“So, how do you keep your kids safe around guns?” The question caught me off guard. I was sitting in a restaurant with two friends of mine, a married couple who had gone shooting with me earlier that day. The talk had turned to our families, and then, inevitably, to kids and guns.
My friends asked what I thought about kids and guns because my husband and I have five children, all sons. At this writing, the boys range in age from 9 to 14, and they are very normal youngsters with almost insatiable curiosity and boundless energy. We have owned guns for most of their lives.
When it comes to keeping kids safe when there are firearms in the home, my theory is that it generally takes two layers of safety. In this article, I am going to talk about the first layer of safety: securing the guns away from little hands. In the article titled The First Lesson, I discuss the second, and ultimately more important, layer of safety: disarming children’s curiosity about firearms.
When my children were very small, I learned that I simply could not trust “child-proof” anything. Every one of my children learned how to climb out of his crib before he was a year old, and most of them figured out how to defeat the cabinet locks not long after that. A lock designed only to defeat a toddler, I soon discovered, might slow down a grownup but very rarely defeats a determined tot for long.
My kids are regular kids and they will do anything that strikes their fancies – if they think it is worth it, and if they believe they can get away with it. When it comes to playing with guns, my job has been to make sure they either don’t think it is worth it, or don’t believe they can get away with it.
As active as childish curiosity is, my husband and I believed the boys would look for and find any weapons we hid from them. My siblings and I always found birthday and Christmas presents my parents thought they had hidden well, and I had no reason to believe that my own kids would be any less nosy than I had been. And a toddler sitting atop my refrigerator one afternoon convinced me that to put any dangerous object on a high shelf “where the kids can’t get it,” is to engage in a fantasy.
I had to find a way to secure our firearms that did not rely upon locks designed only to defeat toddlers, that did not require my constant awareness of what my children were doing in the next room, and that made allowances for normal childhood curiosity.
Securing non-defense firearms
We took the obvious first step and decided that any weapon we didn’t expect to need quickly would be locked in a gun safe. A good safe is designed to defeat grown men using power tools, so we could rely on it to keep the firearms out of the hands of our toddlers. As an added measure of safety, we would make sure every gun in the safe was unloaded. And we would store the ammunition somewhere else, behind another lock and key. We decided to get a big, sturdy safe.
Then we came back to the real world and looked at what we could actually do. When the kids were very small, so was our bank account. A burglar-resistant gun safe was plainly best, but a good safe was going to cost more money than we had. So we took several temporary measures that were not as secure as a regular safe but that were better than nothing.
But let’s talk about safes for a moment. A top-end safe can protect firearms from both theft and fire. Prices are generally based upon how well the safe is designed to do one or both of these things.
Generally speaking, safes are rated for burglary resistance according to how long the door can withstand entry attempts with tools or torches. Some safes are rated to be tool or torch resistant on all sides, not just the front, and are correspondingly more expensive.
The most common way for a home safe to be defeated by a burglar is for it to simply be picked up and carted off to where it can be broken into at the burglar’s leisure. Almost all safes come pre-drilled so the safe can be bolted to the floor or walls. This bolting is an integral part of the safe’s security features, and no matter how heavy the safe may be, it is not properly installed unless it is bolted in place.
For a full size safe that is both fire- and burglar-resistant, prices begin around $900. Without fire protection, expect to pay a minimum of $500 for a good floor safe. 1
At the low end of the price scale, there are lightly-built, footlocker style “security cabinets.” These offer almost no fire protection, and are lightweight enough that a pair of burglars could carry a smaller one off without much ado. However, they cost only $150 to $200, and they will keep your firearms out of the reach of your children.
Here are two products which may assist you in your quest for secure storage without a dedicated safe. First, Franzen makes lockboxes, bore locks, cable locks, and other innovative ways to lock up your firearms. Of particular interest is the “Armloc II,” an incredibly sturdy yet portable gun case you can use to tote your handgun around when you are traveling, or to keep your gun secure from your children at home. It features a 3-number programmable combination lock and a key lock, and can be secured to a sturdy bed frame so it doesn’t walk away from your hotel room. For traveling, it’s small enough to put inside a medium-to-large suitcase, or to fit snugly underneath the driver’s seat of your car. At home, it can slide underneath your bed without difficulty. Keep the keys away from your kids, or plan to use the combination lock exclusively. This portable lockbox costs around $80 and is suitable for two to three small handguns.
The second product is sold by several different companies (I’ve been unable to hunt down the manufacturer’s name). This one is a product called “The Life Jacket.” The Life Jacket is an innovative gun lock which covers nearly the whole handgun, or clamps over the action of a long gun. It’s portable, but can easily be mounted to a wall for added security. Costs for this one begin at around $20.
