Fear of federal law may prevent gun retailers from storing firearms

(Reuters Health) - What if someone who lived with the young man who unleashed one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history this week had been concerned that he might harm himself or others and removed his AR-15 rifle from his home?

AR-15 rifles are displayed for sale at the Guntoberfest gun show in Oaks, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Would a gun retailer have been willing to temporarily store the gun that killed 17 students in Parkland, Florida?

A new study suggests that laws intended to prevent gun violence may have the unintended consequence of dissuading U.S. gun retailers from agreeing to temporarily store firearms in an effort to prevent suicides.

More than half of 95 gun retailers in eight western U.S. states responding to a 2016 survey said they viewed federal laws as making it harder to temporarily store guns, the study found. More than 60 percent of respondents reported concerns about knowing when it was safe to return guns as a barrier to their willingness to temporarily store them.

Half of U.S. suicide deaths involve guns, the authors report in Injury Prevention.

“Gun retailers are very willing to engage in conversation,” said senior author Carol Runyan of the Colorado School of Public Health in Aurora.

“Those within the legal arena need to work with public health professionals to help clarify what the legal issues are that gun retailers should be concerned about, and what they should not be concerned about, in helping store guns temporarily for suicide prevention,” she said in a phone interview.

The law itself is unclear.

Federal law prohibits felons, people convicted of certain domestic violence misdemeanors and people involuntarily committed to mental institutions from owning guns. But federal law, as well as some state laws, fails to specify protocols for temporary transfer of firearms, and that leaves gun retailers in a quandary over the proper steps to take when returning temporarily stored firearms, Runyan and colleagues had previously found.

“These laws aren’t crystal clear about temporary storage or transfer of firearms,” lead author Lauren Pierpoint, also of the Colorado School of Public Health in Aurora, told Reuters Health. “In reality, it’s just unclear.”

Researchers sent surveys to 601 gun retailers in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming and received responses from 95, which after adjustment for returned mail and other eligibility issues, constituted an admittedly low response rate of 25 percent.

The surveys only assessed retailers’ perceptions of the laws, not their actual knowledge of the laws.

Nearly half of the retailers offered temporary gun storage. But 52 percent viewed federal laws as making it hard to store guns, 25 percent viewed state laws as making it hard to store guns, and more than 81 percent of retailers who did not offer storage cited a concern over not knowing when it would be safe to return a gun.

“Public health professionals should clarify how state and federal laws relate to temporary transfer of firearms to seek strategies to reduce barriers to temporary transfer of firearms for suicide prevention,” Runyan said.

First, however, the laws need to be sorted out.

“The legal context can sometimes pose barriers to gun shops storing guns for customers,” said Catherine Barber, who directs the Means Matter campaign, a suicide-prevention project at the Harvard School of Public Health in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Firearm retailers and other opinion leaders in the gun-owning community can be a great resource in the effort to reduce suicide and should be turned to for advice and assistance,” she said by email.

Almost three-quarters of gun deaths in the mountain states are suicides, noted Barber, who was not involved with the study.

“For the person who is in a temporary crisis, or who occasionally has spikes of suicidality that they can weather, keeping guns out of reach during difficult periods is a simple safety strategy,” she said.

“There’s a lot in suicide prevention that’s very difficult, but this is an easy one,” she said. “When they see the data, people who care about gun rights are very concerned and want to help. And applying a ‘friends don’t let friends drive drunk’ approach to the problem capitalizes on values in the gun-owning community around safety and protecting your loved ones.”

SOURCE: Injury Prevention, online February 7, 2018.