Last updated: 12/25/2003|GunCite Home|
Trigger Locks and Mandatory Storage Laws


This page highlights two reasons why most gun rights advocates oppose mandatory trigger lock laws, and more generally, mandatory "safe storage" gun control laws. Such laws are an attack on the legitimate use of firearms for self-defense, and they are not constitutional (at the federal level).

Two studies attempting to gauge the efficacy of access prevention laws (reaching opposite conclusions) are also mentioned.

Eroding the Basic Right of Self-defense

This excerpt from "Children and Guns: Sensible Solutions," by David Kopel (1993), explains the self-defense concerns:

Many gunowners store their gun with a "trigger lock," a device which prevents the trigger from being squeezed until the lock is removed with a key. Other gunowners store their guns in safes, or in "quick-lock" safety boxes which pop open when a combination of buttons is pressed. Some gunowners store their gun separately from their ammunition, or with a critical component (such as the bolt) removed. Any of these steps may be a sensible way to deal with the presence of guns and children in the same house. NRA safety training strongly urges that any gun which is kept only for sporting purposes be stored in a condition so that it cannot be readily fired.

Does it make sense legally to mandate such storage conditions? No. In the United States, it is generally recognized that it is legitimate to own firearms for protection... A gun which must be locked up may not be readily available in an emergency.

Moreover, the circumstances of protection in each individual home are too variable to mandate any one policy... No single safety rule, written in the crime-free confines of a legislative chamber, can determine what the best practices for gun storage will be in all likely situations.

Another article by Kopel, titled, "Not-so Safe-Storage Laws: The only ones 'safe' are the intruders," asks:
"Rather than saving lives, could it be that trigger-lock laws are intended to condition Americans into believing that firearms aren't acceptable for self-defense, or worth the bother?"
It is one thing to require trigger locks be sold with every gun. It is another to demand their use, and even worse is the growing call for "common sense" gun control legislation requiring that ammunition and guns be stored separately. The separate storage demand ignores the existence of the aforementioned quick-access lock boxes--meaning the people proposing this kind of legislation are ignorant of the subject they wish to regulate, or they wish to eliminate firearms as a self-defense option, or both. And of course it disregards situations where it may not be in a citizen's best interest to have their self-defense weapon locked-up. (See the above two Kopel articles for elaboration.)

(Quick-access lock boxes allow one to store a gun either loaded or in the case of a semi-automatic handgun, unloaded with an ammo-clip in the same container.)

Existing Access Prevention Laws

Not all access prevention laws are mandatory. In fact most, currently, are not. According to Handgun Control Inc.'s (now called the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence) state summaries of access prevention laws, Hawaii is the only state where "safe storage" is mandatory. According to Handgun Control, Inc.'s Child Access Prevention (CAP) Laws and Gun Owner Responsibility page there are nineteen other states and several cities that have enacted legislation making it a crime to leave a loaded firearm where it is accessible by children.

Eroding the Basic Right of Self-defense: The Evidence

The following quotes are a small sample demonstrating there is a serious effort to restrict and dictate how citizens use and store their firearms, and ammunition.

The president expressed his support for a bipartisan Senate bill -- sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I. -- that is intended to encourage adults to store their guns and ammunition safely and separately.
         --- Clinton evokes Jonesboro, urges new lid on guns (Jane Fullerton, Arkansas Democrat_Gazette, July 9, 1998)
(During the 105th Congress [April 1998], the Child Firearm Access Prevention Act was introduced into the Senate [by Sens. Durbin and Chafee]. The bill would make it a crime if a juvenile obtains access to a firearm causing death or injury, unless the firearm had been safely stored. This bill would not require separate storage of guns and ammunition.)
"If you own a gun or you know people who do, make sure it's locked up and stored without the ammunition. In fact, make it stored where the ammunition is stored separately."
         --- Hillary Clinton (ABC Good Morning America Special on School Violence, June 4, 1999)
What is the best way to store a weapon?

