Easy access to firearms in the home results in high rates of unintentional gun deaths among children, youth suicides, and school shootings. Child access prevention (CAP) laws are an important tool for reducing these child gun deaths. CAP laws encourage the safe storage of firearms by imposing liability on adults who allow children to have unsupervised access to guns.
4.6 million minors in the US live in homes with at least one loaded, unlocked firearm.1 Many children know where their parents keep their guns and have accessed household guns — even if their parents think otherwise.
- 73% of children under age 10 living in homes with guns reported knowing the location of their parents’ firearms, and 36% admitted they had handled the weapons.2
- Many of these children handled guns without the knowledge of their parents. Nearly a quarter of parents did not know that their children had handled a gun in their house.3
Household guns, often the most easily accessible firearms for youth, are a major source of weapons used in school shootings, youth suicides, and unintentional shooting deaths among children.
- Studies show that between 70 and 90% of guns used in youth suicides, unintentional shootings among children, and school shooting perpetrated by shooters under the age of 18 are acquired from the home or the homes of relatives or friends.4
- Several studies have shown that the risk of suicide and unintentional shootings among youth increases in homes where guns are kept loaded and/or unlocked.5
Safe firearm storage helps prevent gun deaths and injuries in children, and research suggests that CAP laws increase safe storage behavior. This makes CAP laws incredibly effective at preventing gun deaths and injuries among children and teens.
- Estimates suggest that modest increases in the number of American homes safely storing firearms could prevent almost a third of youth gun deaths due to suicide and unintentional firearm injury.6
- Numerous studies over the past 20 years have found that child access prevention laws can reduce suicide and unintentional gun deaths and injuries among children and teens by up to 54%, with the greatest reductions occurring in states which require safe storage of firearms.7
Summary of Federal Law
There are no CAP laws at the federal level, and federal law does not generally require gun owners to safely store their guns. Federal law does, however, make it unlawful for any licensed importer, manufacturer or dealer to sell or transfer any handgun unless the transferee is provided with a “secure gun storage or safety device,”8 and immunizes the lawful owner of a handgun who uses a secure gun storage or safety device from certain civil actions based on the criminal or unlawful misuse of the handgun by a third party.9 For further details, see our summary on Safe Storage. Federal and state laws imposing a minimum age for the purchase and possession of firearms are discussed in our summary on the Minimum Age to Purchase and Possess Firearms.10
Summary of State Law
Twenty-seven states and DC have enacted child access prevention laws.
States with Child Access Prevention Laws
District of Columbia15
Washington (effective July 1, 2019)38
Description of State Child Access Prevention Laws
For citations to these laws, please see the list above.
CAP laws take a variety of forms. The strongest laws impose criminal liability when a minor is likely to gain access to a negligently stored firearm regardless of whether the minor actually gains access (California). The weakest merely prohibit certain persons, such as parents or guardians, from directly providing a firearm to a minor (Utah). There is a wide range of laws that fall somewhere between these extremes, including laws that impose criminal liability for negligently stored firearms, but only where the child uses the firearm and causes death or serious injury. Weaker laws impose penalties only in the event of reckless, knowing or intentional conduct by the adult. State CAP laws also differ on the definition of “minor.”
Laws Imposing Criminal Liability when a Child Gains Access as a Result of Negligent Storage of a Firearm
Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have laws that impose criminal liability on persons who negligently store firearms, where minors could or do gain access to the firearm. Typically, these laws apply whenever the person “knows or reasonably should know” that a child is likely to gain access to the firearm.
State Laws Based on Negligent Storage
District of Columbia
There are a number of variations in these types of laws, including whether the child must use the firearm, and whether the firearm must be loaded. The most significant variations are described below:
States Imposing Criminal Liability for Allowing a Child to Gain Access
The broadest laws apply regardless of whether the child even gains possession of the firearm. California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and the District of Columbia impose criminal liability in circumstances where a child may (Massachusetts) or is likely to (California, Minnesota, District of Columbia) gain access to a firearm. The laws in Hawaii,40 Maryland, New Jersey, and Texas apply whenever a child gains access to an improperly stored firearm. In these states, it is not necessary for the child to actually use the firearm or cause any injury.
