Is it safe to have a gun at home? Most Americans think so. In a 2018 poll by NBC, more than half of U.S. adults said they feel that gun ownership “does more to increase safety by allowing law-abiding citizens to protect themselves.”
But many researchers have called this opinion into question, citing studies that show significant safety risks associated with firearms. As gun violence continues to make headlines both in the U.S. and across the world, many are now calling for tighter restrictions such as imposing background checks on private sales and banning assault weapons. At the same time, many Americans feel that owning a gun is essential to their personal freedom, particularly when it comes to home protection.
Guns and safety
When you keep a gun in your home, there are many different things that can potentially go wrong. Knowing the potential safety hazards is an important first step in taking measures to avoid them.
- Guns present a high risk for accidents. In states where gun ownership is most prevalent, accidental gun deaths are seven times more common per capita than states with the fewest guns, says the Harvard Injury Control research center. Unsurprisingly, the chance of an accident is much higher in homes where guns aren’t stored properly. Best storage practices include leaving guns unloaded and locking them up.
- Most victims of gun-related accidents are young adults and children. According to data from The Trace, firearms are the second most frequent cause of death for Americans under the age of 19 after car accidents, accounting for 15% of deaths in this age group in 2016. Research from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia shows that nine out of 10 accidental shooting victims under the age of 19 are killed in their home, usually while playing with an improperly stored weapon.
- Guns are used to deter crime, but not as often as you’d think. Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicates that about 68,000 Americans defend themselves using a weapon every year, which represents about 6% out of 1.2 million violent crimes nationwide. However, Gun owners are about 900 times more likely to have their gun stolen than they are to use it to incapacitate their assailant.
- Suicides are more frequent and more deadly when guns are involved. Only one in 10 of those who attempt suicide use a firearm, according to data from Johns Hopkins, but guns account for over half of suicide deaths. And the New England Journal of Medicine shows that gun owners are nine times more likely to commit suicide than those who do not own a weapon.
Overall, many studies — such as this one from Harvard — have come to the conclusion that gun ownership has the opposite intended effect, turning crimes more deadly and posing a higher risk to the purchaser. But possessing a firearm is regarded as an essential freedom in the U.S., with 30% of adults owning at least one gun.
If you do choose to keep a gun in your home, there are certain safety precautions you need to take to keep yourself and your family safe. The National Shooting Sports Foundation suggests 10 essential measures to reduce or eliminate the risk of a firearm-related accident. These include:
- Never point a gun at anything you don’t intend to shoot.
- Keep firearms unloaded when not in use.
- Don’t ever assume the safety is on.
- Be aware of what’s beyond your target.
- Only use the correct ammunition for your gun.
- If a gun fails to discharge when fired, carefully unload it and dispose of the cartridge.
- Always wear ear and eye protection.
- Check the barrel for obstructions before shooting.
- Have a qualified professional service your gun regularly.
- Familiarize yourself with any new gun before using it for the first time.
Gun ownership by country
Laws regarding gun ownership vary widely across the world. Among highly developed countries, the United States is often considered one of the easiest places to buy a firearm. Specific laws are often left to state or local governments, although critics point to loopholes that make it relatively simple to bypass these restrictions. For example, most people buying a gun from a retailer must go through a background check before being allowed to make the purchase. However, anyone buying a gun in America from a private seller can do so without needing a background check. In most states, no license is required to own a gun.
On the other end of the spectrum is the United Kingdom, where gun ownership laws are among the strictest in the world. Most civilians are prohibited from owning guns altogether, although certain people who meet very strict requirements can apply for a license. This typically includes people who can prove they need a gun for their job or to hunt.
In Switzerland, things are much more relaxed. Private citizens can keep guns in their home with relatively few restrictions. However, automatic weapons that are allowed in the U.S. are banned in Switzerland, and licensing requirements are much stricter with a separate license issued for each individual weapon.
With such vastly different laws, the rate of ownership also varies. According to a report from Wired, the U.S. tops the list of guns per capita with nearly nine guns for every 10 citizens. Globally, these are the countries with the most guns:
1. United States: 120 guns per 100 people
2. Yemen: 53 guns per 100 people
3. Canada 36 guns per 100 people
4. Pakistan: 21 guns per 100 people
5. Germany: 20 guns per 100 people
Yet data from the 2019 UN Human Development Programme indicates that, compared to other advanced nations, the United States is much more dangerous for firearm deaths. In Norway, Switzerland, and Ireland, for example, less than one person per 100,000 are killed by guns. In the U.S., that number is more than 5 people per 100,000.
Overall, the numbers do not suggest that countries with more guns have lower homicide rates. For instance, the U.S. has six times as many guns per 100 people compared to Germany, yet the U.S. homicide rate is five times higher. The numbers are less extreme when comparing the U.S. against Canada, but the overall global numbers suggest no correlation between “more guns” and “more safety.”
As gun violence continues to get media attention, many Americans are reconsidering whether it’s safe to have a gun at home. Potential benefits such as home protection can be quickly overshadowed by the high rates of theft, accidents and suicide linked to gun ownership. The best way to safely own a gun is to follow strict safety protocols, but there’s no way to know how many gun owners in the U.S. respect these measures. If you do choose to keep a gun in your home, the most important thing you can do is make sure to keep it unloaded and locked up at all times, out of the reach of children and criminals.