Owning a firearm is a very serious responsibility. A gun in the home is associated with an increased risk of both homicide (three times) and suicide (five times) occurring in the home. Proper storage of a firearm can help to reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of accident, suicide or homicide. To reduce the risk, a gun should be stored unloaded and locked. In addition, the ammunition should be stored separately and locked in a secure place.
         --- Child Safety Lock Legislation, Handgun Control Inc., cited 10/22/2000
[The Brady Campaign now says it "supports Child Access Prevention (CAP) laws, or 'safe storage' laws that require adults to either store loaded guns in a place that is reasonably inaccessible to children, or if they decide to leave their guns left out in the open, to use a safety device to lock the gun. If a child obtains an improperly stored, loaded gun, the adult owner is criminally liable." (Guns in the Home, cited 9/10/2002)]

A DOJ Certified Course outline or lesson plan must contain the minimum basic firearms safety criteria referenced on the minimum qualifications checklist prescribed by the Department that includes the following:

E) Firearms Storage: Firearms must be unloaded when in storage; firearms and ammunition should be stored separately; firearms must be securely locked when in storage...

(F) Children and Firearms: Comply with Criminal Storage Laws; If children are or may be in the home, additional childproofing steps should be taken such as using both a trigger/action lock and a locked container...[emphasis added]
         --- California Department of Justice, Firearms Division, California Code of Regulations, Title 11, Chapter 12.3, Department of Justice Regulations for the Basic Firearms Safety Certificate Program

Guns are stored unloaded and in locked cases.
Guns and ammunition are stored separately.

         --- Home Safety Checklist (Adapted from Boy Scouts of America Safety Merit Badge pamphlet, 1997 revision)
Factors licensors will need to verify during the home study:

Fire Arms:[sic] Locked plus dismantled if possible, ammunition stored separately) [sic]
         --- Utah Foster Care Foundation Home Safety (cited 10/22/2000)

Lawmakers should require that firearms be stored unloaded in a locked container or with a trigger lock and that ammunition be stored separately.
         --- The Common Sense Foundation Issue Paper
Guns and ammunition should always be stored separately.
         --- City of Phoenix FIREARM SAFETY
[Yet, the page's opening paragraph contains the following sentence: "There is an 83 percent chance that if you are home when burglarized you will be injured."]
To repeat, the above is by no means an exhaustive representation.

Do Safe Storage Laws Reduce Gun Accidents?

A study published in a medical journal article (Cummings, Peter et. al, "State Gun Safe Storage Laws and Child Mortality Due to Firearms, "Journal of the American Medical Association, 278 [October 1, 1997]: 1084-86) "looked at 12 states that had enacted Child Access Prevention (CAP) laws in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The CAP laws provide criminal penalties for gun owners who fail to use trigger locks or otherwise adequately restrict access to their firearms by children." (Bell, Dawson, "Trigger locks may not be solution to gun problems," Detroit Free Press, March 29, 2000)

The following are additional excerpts from the just cited Detroit Free Press news article. (If the majority of news accounts were as thorough and balanced as this one, GunCite wouldn't be necessary. The article is worth reading in its entirety.)

"The researchers found that accidental deaths among children younger than 15 were '23 percent lower than expected.'

"Using the 23 percent figure, the researchers estimated that the lives of 39 children were spared in the CAP law states [over a period of up to 4 years]. In states without the laws, it was estimated that 216 children who died could have been saved [again over a 4 year period].

"[A] Free Press analysis of child mortality statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta indicated that although there was some impact from safe storage laws, it was barely measurable and dwarfed by a sharp decline nationally in accidental shooting deaths.

"That decline includes all manner of unintentional shootings, such as when a child finds a loaded gun in the house, plays with it and accidentally kills someone.

"Between the mid-1980s and the mid-90s, unintentional firearm fatalities in U.S. children younger than 15 dropped nearly 44 percent, the analysis found.

"In states that enacted CAP laws during that period, the decline was marginally greater -- 45.1 percent vs. 42.6 percent for non-CAP states.

"If the slight differences between CAP and non-CAP states could be entirely attributed to trigger locks, the laws were responsible for saving the lives of 1.75 children a year, the Free Press found." [emphasis added]

"Don Kates, a civil rights lawyer in California who has written several books about gun-related issues, said many of the public health researchers studying gun violence are open advocates of gun control whose work is twisted in public debate.

"Children younger than 5 are twice as likely to die from ingesting household poisons than by gunfire, said Kates, a gun-rights advocate.

" 'So the question for the Legislature should be: Is a parent criminally responsible for leaving an unlocked container of bleach below the sink?' Kates said."

Another conclusion the article reports is, "[T]rigger locks appeared to have no impact on murder or suicide by children, adolescents or adults."