States Imposing Criminal Liability When a Child “May” or “Is Likely To” Gain Access to the Firearm
District of Columbia
States Imposing Criminal Liability for Allowing a Child to Gain Access to the Firearm, Regardless of Whether the Child Uses the Firearm or Causes Injury
District of Columbia
States Imposing Criminal Liability Only if the Child Uses or Carries the Firearm
Seven states require that the child carry or use the firearm in some way before criminal liability attaches. In Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, North Carolina, and Rhode Island, the statute applies when the child uses the firearm to cause death or serious injury. Iowa, Florida, New Hampshire, and North Carolina also impose criminal liability when the minor takes the firearm to a public place, and/or uses the firearm in a threatening manner. The New Hampshire and North Carolina statutes also impose criminal liability when the child uses the firearm in the commission of a crime.
States Imposing Criminal Liability Only if a Child Uses or Carries the Firearm
States Imposing Criminal Liability for the Negligent Storage of Unloaded Firearms
Hawaii, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia impose criminal liability even if the firearm is unloaded. In the case of handguns only, California imposes criminal liability when the child carries a loaded or unloaded handgun off-premises. All other states only impose criminal liability if the firearm is loaded.
States Imposing Criminal Liability for Negligent Storage of Unloaded Firearms
District of Columbia
States allow several exceptions to their child access prevention laws. The most common exception applies where the firearm is stored in a locked container (California, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina,42 Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington). Another common exception applies where the minor gains access to the firearm via illegal entry of the premises (California, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington). Other exceptions include cases where the firearm is used for hunting, sport shooting or agricultural purposes, where the minor uses the gun in defense of self or others, where the firearm is used to aid law enforcement, or where the child has completed a firearm safety course.
States Preventing Persons from Intentionally, Knowingly, and/or Recklessly Providing Firearms to Minors
Several states impose a weaker standard for criminal liability when a child is allowed to access a firearm. Thirteen states only prohibit persons from intentionally, knowingly, and/or recklessly providing some or all firearms to children (these laws exclude negligence, which is the lowest threshold for liability).
State Laws Prohibiting Intentional, Knowing, or Reckless Provision of Firearms to Minors
Lesser standard for parents or guardians: Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah impose a lesser standard on parents and guardians, providing that parents may be guilty for providing firearms to children only where they know of a substantial risk that the minor will use the firearm to commit a crime.
Definition of “Minor”
The age which triggers a state’s CAP law varies, ranging from children under 14 to those under 18.
Under 18: California, Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, and Washington
Under 17: Texas
Under 16: Connecticut,50 Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Rhode Island
Under 14: Illinois, Iowa, Virginia, and Wisconsin
States Requiring that All Firearms be Stored with a Locking Device in Place
Massachusetts requires that all firearms be stored with locking devices in place to prevent accidental discharge. This type of law is another important means to protect children from gaining unauthorized access to firearms and causing death or injury.51 Additional information about these kinds of laws is contained in our summary on Safe Storage.
States Imposing Civil Liability on Persons Who Fail to Store Firearms Properly
California52 imposes civil liability on the parent or guardian of a minor for damages resulting from the minor’s discharge of a firearm, where the parent or guardian permitted the minor to have the firearm or left it accessible to the minor. Connecticut imposes strict liability in civil actions on persons who fail to store firearms securely, where a minor gains access and causes injury or death.
In Illinois, when a minor under the age of 21 legally acquires a firearms license by obtaining the permission of a parent or guardian, that parent or guardian becomes liable for civil claims for damages resulting from the minor’s use of firearms or ammunition.
In Nevada, a parent or guardian is jointly and severally liable with the minor for civil damages caused by permitting the minor to possess a firearm, where the parent or guardian knows that the minor has a propensity to commit violent acts or has been previously adjudicated delinquent or has been convicted of a criminal offense, or knows or has reason to know that the minor intends to use the firearm for an unlawful purpose.53
Key Legislative Elements
The features listed below are intended to provide a framework from which policy options may be considered. A jurisdiction considering new legislation should consult with counsel.
