Michigan has brand new laws that aim to reduce the toll of firearm injuries and deaths across the state, by requiring guns to be stored securely in any location where young people might be present.
Starting next year, firearm owners whose weapons end up in the hands of a young person who shoots themselves or someone else could face prison time or major fines. The firearm owner could face charges and a fine even if the gun is never fired, but gets into the hands of a young person who shows it to someone.
One year ago this month, University of Michigan researchers showed for that for first time, firearms had become the leading cause of death among young people age 1 to 19 in the United States.
Meanwhile, national data show that suicide rates have spiked to near-record highs. About half of all suicide deaths involve a firearm, and suicides account for half of all firearm-related deaths in the U.S.
All of this makes it more important than ever for Michiganders who own firearms to take steps to store them safely, either with gun locks or in locked storage with ammunition stored separately, say experts from the University of Michigan. Gun locks are available for free from most law enforcement agencies, and for a low cost from retailers. Locked storage boxes can be inexpensive. The new laws also eliminate Michigan sales taxes on all secure storage devices purchased by Michiganders.
“Even if you don’t live with a child or teen, or a person with a high risk of suicide, simple storage changes can prevent tragedy,” said Patrick Carter, M.D., co-director of the U-M Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention and an emergency physician at Michigan Medicine, U-M’s academic medical center. Michigan Medicine last fall signed on to the Hospitals United campaign, which promotes safe storage and encourages parents to ask about firearm storage in homes where their children are going to play.
Safe storage success
The Psychiatric Emergency Services team at Michigan Medicine recently gave away its 500th free gun lock in just over a year, through a program for patients who seek emergency mental health care at U-M. The team also asks nearly every patient and family they see about firearm ownership and offers information on safe storage.
Said John Kettley, L.M.S.W., the chief social worker for the Department of Psychiatry’s emergency team, "We hope that other mental health, emergency and primary care providers will consider adding detailed screening and education for their patients, no matter what their diagnosis."
Victor Hong, M.D., who directs the emergency psychiatry service, said “Our efforts to conduct a more thorough assessment of firearm safety for our patients are bearing fruit. We are having more active discussions and coaching sessions with families about the risks of having unsecured firearms and what some options are for safe storage. These discussions are approached from a non-judgmental stance to facilitate an open conversation, and in an effort to facilitate a change in behavior.”
Free firearm safety help available from U-M
To help the public and health care providers take action to reduce firearm injury risks of all kinds, U-M offers the following resources:
- Parents’ Guide to Home Firearm Safety: A flyer on safe firearm storage created by the U-M Injury Prevention Center.
- Make your home suicide-safer: A brochure from U-M Psychiatry on many ways to reduce access to lethal means, including firearms, if someone in the household has expressed suicidal thoughts, has attempted suicide or has a mental health concern.
- Nine ways to prevent firearm tragedies near you: A guide from Michigan Medicine and the U-M firearm institute on specific steps that anyone can take, whether or not they own firearms.
- Podcasts on firearm injury prevention topics: Produced by areas of U-M for a general audience.
- Online learning about firearm injury prevention and safe storage: Web-based videos and classes for free use by anyone, from the U-M firearm institute.
- Firearm Counseling for Clinicians and Safe Storage for Clinicians: Videos for clinicians who want to address these issues with patients, created by the FACTS Prevention Research Consortium based at U-M.
- How can we reduce the firearm death toll in older adults?: A Michigan Medicine article and video featuring Carter discussing safe storage and other prevention topics.
- What More Could We Do to Prevent Veteran Suicides?: Results of a survey conducted by researchers from Michigan Medicine and the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System.
- Firearm Policy Briefs on the evidence related to safe storage laws and other topics, from the U-M firearm institute.
Accelerating firearm injury research
With the establishment of the U-M firearm institute in 2022, U-M has become a national leader in academic firearm research that seeks to reduce injury and death and inform policymakers while respecting individual rights.
For instance, a team of U-M researchers has helped Upper Peninsula families with teens increase safe-storage practices through tailored education. Other U-M research has shown that firearm purchases by families with teens grew during the pandemic.
While the new Michigan laws focus on safe storage of firearms around young people, one-third of all firearm deaths in the U.S. are among people over 50, with the vast majority of those deaths being suicides.
Men over age 75 have the highest rate of suicide of any age group, though the new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that rates have risen in many age groups and among both men and women.
Carter’s research has shown that 24% of firearm owners over age 50, and 20% of those who have children living with them or visiting often, store at least one of their firearms loaded and unlocked. He has also studied older adults’ attitudes toward firearm injury prevention policies.
As Michigan policymakers consider other measures to reduce the toll of firearm injury, research by U-M teams on the impacts of extreme risk protection orders (also sometimes called “red flag laws”) on domestic violence incidents and mass shootings is informing their work.
Anyone interested in receiving updates about firearm injury prevention research at U-M can join the IFIP email list.