Americans Safely Isolating at Home Face Another Danger: Their Own Guns

As people shelter in place, experts are telling gun owners to keep their firearms unloaded and locked up.
March 24, 2020, 4:58pm
A photo of a handgun and a trigger lock.
Photo of a handgun and a trigger lock by JOEY MCLEISTER/Star Tribune via Getty

When Matt Pierce, a hunter and target shooter from Minnesota, headed to the Northwoods to avoid the pandemic and the associated lockdowns, he was thinking about his guns. Pierce is the co-founder of Minnesota Gun Owners for Safety, a group connected to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and he was bringing his rifle up to the cabin just in case coronavirus confines everyone to their homes until deer hunting season. But he was also leaving some of his guns at home, and he wanted to make sure they were secure.

"We're going to have people coming in and working on the house for us while we're gone and it could include children and adults together," Pierce told a press call set up by the Giffords Center. “So just made sure before I left that all the guns are safely stored and that includes trigger locks on all my guns." He stored his ammunition separately, and made sure that the keys to both the guns and the ammo were in safe places. "Kids have an incredible way of finding out where keys get stored and where they get hidden," he said.

Pierce is not the only one concerned about gun storage. Coronavirus has shut down nearly all of the public schools in the U.S., and with kids stuck at home with nothing to do, experts worry that they'll have more chances to get into their parents' improperly secured guns and injure or kill themselves. And as social isolation and job losses take hold, American gun owners who are struggling with depression may decide to use those weapons to take their own lives. Coronavirus could also put those living with an abuser at increased risk of death by firearm.

Only about 30 percent of Americans personally own a gun, according to Gallup, but 43 percent live in households with guns, and therefore potentially vulnerable to accidental shootings, suicides, or homicide stemming from domestic violence. There are so many firearms in American homes that sheltering in place comes with its own kinds of dangers.

"There has been a spike in gun purchasing. Understandably, people are anxious right now," Allison Anderman, senior counsel at the Giffords Center, said. "Many people think that if they feel safer with a gun, then they are safer with a gun. And it's no wonder people think this, as it's been the main line of reasoning that the gun industry has been promoting for decades… But the fact is that keeping a gun in the home makes the person more likely to be shot and killed. Not less."

Coronavirus-related depression and guns could be a fatal mix

According to Maryann Mason, a sociologist and an associate professor of emergency medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, social isolation can breed mental health issues ranging from depression to anxiety to cognitive decline. And if someone spirals downward to the point of having suicidal thoughts, having access to a gun puts them at extreme risk.

"In our field they call it the lethality factor," Mason said. "There's a lot of research that shows that people who attempt suicide and do not complete don't go on to attempt again. But when you have something as lethal as a firearm you don't get a chance to go on."

If you have access to guns and think you might become suicidal, Mason advised, you should unload those guns, put them in a lockbox, and give them to someone you trust while retaining the key, removing the fatal temptation from your household.

One demographic particularly at risk for suicide, Mason said, is white men in their 40s and 50s. Financial troubles like the loss of a job or a foreclosure—misfortunes that are increasingly likely with the coronavirus decimating the economy—can be triggers for suicide among that group, she cautioned, so she advises people close to men who are struggling to limit their access to guns. (In some states, family members can ask courts to take someone's guns away in what is called an extreme risk protection order.)

Kids are especially vulnerable

Teenagers are another group that dies by suicide at a shockingly high rate. They could find themselves adrift with school and their normal social outlets gone, and they likely know where the guns in their houses are kept. "If there are guns in the household and there are teenagers, please, please lock those guns up securely," Mason said. That means storing unloaded guns and ammo in separate secure safes or lockboxes.

Even if a teenager or child isn't intentionally seeking to harm themselves, they can accidentally shoot themselves or someone else if they pick up an unsecured gun. According to a survey conducted in 2015, 4.6 million minors live in homes with loaded, unlocked firearms; in 2018, USA Today reported, at least 73 kids under the age of 12 died from accidental shootings. Sometimes adults face negligence charges for failing to watch the children closely or lock up their guns, but according to the Giffords Center, there's no federal law mandating proper gun storage, and not many states have stringent requirements. That puts kids potentially in harm's way, especially when they're all stuck at home because of a worldwide epidemic.

"With children at home more, they're not going out to school, they're going to be getting into things," Mason said. "And with many parents working from home, they're not able to supervise as closely."

We won't know how bad coronavirus gun deaths are for a while

While experts like Mason hypothesize that suicides, accidental shootings, and the killing of people by their abusers could all rise as a result of everyone being cooped up with each other and their guns, it'll be difficult to know what effect coronavirus has had, at least for a while. Centers for Disease Control data on firearm deaths for this period won't be available until late 2021 at the earliest, a Giffords Center spokesperson said, and even then, deaths during the lockdown will be lumped in with the rest of this quarter, potentially obscuring trends.

But a few things are clear. Most gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides, and gun ownership rates correlate with the rate of suicides and domestic homicide, particularly the killing of women. American homes, in many cases, are dangerous places. So experts are pleading: lock up your guns.

"This is a time where we're all being called upon to adapt. And during this time of uncertainty and change, we must remember to uphold the values of responsible gun ownership," Anderman said. "It is our hope that gun owners nationwide will keep their firearms stored safely and securely. And not just during this current pandemic, but long after COVID-19 is contained, because doing so will save lives."

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