- Criminal liability is imposed on persons who negligently store firearms under circumstances where minors could gain access to the firearm, regardless of whether the minor actually gains access to or uses the firearm (California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, District of Columbia).
- Criminal liability is imposed on persons who negligently store firearms even when the firearm is unloaded (Hawaii, Massachusetts, District of Columbia).
- Civil liability for damages resulting from the discharge of a firearm is imposed on persons who negligently store firearms when a minor gains access (California).
- “Minor” is defined as a child under the age of 18 for long guns (Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah), and a person under the age of 21 for handguns, for purposes of the CAP law.
- All firearms are required to be stored with a locking device in place (Massachusetts).
- Deborah Azrael, Joanna Cohen, Carmel Salhi, and Matthew Miller, “Firearm Storage in Gun–owning Households with Children: Results of a 2015 National Survey,” Journal of Urban Health 95, no. 3 (2018): 295–304. ⤴︎
- Frances Baxley and Matthew Miller, “Parental Misperceptions About Children and Firearms,” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 160, no. 5 (2006): 542–547. ⤴︎
- Renee M. Johnson, et al., “Who Are the Owners of Firearms Used in Adolescent Suicides?,” Suicide and Life-threatening Behavior 40, no. 6 (2010): 609-611; Guohua Li, et al., “Factors Associated with the Intent of Firearm-related Injuries in Pediatric Trauma Patients,” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 150, no. 11 (1996): 1160-1165; John Woodrow Cox and Steven Rich, “”The Gun is Not in the Closet,’” The Washington Post, August 1, 2018, https://wapo.st/2M2HSH6. See also, Bryan Vossekuil, et al., “The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States,” US Secret Service and US Department of Education, July 2004, https://www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/preventingattacksreport.pdf; Tawnell D. Hobbs, “Most Guns Used in School Shootings Come From Home,” The Wall Street Journal, April 5, 2018, https://on.wsj.com/2Eydv2f. ⤴︎
- David C. Grossman, et al., “Gun Storage Practices and Risk of Youth Suicide and Unintentional Firearm Injuries,” JAMA 293, no. 6 (2005): 707–714. See also, Matthew Miller and David Hemenway, “The Relationship Between Firearms and Suicide: a Review of the Literature,” Aggression and Violent Behavior 4, no. 1 (1999): 59–75; Daniel W. Webster, Jon S. Vernick, April M. Zeoli, and Jennifer A. Manganello, “Association Between Youth–focused Firearm Laws and Youth Suicides,” JAMA 292, no. 5 (2004): 594–601. ⤴︎
- Michael C. Monuteaux, Deborah Azrael, and Matthew Miller, “Association of Increased Safe Household Firearm Storage With Firearm Suicide and Unintentional Death Among US Youths,” JAMA Pediatrics (2019). ⤴︎
- Emma C. Hamilton, et al., “Variability of Child Access Prevention Laws and Pediatric Firearm Injuries,” Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery 84, no. 4 (2018): 613–619. See also, Peter Cummings, David C. Grossman, Frederick P. Rivara, and Thomas D. Koepsell, “State Gun Safe Storage Laws and Child Mortality Due to Firearms,” JAMA 278, no. 13 (1997): 1084–1086; Daniel W. Webster, Jon S. Vernick, April M. Zeoli, and Jennifer A. Manganello, “Association Between Youth–focused Firearm Laws and Youth Suicides,” JAMA 292, no. 5 (2004): 594–601; Jeffrey DeSimone, Sara Markowitz, and Jing Xu, “Child Access Prevention Laws and Nonfatal Gun Injuries,” Southern Economic Journal 80, no. 1 (2013): 5–25. ⤴︎
- 18 U.S.C. § 922(z)(1). A “secure gun storage or safety device” is defined under 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(34) as: (A) a device that, when installed on a firearm, is designed to prevent the firearm from being operated without first deactivating the device; (B) a device incorporated into the design of the firearm that is designed to prevent the operation of the firearm by anyone not having access to the device; or (C) a safe, gun safe, gun case, lock box, or other device that is designed to be or can be used to store a firearm and that is designed to be unlocked only by means of a key, a combination, or other similar means. ⤴︎
