 or under access to a firearm, loaded or unloaded. Previously her bills would have set the age at 13. Her bill also would raise the penalty under state law from a misdemeanor to a felony for providing a handgun to a juvenile.
“This is not to throw the grieving parent in jail,” she said. “The object is to create a deterrent in how they store their guns.”