The Killer in Your Closet
Coronavirus prevention may create a dangerous environment for gun owners.
Posted Apr 21, 2020
by Veronica A. Pear, MPH, MA (lead author); Amy Barnhorst, MD; and Garen J. Wintemute, MD, MPH.
Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) has people around the world feeling vulnerable and scared. In America, individualism and firearm culture have generated a unique response to this threat: stockpiling firearms and ammunition.1
Historically, it is unlikely that these firearms will be used defensively.2 In fact, there is strong evidence that, on balance, firearms in the home don’t protect people from harm, but instead put everyone in the household at increased risk of injury.3
The social, emotional, and economic stress introduced by the pandemic and the necessary measures we are taking to flatten the curve create a particularly volatile environment; introducing firearms to this mix could easily result in tragedy. Stay-at-home orders have been in effect for only a few weeks, yet there are already signs of increased intimate partner violence.4 If we don’t take proactive measures, firearm suicide, intimate partner homicide, and unintentional firearm injury—especially among children—are all likely to increase during the next few months.
Isolation and economic stress, particularly for people with mental illness such as depression, may result in thoughts of suicide. Domestic violence may increase in frequency and severity as partners spend more time at home together under high-stress conditions. We know that if a firearm is readily available in either of these situations, violent impulses can easily turn deadly.5,6
In addition to intentional violence, unintentional violence is also likely to increase over the coming weeks. Many people have purchased new firearms, perhaps for the first time. Moreover, children are home from school and will be spending much more time indoors than usual. In one study, 73% of children under 10 reported knowing where firearms were stored in their home, and more than one-third admitted to having handled a firearm in the home; 22% of parents were unaware that their children had handled these firearms.7 Adults and kids alike are at risk for unintentionally shooting themselves or others if firearms are not stored or handled safely.
These potential outcomes are not inevitable, and there are concrete actions we can take to make sure firearm violence does not become another downstream effect of the pandemic. If you’re a firearm owner, you can review safety videos online8 and store your firearms unloaded and locked up, with ammunition locked up separately. Evidence shows that safe storage of firearms reduces risk of unintentional injuries among children.9 If you don’t have a gun safe, consider getting trigger locks, which are small, affordable, and easily shipped, until you can purchase one.
If you feel like you would be safer without your firearms during this period of heightened stress, you can temporarily have your firearms stored away from your home. Laws vary by state, but temporary transfer to a trusted person, such as a family member, may be permitted.10 In addition, most police departments will store firearms during a time of crisis. Call your local police agency to arrange the exchange ahead of time. Some firearm dealers will also provide temporary storage, but many may be closed because of the pandemic. Maps of firearm storage locations have been created for Colorado and Washington.11,12
If you’re a medical doctor or mental health provider, now is the time to ask your patients about firearm access and counsel them about how they can minimize the risks of having a firearm in the house (e.g., safe storage). No law in any state prohibits these conversations, and research shows that patients are generally receptive to having them. They trust their doctors to give them good health and safety advice about things like seatbelts, cigarette smoking cessation, and firearms. Guidance for having these conversations have been published in Annals of Internal Medicine.13
Finally, if you know someone who is at particularly high risk of harming themselves or someone else, you may be able to petition for the firearms to temporarily be removed with an Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO). Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have enacted some form of extreme risk law that enables law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from people who are adjudicated to be at immediate risk of harming themselves or others with a firearm.14 Rules for who can serve as a petitioner vary somewhat by state, but you can always tell law enforcement if you have concerns and they can pursue the case, including petitioning for an ERPO, as appropriate.
The warranted but drastic steps being taken to suppress the spread of COVID-19 are unlike anything we have lived through before. People have a right to feel anxious and scared. They have a right to buy guns. If we do not want this virus to take even more lives through firearm violence, however, we need to make sure those firearms are kept away from children, handled safely by trained adults, and in extreme circumstances, temporarily removed from high-risk situations. Just as we are bending the curve of coronavirus infections through social distancing, masking, and handwashing, we can prevent coronavirus-related firearm violence through proactive preventive measures.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
- Psychology Today Therapy Directory
Veronica Pear is a Ph.D. candidate in Epidemiology at University of California (UC), Berkeley and a Research Data Analyst at the Violence Prevention Research Program (VPRP) at UC Davis. Garen Wintemute is an emergency physician at the UC Davis Medical Center and director of VPRP and the UC Firearm Violence Research Center.
1. Collins K, Yaffe-Bellany D. About 2 Million Guns Were Sold in the U.S. as Virus Fears Spread. The New York Times. April 1, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/04/01/business/coronavirus-gun-sales.html. Accessed April 19, 2020.
2. Hemenway D, Solnick SJ. The Epidemiology of Self-Defense Gun Use: Evidence from the National Crime Victimization Surveys 2007–2011. Prev Med. 2015;79:22-27.
3. Anglemyer A, Horvath T, Rutherford G. The Accessibility of Firearms and Risk for Suicide and Homicide Victimization Among Household Members: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Ann Intern Med. 2014;160(2):101-110.
4. In Quarantine With An Abuser: Surge In Domestic Violence Reports Linked To Coronavirus. The Guardian. April 3, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/apr/03/coronavirus-quarantine-abuse-domestic-violence. Accessed April 20, 2020.
5. Harvard T.H. Chan Shool of Public Health. Lethality of Suicide Methods. Means Matter. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/means-matter/means-matter/case-fatality/. Accessed April 19, 2020.
6. Zeoli AM, Malinski R, Turchan B. Risks and Targeted Interventions: Firearms in Intimate Partner Violence. Epidemiol Rev. 2016;38(1):125-139.
7. Baxley F, Miller M. Parental Misperceptions About Children and Firearms. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2006;160(5):542-547.
8. National Shooting Sports Foundation. Firearm Safety First, Last, Always. 2018; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chMQqClsLMQ. Accessed April 19, 2020.
9. Monuteaux MC, Azrael D, Miller M. Association of Increased Safe Household Firearm Storage With Firearm Suicide and Unintentional Death Among US Youths. JAMA Pediatr. 2019;173(7):657-662.
10. Gibbons MJ, Fan MD, Rowhani-Rahbar A, Rivara FP. Legal Liability for Returning Firearms to Suicidal Persons Who Voluntarily Surrender Them in 50 US States. Am J Public Health. 2020;110(5):685-688.
11. Colorado Firearm Safety Coalition. Gun Storage Map. 2019; https://coloradofirearmsafetycoalition.org/gun-storage-map/. Accessed April 19, 2020.
12. Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center. Washington Firearm Safe Storage Map. 2020; http://depts.washington.edu/hiprc/firearm-storage-wa/. Accessed April 20, 2020.
13. Pallin R, Spitzer SA, Ranney ML, Betz ME, Wintemute GJ. Preventing Firearm-Related Death and Injury. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2019;170(11):ITC81-ITC96
14. Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Extreme Risk Protection Orders. 2020; https://lawcenter.giffords.org/gun-laws/policy-areas/who-can-have-a-gun/extreme-risk-protection-orders/. Accessed April 19, 2020.