Most families can dig a mere $20 out of the budget without too much work, but a lock that costs only $20 per gun can sure add up if you have more than a few guns to secure. And for some families, even that much money is out of the question. If your family is one of these, and you have more than a couple of firearms, you might consider selling one of the guns and using the proceeds to purchase a safe to secure the others. Or perhaps you could have a garage sale to raise funds. Until the funds are raised for a safe, you will have to find another way to secure your firearms.
Here’s how we kept the guns away from our children without a safe. First, even though we had long since determined that hiding the guns wasn’t enough, we hid the guns. Out of sight, out of mind was our first layer of defense.
We chose to put the weapons in a beautiful old antique trunk that had belonged to my grandmother. It could be locked, and the lid was heavy and hard for a youngster to open. With a doily and a potted plant on top of it, it looked like a coffee table. While I didn’t believe an intelligent burglar would have been fooled by it, thankfully we never had an opportunity to find out. That trunk was simply the best we could do at the time.
If I hadn’t had that wonderful trunk, I probably would have put a deadbolt lock on one of the interior closet doors. Or perhaps I would have stored the firearms in a locked suitcase. As a last resort, I would have haunted thrift stores and yard sales looking for any sturdy box (perhaps an old school locker) that could be securely padlocked shut.
The key issue here isn’t where we hid the firearms. There are as many solutions to that problem as there are gun-owning families in the world. What is important is that the place we chose wasn’t tempting to kids, and it could be secured with a lock designed to defeat adults.
Our second layer of defense was an individual lock for each firearm. While we were too broke to buy a safe, we were not too broke to buy cable locks. (I opted not to use trigger locks because it makes me nervous to be fiddling around with the trigger of a gun I don’t intend to shoot right then.) With cable locks in place, the firearms could not be loaded or fired.
As a general rule, any gun that is not secured in a safe designed for the task should have at least two layers of protection between the gun and its use. It can be hidden and locked, or have a lock both on its storage container and its action, or be disassembled and hidden (with the ammunition locked somewhere else). This will keep your firearms secure from children, but is unlikely to deter an adult thief. For that, only a properly secured gun safe will do the trick.
Storing a defense gun
I felt fairly confident about the guns we had locked up. Storing a gun that might be needed in a hurry was a different matter. Obviously any gun that is locked securely in a good safe, unloaded, with the ammunition also locked and stored somewhere else, is simply not going to be accessible at the moment a thug intrudes on your peaceful family life. But if you need a defense gun at all, you will need it in a big hurry and no one is going to warn you in advance that you will need it.
We looked at quick-access safes designed to hold a single handgun. Prices for these range from as low as $100 up to around $300. As part of a solid emergency plan, they can be is an excellent choice for many families. Despite this, we ended up choosing another way.
What I wanted was a way for me to get at a defense gun in a hurry without any chance of the kids ever getting their hands on it. After looking at all the choices, I realized suddenly that the most secure option also happened to be the very quickest: I could keep the gun on my hip, loaded.
This sounds radical, but it really was not. My husband often worked late, coming home after midnight. Our home is many miles from the nearest police station. In the event of a criminal invasion, it seemed likely I would be alone with the children when it happened, and equally likely that the police would not arrive until the action was over. I wanted a firearm for home defense, but most of the ways to secure it seemed either too slow, or not secure enough. So I went out and got a concealed-carry permit, and committed myself to carrying my pistol almost all the time, even at home.
A handgun that is under the conscious control of a responsible adult may be considered safely secured from the children. If I were unwilling to carry a gun on my hip at home, I would certainly get one or more quick-access safes which are specifically designed to store defense guns, and practice opening those safes until there was literally no way I could ever forget the combinations under stress.
If I weren’t willing to do at least that much, I would not have a loaded gun in the house.
Disarming kids’ curiosity
With a defense gun on my hip and the unloaded firearms locked in the safe, I began to feel confident that the weapons in our home were inaccessible to the kids – at least, as inaccessible as they could humanly be.
Any family with both firearms and children has to be excruciatingly consistent about locking everything back up, every time without fail, whenever the firearms have been out. In theory this is easy to do, but in the real world it is sometimes difficult to remember to swing the safe door shut and lock it when your hands are full. Maybe you intend to turn back around and shut it when your hands are empty again, but the phone rings or the baby starts crying or the doorbell chimes … and there go the good intentions. We needed another layer of protection for the times when a locked safe wasn’t practicable.
There was also another factor we hadn’t yet considered: friends’ houses. No matter how conscientious we were about securing the firearms in our home so the kids could not get ahold of them, sooner or later the boys would be spending time in other people’s homes.
Asking other people whether they owned guns – and if they did, how did they store those guns — seemed terribly nosy to me. More to the point, if I couldn’t trust their common sense to lock up their own firearms, why would I trust their honesty in answering my nosy questions? I had to assume that sooner or later my children would spend time in the homes of people who did not lock up their weapons. And that meant that securing my own guns wasn’t good enough.
See the article titled “The First Lesson” to find out how we dealt with these dilemmas and went beyond simply making our firearms safe around our children, to making our children safe around firearms.