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In this issue, which comes out five years since the October 1, 2017, mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, we revisit survivors to see how that night has changed the course of their lives.

Safe Place

A view of guns through a chain link fenced locker at Max Pawn Shop
Photo: Jeff Scheid

Can efforts to promote safe gun storage help curb thefts and child deaths? Almost everyone agrees, it’s worth a try

In the debate over firearm safety, the facts don’t merely speak for themselves, they yell: Nevada has the sixteenth-highest firearm death rate in the nation, and could be poised to rise on that list, as overall gun deaths increased by 24 percent in the state from 2011 to 2020. Yet the most concerning statistic by far is that of childhood gun fatalities — an average of 41 children and teens die because of firearms each year in Nevada, making gunshot wounds the leading cause of death for minors in the state. For experts, this is especially troubling, considering how many of these childhood fatalities are preventable by one simple habit: safely storing guns and ammunition.

“There’s a level of responsibility that comes with gun ownership, and safe and secure storage is part of that,” says Jamie Bunnell, the Nevada state chapter leader for gun safety organization Moms Demand Action. “That’s what distinguishes between a gun owner and a responsible gun owner.” Proper firearm storage means locking up unloaded guns and their ammunition separately. Oftentimes this is in a gun safe, protected by lock and key, passcode, or biometrics. Though less ideal than a safe, gun locks and cable locks also secure a gun by preventing it from firing. Safely storing firearms is crucial to prevent a child picking up and firing a loaded gun. “Children are not responsible for keeping themselves safe,” Bunnell emphasizes. “Secured firearms truly do take that responsibility off the kids and put it back on the gun owner, who was supposed to be responsible in the first place.”

Yet accidental discharges are not the only scenarios responsible for those 41 minors who die by guns each year here. Suicides, sadly, make up a whopping 41 percent of all childhood gun deaths in Nevada. “We know that having an unsecured weapon, easily accessible, can literally mean the difference between a suicide success and a failure,” Bunnell says. “It can be the deciding factor in saving a life.”

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Graphic by: Scott Lien

Research bears this out: If just half of the households in America with children that contain at least one unlocked firearm switched to locking all of their firearms, one-third of youth suicides and accidental deaths by gun could be prevented. That translates to 14 fewer Nevadan youth dying by firearms per year, which could have a tangible impact.

“Failing to secure a gun impacts the child, the mother, the father, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, their friends and teachers at school and church,” says Scott Damron, founder and chief instructor at Global Security and Training Solutions (GSTS), a local firearm training organization and member of the NRA Business Alliance. “The consequences are much, much bigger and more severe than people think about.”

Properly locking up guns and ammunition extends beyond protecting someone’s own family, however — it can also save the lives of total strangers by preventing firearm theft. “There’s an astronomical number of guns that are stolen from individual gun owners each year,” says Allison Anderman, senior counsel and Director of local policies for Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “Many of those are stolen from homes, either when a gun owner is not present and leaves the gun unsecured, and it’s stolen in a burglary, or by people who may work in the home, like caregivers or workers.”

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Information on gun theft in Nevada is hard to come by, but one report from the Center for American Progress estimates that, in the five-year period between 2012 and 2017, almost 30,000 firearms were stolen in the state. What happens after these guns are taken? “They’re often used in subsequent crimes and sold illegally,” Anderman says. “A gun mishandled can be very, very dangerous,” Damron warns, “and that’s what can happen when it’s not stored properly.”

But there’s a bright side — multiple community efforts aimed at reducing the rates of childhood fatalities and theft associated with guns. One example can be found at Max Pawn Shop in Las Vegas. “We’ve had the waves of shootings for the last few years,” owner Michael Mack says, “and lots of those situations are where the guns weren’t stored properly, and they got into the hands of young people of all walks of life. And they shouldn’t have been.” Mack recently launched a program that allows legal gun owners to drop off their firearms and ammunition at Max Pawn for up to 120 days (or a full year in select cases), if life circumstances don’t allow for safe storage at home, such as when kids come visit grandparents or gun owners go on vacation. Mack has already stored almost 80 firearms since late July, as well as given out countless gun locks, all for free. “If we save one life, we’re successful,” Mack says. “It’s that simple.”

Another promising solution to the problem of minors harming themselves or others with firearms is Nevada’s CAP (Childhood Access Prevention) legislation, passed in 2019. Nevada is one of only 22 other states to have such a law. The CAP law charges adults who fail to secure a gun with a misdemeanor if a minor is likely to access it and a felony if they know that there’s a chance the child will commit a crime with the unsecured firearm.

Ultimately, Damron says, it all comes down to gun owners needing to make more conscious decisions about how they handle their guns. “Once we have that loaded firearm in our hand, subconsciously or consciously, we tend to pay more attention to what we’re doing with it,” he says. “Once we put it down, it becomes less of a conscious or critical task in our mind.”

Despite the troubling statistics, efforts from local and state-level community members to promote safe firearm storage leave advocates cautiously optimistic. “I’m always hopeful to see more CAP laws,” Anderman says. “There are already a number of states that have these laws, and there are others that have versions of the law that can be strengthened.” Bunnell of Moms Demand Action agrees, though she sees the future less in legislation and more in the hands of normal Nevadans. “I’m very hopeful, because the more I talk to people here in Nevada, the more I see that there is this middle ground that can be reached with conversation and education. Most gun owners that I speak with truly do want to be responsible.” Φ

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