A few years ago, one of my colleagues called to ask me a favor. She was organizing a “Town Hall Debate” about legalizing marijuana, and was having a difficult time finding someone from the university to sit on the panel who would argue in favor of legalizing marijuana. It took me a few seconds, but I responded “sure, why not?” and a few more seconds before I realized, as a non-smoker, I actually don’t have an opinion of whether we should legalize marijuana or not; how would I ever advocate one way or the other? But I had made a commitment to participate, so I did what I do best: I started researching marijuana, including the health effects, the legal ramifications, the financial implications. Anything marijuana related, I read. I learned a few things that I hadn’t known previously, and confirmed a few things that I had suspected, but had no proof for. Newsflash: smoking marijuana does damage to your lungs. But here’s the thing that I found most interesting: children who have a comprehensive education about smoking marijuana are less likely to abuse marijuana compared to children who are taught “abstinence-only” marijuana education.
We learned through alcohol prohibition in the 1920s in America, and through abstinence-only sex education more recently, that not talking about alcohol use, drug use, and sex, and not providing people with the tools to handle alcohol, drugs, and sex when confronted with it, has devastating effects. We also know that with comprehensive sex education, unwanted pregnancies decrease and with comprehensive substance abuse education and role playing, substance abuse decreases.
Prohibition and abstinence only-education fail to decrease undesirable behavior; education is key in changing behavior.
A few months ago, a close acquaintance of mine completed a course to gain a permit to carry a concealed gun. A staunch Republican, my friend believes strongly in gun ownership rights, shoots regularly, and legally owns many guns. But my friend had never taken a gun safety course. Mixed in with learning how to properly carry a handgun, learning the laws of carrying in California, and practicing how to shoot, the most important piece of education my friend reported to me from the class was how to properly store guns to prevent them falling into the wrong hands.
“Well, looks like we’ll be making some changes around here,” my friend said to me after the class ended. “I didn’t realize how much we were doing wrong storing our guns before.” It was a powerful statement.
Let me concede a few things here: we cannot stop all gun violence in the U.S.; that’s a valiant goal, but not a manageable or realistic goal. There is no way to round up the 300 million or so guns in the U.S., although some cities and counties are doing a good job of getting guns off the streets and out of the hands of criminals. And yes, I know, if someone is very determined to harm another person, and a gun isn’t available, they might be determined enough to find alternate means. There will always be people who feel a sense of anomie, disconnectedness, anger, and resentment, who lash out. And no, I’m not naive enough to believe that criminals will heed stricter gun control laws. But there are ways to reduce the number of guns available to people who might use them to harm themselves or others, a concept that gets support from both conservatives and liberals.
Our constitution guarantees the right to bear arms, but even with that, in a 2013 Gallup Poll, the vast majority of Americans supported criminal background checks for all gun purchases in the U.S. In other words, 91% of people agree that not everyone should have the right to bear arms. As responsible gun owners, we need to take every measure we can to keep guns out of the hands of children, particularly, and people who should not legally possess them due to mental illness and criminal history.
As I thought more about gun violence in the days that followed the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon last week, and with every new opinion and article that I read, I became more discouraged at the seemingly vast chasm between the talking-heads, until I realized that the one thing that nearly everyone agreed on was this: not everyone has the right to bear arms. Conservatives blamed mental illness for Umpqua, despite no correlation between mental illness and gun violence, and street criminals for the rest of the gun violence in the U.S. (read between the lines: conservatives believe these groups shouldn’t have the right to bear arms) and liberals called for stricter gun control laws.
We cannot stop all gun violence, but we can work to reduce it, just as we’ve done with traffic fatalities. The key is education.
But here’s the thing: to buy a gun in the United States, no education is required. No education about how to carry, no education about the legal aspects of owning a gun, no education of how to properly store a gun in your home, office, or vehicle. Nothing.
Can we require people to take a gun safety course before purchasing a gun where they will learn just how wrong most people are storing their guns? Probably, but that requires more laws, more government involvement, more financial barriers that current gun owners might not be able to afford, and time to get everyone trained. It’s not a quick fix, and it’s one that would be tied up in legislation for years.
The one thing that can change today, now, and on a wide scale, is passive education about how to store guns so they don’t fall into the hands of the wrong people.
Two scenarios exist where guns fall into the wrong hands, and where proper gun storage can reduce that risk immediately: the first is guns falling into the hands of children and adults who don’t know how to use a gun and accidentally discharge the weapon, resulting in 600 or so deaths each year in the U.S. The second scenario is the theft and loss of guns.
Nearly 190,000 guns are lost or stolen in home and property thefts each year in the U.S., and another 25,000 or so are stolen from gun stores and gun shows. When a gun is stolen, it will likely never be recovered by its owner and is more likely to facilitate criminal activity. Some law enforcement agencies argue that stolen guns are the main cause for what seems to be an increase recently in gun violence in the U.S.
Many gun owners believe they will never be the victim of a property crime that would result in the theft of their gun, but often, thieves target homes and vehicles with guns because guns are easy to sell on the street. How do we prevent this? Through education on how to properly store weapons, and to encourage gun owners to protect their weapons at all times. We begin with passive education, such as billboards, television commercials, maybe even Ted Nugent could educate people on the key points of securing weapons properly in your home and vehicle. Over time, implementing programs that would help people purchase gun locks, safes, and carrying cases, so we know guns are more likely to be secure. In the long run, we encourage people to take a comprehensive gun safety course before they decide to own a gun.
We can’t change all gun violence over night and we’ll never reach a point where we stop all gun violence in the U.S., but we can take steps in our own homes to protect ourselves, our neighborhoods, and our guns, by properly storing them in secure environments.
For more information about safe gun storage, click here.