Constitutional Issues

Even if we were to conclude that a federal law mandating safe storage of firearms makes for wonderful gun control policy, and would save lives, such a law should still be held unconstitutional. Although, it's far from guaranteed the courts would see it that way--not because of the Second Amendment, but rather the Tenth Amendment and the Commerce Clause:

"As written and originally understood, the Constitution limits the federal government primarily by enumerating its powers, which the Tenth Amendment confirms by declaring that those powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states or to the people. For a century and a half, the Supreme Court enforced those restraints. But with the New Deal and Roosevelt's 'Court-packing' scheme, the Court retreated from its traditional role, enabling Congress to indulge an ever-expanding array of powers. Today, under the Court's boundless reading of the Commerce Clause, which gives Congress power to regulate commerce among the states, the doctrine of enumerated powers is all but dead. Yet that doctrine was meant by the Framers to be the centerpiece of the Constitution, the principal restraint on federal power."
(Reynolds, Glen Harlan, Kids, Guns, and the Commerce Clause: Is the Court Ready for Constitutional Government?, Cato Policy Analysis (October 10, 1994).)
Congress was never delegated the power to regulate guns, to decide which ones we may own, how they should be carried, or stored. The courts have stretched the meaning of interstate commerce to include almost any economic activity, giving the federal government more control and power than what the Constitution originally intended.

If the result is good, or the majority likes it, should we care? The Founders designed a system containing checks and balances. The Constitution is supposed to be the supreme law of the land. When the rule of law is not adhered to, when that governor is removed, the potential for abuse and gradual erosion of liberty is increased. (This is not to say that the Constitution is perfect and must never be altered. There are mechanisms, such as amendments, for changing the structure of government.)

Only fairly recently, has the Supreme Court, ever so slightly, decided to restore meaning to the Constitution's Commerce Clause and the Tenth Amendment. For example, political columnist, Thomas Sowell comments on two recent rulings:

When the Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that carrying a gun near a school was not interstate commerce, there was consternation because it was the first time in decades that the high court had said that you couldn't just put "interstate commerce" on everything, like ketchup. Much of the outrage against this decision was based on people's thinking that the court was saying that it was OK to carry guns near a school.

What was truly scary was that people could see no further than the particular law or policy right under their noses. Current shrill reactions to the Supreme Court's ruling that Congress had no authority to create a federal law against rape is equally scary. The court was not voting in favor of rape, but in favor of dealing with rapists in state and local courts -- in order to maintain Constitutional limits on federal power.

Thomas concludes his article by warning us:
At the end of a century that has seen unspeakable horrors from the unbridled powers of governments, you would think that people would understand how important it is to keep federal powers from constantly expanding. Even in totalitarian countries, dictatorial powers did not suddenly appear overnight. The central government's powers just kept steadily growing, using claims to be meeting some particular need or crisis -- until, finally, freedom was all gone.

(Sowell, Thomas, Ignorance of freedom, Jewish World Review (May 19, 2000)

Two recent Supreme court cases involving national gun control laws and the Commerce Clause:

This (divided as they come) Supreme Court decision (5-4) presents both sides of the Commerce Clause argument:

Final Thoughts

Perhaps, for many households, keeping guns stored under lock and key may be the most prudent action, but people should be free to exercise and choose their own means of self-defense. The quotes above illustrate a growing movement to not only discourage defensive gun use, but to legislate it out of existence. If society wants to hold people accountable for genuinely negligent actions or child endangerment, it should do so across the board rather than single-out firearms. (For example, far more kids drown in private swimming pools than are killed in gun accidents.)

Citizens, not legislators, are best suited and entitled to make these kinds of decisions.

If you need more evidence than the above to see where most of this "common sense" legislation is heading, please see GunCite's "Nobody wants to take your guns."

More Commentary

Kopel, Dave and Volokh, Eugene, What Kids Don't Know Can Kill Them.

Sherman, Ralph D., Trigger Locks are Dangerous, The Hartford Courant, September 12, 1998.

Tavares, C.D., Trigger Locks and Airbags, Middlesex News, July 19, 1998.

National Rifle Association, Mandatory Storage/Trigger Lock Legislation.

Handgun Control Inc. (now called the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence), Child Access Protection Laws State Summaries and Child Access Protection Laws Q&A.

The Commerce Clause from Article I Section 8 of the Constitution:

To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;
Another relevant passage from the same section:
To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

|GunCite Home|