Firearms sales are surging nationally in 2020, as the country faces the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, a tense political climate, and civil unrest. And that’s true in Pennsylvania, too.
According to the Pennsylvania State Police, the Pennsylvania Instant Check System experienced a record high in the third quarter of 2020, processing 406,151 background checks between July and September — a 45% increase compared with that time period last year.
And many may have been first-time gun buyers. According to national firearm industry trade group the National Shooting Sports Foundation, as much as 40% of gun sales in the United States between January and July 2020 were to people who had never owned a firearm. That’s about five million new gun owners across America.
Pennsylvania does not require gun owners to have gun safety training or to safely store their firearms.
“As a gun owner and someone who sees the consequences of gun injury, this is something we should take seriously,” says Scott Charles, a gun violence educator and trauma outreach coordinator for Temple University Hospital. “We have a lot of novice, first-time gun owners taking that gun home where there are children, and the data we have says that firearm is most likely to be used to harm somebody in the home.”
So how can you be a safer and more responsible gun owner? Here are some things to consider:
Store your guns safely
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control advocacy nonprofit, about 4.6 million American children live in homes with at least one loaded, unsecured gun — and there were at least 309 unintentional shootings by children in 2019 nationwide (13 in Pennsylvania).
One way to help prevent unintentional access, Charles says, is to use a gun lock or gun safe. Charles has long distributed free cable gun locks, and if you’re in Philadelphia, you can even request one to be mailed to you. But if you need to buy one, they can be had for just a few dollars and are available from large online retailers like Amazon.
“Putting a gun lock on your gun should be a no-brainer,” Charles says. “The idea that ‘My kids won’t touch my gun because I told them not to’ is foolish. It only requires them to get it wrong once.”
Gun safes, meanwhile, can be as little as $50 and provide an extra step of security — especially against theft. Charles recommends bolting your safe to the wall or floor for extra security. And if you can afford it, he recommends using a device called a Simtek Sensor, which, at about $150, detects light and motion in your safe and alerts you via an app on your phone.
Guns should be stored unloaded, and ammunition should be kept securely away from the firearm itself for extra security, he says. And never keep your gun in your car, because it could easily be stolen.
Keep a record of your guns
While it’s difficult to know exactly how many guns are stolen from individuals each year, most sources peg the number between 200,000 and 500,000, according to Everytown for Gun Safety.
Charles says it’s important to document your guns, including:
Serial numbers and model(s)
Photos of each firearm
Any list, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives says, should be kept separate from your guns.
Keeping this documentation means that, in case of theft, you can provide police with information about what was taken. And while it’s not required in Pennsylvania to report a lost or stolen gun (though it is in Philadelphia), Charles says it is a good idea.
“I see what happens when bullets hit bodies,” he says. “The idea that one of my guns would be stolen and used against somebody is something that would be hard for me to live with. I take all the precautions I can to prevent them from being stolen.”
Communicate about gun safety
Talk about gun safety with the other people in your home — particularly if you have children, Charles says. Be SMART, a program by the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, suggests a number of tips for talking to kids about guns, including:
Discussing the topic of gun safety frequently
Emphasizing that a situation that involves an unsupervised gun is dangerous
Using simple language: “If you see a gun, don’t touch it. Tell an adult right away.”
You should also check with the families of your children’s friends about whether they have guns and what they do to secure them, says Adam Garber, executive director of CeaseFire PA. Charles seconds that, adding that “if the family is defensive about that information, don’t send your kids over.”
The other important group to reach out to, Charles says, is grandparents. In his experience, grandparents are the group that most often requests gun locks.
“These are folks who may have firearms and are not accustomed to kids being there all the time,” Charles says. “In many cases, we are talking about people who forgot they have guns in the house. Kids are great at finding things.”
While it’s not required in Pennsylvania, consider training so you know how to properly handle your weapon. Many local gun retailers and firearm ranges offer courses, so check around to see what’s in your area.
“It shouldn’t just be an intellectual exercise,” Garber says. “It should be firing it and learning how to fire it safely, and understanding what damage it can do.”
You should also consider training on basic gun safety and safe cleaning. Training, Charles says, should be approachable, and not feel intimidating or overwhelming.
“If you want to own one, I understand we have that ability,” Garber says. “Make sure you understand how to use it safely.”
Get help if you need it
Even if you are a responsible firearm owner, says Garber, you can still go through a “moment of crisis.” This is especially true for first-time handgun owners, who, a recent study found, are more likely to die from suicide by gunshot in the first dozen years of buying the gun, compared to non-owners. That risk is eight times higher if they are men, and 35 times if they are women.
If you are struggling, do not hesitate to ask for help — including asking a loved one to take your guns, even temporarily.
“If someone you know is going through that and said they had suicidal ideations, you should have conversations about having that firearm moved away from them,” Garber says. Some states have laws that allow family members or police to ask the court to temporarily take firearms away from a person who may be a danger to themselves or others. These are known as “red-flag laws” or “extreme-risk protection orders” — though Pennsylvania does not have such laws .
Gun safes and gun locks, Charles adds, may also help. Having the “added step of unlocking a gun safe” could give pause. And one 2004 study found that people who stored guns locked or unloaded or both were less likely to die by suicide with a firearm than those who did not.
Scott Charles, gun violence educator and trauma outreach coordinator for Temple University Hospital.
Adam Garber, executive director of CeaseFire PA.