The Effects of Firearm Safety Training Requirements
April 22, 2020
According to results from a 2015 survey, approximately 61 percent of firearm owners in the United States have received formal training on firearm safety and use (Rowhani-Rahbar et al., 2018). Others receive informal training from their friends or family. Although there are no federal laws requiring private citizens to receive safety training, states sometimes require gun purchasers or those requesting concealed-carry permits to show proof of formal safety training on how to safely store, use, and maintain weapons. Advocates of such policies suggest that the regulations ensure a minimum competency for using guns safely, just as drivers’ tests are used to determine whether a person can safely drive a car before being permitted to operate one. However, detractors of the laws suggest that such regulations create unwarranted costs and barriers to firearm ownership and that such ownership should not be made conditional on training (Cole, 2014).
Firearm safety training courses may cover firearm operation and safe handling, the physics of firearms, how to clean and repair firearms, firearm laws and regulations, and best practices for keeping firearms away from children or other vulnerable individuals. Some courses include a live-fire demonstration to prove that the applicant can use a firearm safely. However, the components of safety training vary greatly. One study audited 20 basic handgun safety classes in three states that had requirements for safety training and four that did not (Hemenway et al., 2019b). Most trainers covered key safety issues, such as safely loading and unloading a gun, keeping one’s finger off the trigger until being ready to shoot, and being cognizant of the target and what is behind it. In 50 to 75 percent of the classes, trainers covered operating a safety lock and clearing jams and cartridge malfunctions, and they recommended storing guns unloaded and locked when the weapons were not in use (Hemenway et al., 2019b). However, much lower percentages of instructors discussed other safety issues, such as the role of firearms in suicide (10 percent) and domestic violence (10 percent) or the role of stolen firearms in gun crimes (20 percent).
The impact of safety training on key outcomes depends on the content of the programs, the effectiveness of the programs in conveying pertinent information, and the number of gun owners who then modify their behavior based on the information presented in the training. For example, if safety training increased safe firearm storage practices, we might expect firearm suicides and accidental firearm injuries and deaths to decrease, although such storage practices might interfere with defensive gun use (see our analysis of child-access prevention laws). And the motivations of the individuals who receive firearm training could affect the overall impact of the training programs. For example, some states require individuals to attend safety training before they may obtain a permit to carry a firearm in public places, presumably for self-defense. Such requirements might mean that trainings are attended mostly by gun owners who could be less amenable to storing a firearm safely, because safe storage could theoretically impede quick access to a weapon for use in self-defense.
However, limited research investigates the relationship between the receipt of safety training and weapon safety behaviors. Results from one 1995 survey showed that gun owners who received formal firearm training (in which 80 percent of training courses covered proper gun storage) were significantly more likely to store their firearms loaded and unlocked compared with gun owners who had not received formal training; however, the most common source of training for this sample was through the military, which may not produce the same effects as the training required by states for civilian gun owners (Hemenway, Solnick, and Azrael, 1995). Nevertheless, these findings were supported in a 2015 survey of gun owners that showed similar rates of formal firearm training participation (60 percent of respondents) and similar rates of safe storage (32 percent storing all guns unloaded and locked and 46 percent storing at least one gun unloaded and unlocked or loaded and locked); in addition, the survey showed that receipt of safety training was negatively associated with safe storage (Berrigan et al., 2019). In a 2001–2003 survey of gun safety practices among 2,939 older adults (aged 55 or older) who reported a gun in their home, 20 percent reported storing the gun unlocked and loaded, and 55 percent reported attending a firearm safety training (Lum, Flaten, and Betz, 2016). The authors found no correlation between safe storage and having an adult in the house who attended gun safety training. Together, these results suggest that firearm safety training may not necessarily increase the prevalence of safe firearm storage practices.
This evidence of the relationship between self-reported training participation and firearm storage behaviors contrasts with results from studies of gun owners’ beliefs about how firearm safety training influences their behaviors and practices (Crifasi et al., 2018a). A 2016 survey of a national sample of gun owners found that 35 percent of respondents believed that their storage practices were influenced by a gun safety training course; the only factor endorsed more highly was concern about home defense (chosen by 43 percent of respondents). The respondents who reported that gun safety training influenced their storage behaviors were significantly more likely to report safe storage behaviors, although this does not provide good evidence that the trainings cause more safe storage. Overall, it is likely that the effect of a gun safety training course on firearm practices will vary by the components of the training course, the method of training delivery, the reasons an individual owns a gun, and other contextual factors in the home. For instance, this same study found that most gun owners perceived law enforcement, hunting or outdoor organizations, the National Rifle Association, and the military as being more-credible messengers of gun safety training than were gun show managers, physicians, and celebrities, who were rated as credible messengers by fewer than half of respondents. Thus, credible messengers who promote safe storage practices might be more likely to change the behavior of gun owners than are noncredible messengers who promote safe storage.
More research is needed to understand the relationship between safety training and changes in firearm owners’ safety behavior, including safe handling, law compliance, and safe storage. Further research is also needed to determine whether those who take firearm safety training courses are better able to use their weapons for self-defense or whether courses do not provide enough training to sufficiently prepare owners for a defensive situation. Without such research, it is difficult to determine the impacts of firearm safety practices on other outcomes of interest, such as firearm deaths, injuries, and violent crime. Furthermore, the impacts of training on hunting and recreation and on the gun industry also remain unknown.
State Implementation of Firearm Safety Training Requirements
Data for this figure were drawn from research by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
State implementation data valid as of January 1, 2020.
As of January 1, 2020, six states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring individuals to undergo some sort of safety training prior to being able to purchase, or in the case of Connecticut, carry, a firearm. California and Massachusetts have laws requiring such training for the purchase of both handguns and long guns. The District of Columbia’s law, which applies to handguns and long guns, goes further: It requires safety training prior to registration, and registration is required for possession of a firearm; thus, the training requirement applies to not only people purchasing new firearms but also people moving into the District who already own firearms. The laws in Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, and Rhode Island apply only to handguns. Washington’s law applies to semiautomatic rifles. Elements of safety training laws may include specifics about instructor qualifications or training, information about which organizations may offer approved courses, curriculum requirements, and a requirement that trainees pass a written test.
In addition, 26 states and the District of Columbia require that applicants for concealed-carry permits demonstrate that they have received some sort of firearm training, either in a formal course or through some other setting, such as through military service. This includes jurisdictions with “may-issue” or “shall-issue” concealed-carry laws. See our analysis of concealed-carry laws for further information on variation in state implementation of concealed-carry laws.