New study shows bipartisan agreement on guns: safe storage makes for good neighbors

Though few issues are as polarizing, a new study published Monday found some common ground in how Americans view guns in their local communities. Traditionally pro-gun respondents did not have a preference for gun-owning neighbors, and all respondents were averse to their neighbors owning AR-15s. All groups, including pro-gun groups, were also uncomfortable with neighbors storing their guns unlocked and loaded for quick access.

According to a 2023 survey by the Department of Public Health, 12% of households in Los Angeles County reported having at least one firearm in or around their home. That translates to one out of every 9 households and, because of self-reporting bias, is likely an undercount.

Owners tend to be male, older, and white. Certain parts of the county also have higher rates of gun ownership. In the Antelope Valley, 24% of respondents reported owning a gun. The East, South Bay, San Gabriel, and San Fernando areas also had gun ownership rates above 10%.

“Research often “frame[s] gun ownership as an individual choice, and also as a national policy preference, but there’s a lot of layers between national policy and individual choices, said Justin Sola, an incoming assistant sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.“There’s your family, there’s your household, there’s your friends, there’s your workplace. It can become incoherent if you collapse all those [layers] into external expressions of belief.”

In the recent study, Sola and his co-author Justin Pickett, criminology professor at the State University of New York at Albany, asked people to pick between different types of neighbors in order to understand how their policy preferences align with their immediate environments. Among several randomized characteristics was whether the person owned a gun, either a pistol or an AR-15.

Compared to a gunless neighbor, if the potential neighbor owned a pistol, the probability that respondents would choose to live near them dropped by 9 percentage points. For owners of AR-15s, the weapon of choice for many recent mass shootings, the probability plummeted by over 20 percentage points.

Many of the other randomized attributes also had an effect. In general, respondents preferred politically independent, non-Muslim neighbors who were female, married, and of a similar socioeconomic status. But AR-15 ownership was the single best predictor of respondents’ aversion to having someone as a neighbor.

After reading the research findings, Kimberly Southwell, California State Director of Women for Gun Rights said “Honestly, I don’t think we’ll ever agree on the numbers. But what this does show me is that the media blitz campaign against the AR-15 has absolutely continued to work.”

According to the survey results, however, traditionally pro-gun groups such as Republicans and gun owners also do not have a significant preference for living near gun owners. Among these pro-gun groups, respondents were about 5 to 16 percentage points less likely to choose a neighbor with an AR-15, when the alternative was a gunless neighbor.

Both Southwell and Dianna Muller, founder of Women for Gun Rights, said they would prefer their neighbors be armed, and that an AR-15 would be fine with them. They also said they did not have a preference on storage — however their neighbor chose to store their guns is up to them.

California’s 1989 assault weapons ban prohibits AR-15 models and other semiautomatic firearms with certain features in addition to fully automatic firearms. In October 2023, U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez of San Diego ruled that it was unconstitutional. The state filed an appeal and is awaiting a final decision from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Gun safety and storage

Do people want to interact with gun-owning neighbors if they know the guns are not stored safely?

The California Department of Justice says that safe gun storage means keeping the gun unloaded, using a trigger or cable lock that must be removed before the gun can be used and keeping the gun in a lock box or gun safe.

Southwell is also a firearms pistol instructor. She says that gun owners “are bopped over the head constantly with safety,” from all parts of the gun industry.

When researchers asked, they found that storage practices matter a lot. Every group, pro-gun groups included, was averse to interacting with a neighbor who stored guns unsafely. The probability that they would want to interact with the neighbor dropped by over 60 percentage points if they knew the neighbor stored their gun unlocked and 40 points if they only used a chamber lock.

But for many gun owners, easy access to their firearm for protection is more important than following safe storage practices. Southwell herself says she owns guns primarily for self defense and that she is seeing a dramatic increase in women wanting guns for the same reason. When it comes to the state requirement for safe gun storage, she thinks “there shouldn’t be a blanket [requirement] for everybody, because everybody’s home is different.”

A 2023 Pew survey found that 72% of gun owners say protection is a major reason they own a gun. But, while 81% of surveyed gun owners said they feel safer having a gun in the home, only 57% of non gun owners felt safer when a gun was in the house.

Sola and Pickett note that safe storage has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to decrease accidental shootings and suicides, especially for children. A 2017 survey found that just 66% of gun owners think it is essential for gun owners with children at home to keep their guns in a locked place and only 44% say guns should be kept unloaded.

In 2020, 237 Los Angeles county children were treated for firearm injuries and 47 children were killed. A 2021 survey found that an estimated 4.6 million children nationwide live in a home with an unlocked, loaded gun. Today, firearm injury is the leading cause of death for kids under the age of 18.

Andrea Welsing, director of the county’s Office of Violence Prevention, felt that the study results showed a “growing groundswell around the issue of gun safety.”

Since 2002, California has required firearm purchases to include a safety device but still, a 2023 Los Angeles Department of Public Health survey found that 32% of gun-owning county households report not locking their firearm.

Not only do gun locks prevent children and others in the household who should not have access, they also can prevent gun theft. The Department of Justice found that between 2005 and 2010, about 232,400 guns were stolen annually during burglaries and other property crimes.

Last week, Los Angeles County announced a new program to distribute gun locks free of charge. So far, they have received 439 online requests for 825 locks. Others, not included in that total, have been distributed at the Department of Health Services medical center.

Margot Bennett, executive director of Los Angeles based Women Against Gun Violence, the organization that sparked the idea for the free lock program, says “gun owners talk a good story about safe gun storage and locking their guns up, but they don’t. They don’t. And we’re not quite sure what it’s going to take. Safe storage laws are great, but the penalties for not storing your firearm safely are not great enough yet to be a deterrent.”

On Tuesday, Jennifer and James Crumbley became the first parents convicted in a U.S. mass school shooting after their 15 year old son brought an unsecured gun from their home and killed four students. They were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and each sentenced to at least 10 years in prison. Consequences like these are what Bennett suggests may be required before gun owners, especially those with children, start taking safe storage seriously.

Welsing says her office uses a three pronged approach to solving the problem of gun violence: prevention, intervention, and healing. She notes ongoing efforts including ongoing youth mental health summits and suicide prevention. She says the gun lock distribution is important but it is “just one piece of a puzzle.”

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