Kirby Boyce hopes 80, 239 people in Massachusetts – and ultimately a majority of people across the state and the country – agree with him on the need for safer gun storage.
Those are the number of signatures Boyce, a retired computer consultant who lives in the West Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, needs to get an initiative placed on the state ballot requiring firearm owners to keep all weapons in their residence, place of business or vehicles in a gun safe, or face criminal charges.
Boyce began his effort in 2019, and despite a few setbacks, he’s hopeful that the initiative will finally be on the ballot this spring—an achievement he hopes will resonate elsewhere in the nation as well.
“My motivation wasn’t just Massachusetts,” Boyce told The Crime Report. “I figured I could come up with a decent law and hopefully the federal government might work to make it national.”
Boyce believes the time is right.
After a record-setting year of gun violence, including 691 mass shootings at schools, shopping malls and inside homes, states seem to be responding to constituents like Boyce with efforts that seek to hold firearm owners accountable when a gun gets into the hands of a minor or an unauthorized user―or at the least support campaigns that encourage secure gun storage habits.
The campaign picked up traction following the Nov. 30 shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan, which left four teenagers dead. Prosecutors have charged both parents of the 15-year-old alleged shooter, Ethan Crumbley, with four counts of involuntary manslaughter.
They say the parents, who admitted to purchasing the firearm used in the shooting as a gift for their son during Black Friday, left it in an unlocked drawer in their bedroom.
Those charges proved a catalyst for a new proposal in 2021 for federal gun storage legislation.
Two weeks after attending candlelight vigils, church services and community events with constituents, neighbors and friends to honor the students, U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) announced she would introduce the Safe Kids, Safe Guns Act.
The first-term congresswoman described the bill, which would impose a prison term of up to five years on gun owners when a child gains access to an unsecured firearm and it leads to injury, or uses the firearm to commit a crime, as “a serious effort to address a safety issue that is taking American lives.”
The Safe Guns, Safe Kids Act, H.R. 6370, was officially introduced on Jan. 10 and assigned to the House Committee on the Judiciary.
The outlook remains cloudy. Despite federal guidelines on storage and apparently broad consensus about ensuring firearms stay out of the hands of children, the chance of success is still mired in the gun control/gun rights debate that has perennially stalled efforts to tackle America’s gun violence epidemic.
Boyce believes his proposal ultimately will protect Second Amendment rights.
“If they don’t fix it, it just gives more ammo to try to take people’s legal guns away,” Boyce says. “If the legal people keep their legal guns locked up and they don’t get stolen, it’s going to stop crime.”
Decisions already taken at the state level have been encouraging to one-man-band campaigners like Boyce.
Trigger Locks and Safes
As of September 2021, firearm owners in Oregon must store their weapons in a safe or use a trigger lock when they aren’t being carried or under their control. That law brings the total number of states with some form of a gun storage law to eleven.
Michigan legislators are set to discuss a bill that would impose a maximum penalty of five years in prison on a gun owner in the state when a minor gains access to an unsecured weapon and someone is injured or killed.
Massachusetts remains the only state that requires all firearms to be stored with a locking device in place when they aren’t in use or under the owner’s immediate control.
Boyce acknowledges that Massachusetts is considered to have the strongest gun laws in the U.S. But as most experts have pointed out, there’s no “wall” preventing unlicensed or stolen guns from moving across state borders.
Even before the current upsurge in gun violence, police have identified dozens of weapons used in violent crimes as originating elsewhere—stolen or trafficked.
That in fact was what motivated Boyce to get involved in his initiative.
“I started looking at gun thefts,” Boyce said, adding that became alarmed after reading about the thousands of guns stolen each year in Texas.
Indeed, more guns are stolen from Texas each year than any state in the country. In the decade between 2007 and 2016 at least 186,548 firearms were reported stolen, according to Texas Gun Sense, which advocates for policy solutions to reduce gun injuries and deaths.
268,942 Guns Missing in Texas
A Center for American Progress gun theft analysis estimated 268,942 guns were stolen in Texas between 2012 and 2017. The state also leads the nation in the number of firearms stolen from licensed gun dealers.
“Now you know where the stolen guns end up,” Boyce said describing crimes committed with stolen guns in the Boston communities of West Roxbury and Dorchester as well as cities like Chicago.
Since there is no way to force legal gun owners to ensure their own firearms are safe from thievery, or in most states even require them to report a stolen firearm, Boyce says that the current Massachusetts laws still “aren’t strong enough”; nor, by implication are storage laws elsewhere.
“I want them locked up,” Boyce says. “As far as I’m concerned, if you are going to own gun you should be responsible to other people and lock them up when you are not in the same room with them. You should not leave your weapon hanging around the house,” Boyce says.
Austin’s ‘Lock Arms for Life’
Leesa Ross, founder of the Austin, Texas-based advocacy group Lock Arms for Life, agrees.
But she doesn’t believe the answer lies in legislation.
Ross is launching a grassroots education campaign that involves partnering with the city’s public health department. The campaign will kick off this spring with ads on transitways advising residents that “safe storage saves lives.”
Ross began advocating for secure gun storage with a national gun violence organization as she recovered from the loss of her oldest son Jon, who at age 23 was killed in 2009 in an unintentional shooting after someone left a loaded gun on a coffee table at party.
But she found unique challenges in Texas, a state where 37 percent of adults own firearms and may be less inclined to be told what to do with them.
“There were a lot of doors in Texas that people weren’t willing to open up,” Ross told The Crime Report.
“Schools were very hesitant about allowing me to come in and speak, but once I created Lock Arms, I could show that I wasn’t coming to tell them what to do with their firearms — other than to ask them to please store them safely.”
Nonetheless, many in the gun violence advocacy community say that that federal action would create the momentum needed for a national change in perspective on this issue.
“If a 15-year-old boy can get hold of a weapon purchased by his father on a Friday and use it to terrorize and murder his classmates on a Tuesday, something in our country is horribly wrong,” Michigan Rep. Slotkin said.
The Safe Kids, Safe Guns Act is just the latest example of gun storage policy efforts on the federal level in 2021, including the Safe Gun Storage Act to Save Lives and the Kimberly Vaughan Safe Storage Act.
Existing federal law requires gun dealers to sell firearms with a locking device and a rule set to take effect February 2022 will require them to certify the availability of gun locks at point of sale.
In recent months, there has been bipartisan support has emerged for an initiative that would provide tax credits to gun dealers for sales of gun storage devices.
Even so, there is no requirement to use these locks for household storage, much less federal legislation that holds gun owners accountable for harms that occur by means of an unsecured weapon in the hands of an unauthorized user.
But the hurdles to going further remain formidable.
Experts concede it is unclear if the legislative and regulatory efforts under consideration can withstand constitutional scrutiny.
Although the Washington state cities of Seattle and Edmonds in 2018 succeeded in passing gun storage policies that impose substantial monetary penalties on firearm owners whose weapons aren’t stored in a gun safe, both cities have had to fend off challenges from gun rights advocates who say these policies violate state law.
Washington is among 42 states with a firearm preemption law that limits local governments from enacting policies on gun or ammunition sales.
Lawyers for the city of Edmonds say the case can set a legal precedent.
“In the face of ambiguity about what regulations related to firearms fall within the preempted field, cities and counties may be hesitant to employ their police power to protect the health and safety of Washingtonians,” Jessica Goldman of Summit Law Group wrote in a March 2021 petition to the court.
“This case is a perfect vehicle to provide clarity and guidance to local governments and to the community members who push their local governments to act to prevent tragedies.”
The Washington Supreme Court is set to hear the challenge to Edmonds gun storage law this month.
Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, Boyce says he is confident he will get support for his initiative among gun owners.
“I can get the 80,000 signatures,” he says describing his pre-pandemic conversations with firearm owners. “When I learn they have firearms, my first question is ‘Do you have a gun safe?’ So far every one of them has said, ‘Yeah!’”
“I don’t know anyone that I know that has firearms that doesn’t have a gun safe.”
Can Hardliners Turn Soft?
The extent to which consensus is possible on holding firearm owners accountable for protecting their guns from unauthorized use remains unclear, but there have been significant changes in some of the most hardline areas.
Lawsuits filed after the 2018 school shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas that left eight students and two substitute teachers dead, suggest that survivor families are ready for such a remedy.
Armed with two of his father’s weapons, a 17-year-old student on May 18, 2018 allegedly opened fire during a first period art class. In addition to the ten deaths, 13 others were injured.
According to the complaint by relatives of the teens and teachers killed and injured:
This mass shooting was enabled by the negligent actions of defendants Antonios Pagourtzis and Rose Marie Kosmetatos, who knew that their son was at risk of harming himself or others, but still irresponsibly and negligently stored their firearms so their son could access them and irresponsibly and negligently permitted him to acquire ammunition.
At the same time, states and local governments are introducing gun storage laws with the idea to improve safety, consumers, since the beginning of the pandemic, have been buying more guns and making them easier to retrieve in the interest of safety.
Amid record gun sales, five percent of parents with children between age 14 and 18 who responded to a 2020 Firearm Safety Among Children and Teens national survey said increased civil unrest, threat of home invasion and fear of the unknown at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic were factors that led them to make their firearms more accessible, including storing a firearm unlocked and loaded.
“Paradoxically, some parents’ perceptions that the outside world was threatening their family safety motivated the changes in firearms storage practices within the home that increased risk to their teen,” Rebeccah Sokol, study co-author, behavioral scientist and assistant professor at Wayne State University School of Social Work, told The Crime Report.
Even before the pandemic more than half of U.S. gun owners were storing a firearm in their home either unlocked or unloaded, according to a 2018 national survey.
While supporting Second Amendment gun ownership rights, Ross says safety concerns aren’t a valid reason for firearm owners to forgo safe gun storage habits. Ross wants owners to heed the advice of the safe storage advocacy communities to store guns locked and unloaded — with ammunition stored separately.
“You need to put your gun in a safe, and you need to practice getting into and out of that safe quickly,” Ross says.
After the shootings in at Santa Fe High school, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott supported an effort to raise the age in the state’s child access prevention law that triggers liability to firearm owners, but the bill didn’t pass.
It was “a missed opportunity for common sense safety measures,” Nicole Golden, of Texas Gun Sense told The Crime Report. “We agree with what Governor Abbott said in the past – that the worst violation should be a felony, the age covered by the law should be younger than 18.”
Messaging vs Law
Less inclined to push for gun storage legislation in Texas, Ross says that a unified message in Texas may help get the point across.
“One of the problems I see right now is that everybody’s got their own messaging out there,” Ross said. “[Gun owners] just need to be seeing the one thing over and over and over again — not 50 million different messages about the same thing.”
In Massachusetts, Boyce agrees that the outcome of gun storage policy efforts, be they voluntary measures or local, state and federal legislative proposals, also may come down to messaging.
“What I learned is to present the subject as ‘gun safety’ and not ‘gun control,’” Boyce says.
Cassie M. Chew is a 2021 John Jay/Arnold Ventures Justice Reporting Fellow. She has worked as a reporter on Capitol Hill and has written previously for The Crime Report, ABA Journal and Civil Eats.