- 18 U.S.C. § 922(z)(3). ⤴︎
- Federal law prohibits federally licensed firearms dealers from transferring handguns to persons under age 21 and long guns to persons under age 18. It is also illegal for anyone to transfer a handgun to a person under age 18, with certain exceptions, such with the prior written consent of the minor’s parent or guardian. 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(b)(1), 922(x)(1). ⤴︎
- Cal. Penal Code §§ 25000-25225; Cal. Civ. Code § 1714.3. ⤴︎
- Colo. Rev. Stat. § 18-12-108.7. ⤴︎
- Conn. Gen. Stat §§ 29-37i, 52-571g, 53a-217a. ⤴︎
- Del. Code Ann. tit. 11, §§ 603, 1456. ⤴︎
- D.C. Code Ann. § 7-2507.02(b)-(d). ⤴︎
- Fla. Stat. Ann. § 790.174. ⤴︎
- Ga. Code Ann. § 16-11-101.1. ⤴︎
- Haw. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 134-10.5, 707-714.5. ⤴︎
- 430 Ill. Comp. Stat. 65/4(c); 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/24-9(a). ⤴︎
- Ind. Code Ann. §§ 35-47-10-3, 35-47-10-6, 35-47-10-7. ⤴︎
- Iowa Code § 724.22(7). ⤴︎
- Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 527.110. ⤴︎
- Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law § 4-104. ⤴︎
- Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, § 131L. ⤴︎
- Minn. Stat. § 609.666. ⤴︎
- Miss. Code Ann. §§ 97-37-14, 97-37-15. ⤴︎
- Mo. Rev. Stat. § 571.060.1(2). ⤴︎
- Nev. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 41.472, 202.300(1) – (3). ⤴︎
- N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 650-C:1. ⤴︎
- N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:58-15. ⤴︎
- N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-315.1. ⤴︎
- Okla. Stat. tit. 21, § 1273(B). ⤴︎
- R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-47-60.1. ⤴︎
- Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 39-17-1319, 39-17-1320. ⤴︎
- Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 46.13. ⤴︎
- Utah Code Ann. § 76-10-509.6. ⤴︎
- Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-56.2. ⤴︎
- Washington Initiative 1639. Washington’s law applies to all people prohibited from possessing firearms, not just children. ⤴︎
- Wis. Stat. § 948.55. ⤴︎
- While Haw. Rev. Stat. § 134-10.5 appears to criminalize negligent storage when a child is likely to gain access to a firearm, Haw. Rev. Stat. § 707-714.5 only provides penalties if the child actually gains access to a firearm. ⤴︎
- North Carolina’s statute only applies to the negligent storage of firearms by persons who reside with a minor. ⤴︎
- In North Carolina, liability is imposed if the firearm is stored or left “in a condition that the firearm can be discharged.” ⤴︎
- Nevada makes it a crime to “aid or knowingly permit” a child to possess a firearm, except for hunting, target practice or other purposes, under the immediate supervision of an authorized adult. ⤴︎
- Utah’s law applies only to parents and guardians. ⤴︎
- In Delaware, the minor must use the firearm to cause death or serious injury. ⤴︎
- Wisconsin’s law applies only where the minor uses the firearm to cause death or serious injury, or exhibits the firearm in a public place. ⤴︎
- Virginia also prohibits any person from knowingly authorizing a child under 12 to use a firearm, except when supervised by an adult. ⤴︎
- Colorado prohibits providing firearms other than handguns to minors without parental consent. ⤴︎
- Mississippi’s statute applies only to parents and guardians. ⤴︎
- In 2013, Connecticut expanded its safe storage provisions to apply to persons other than minors. Now, a firearm owner must store any loaded firearm on premises under his or her control if he or she knows or reasonably should know that a resident of the premises: 1) is ineligible to possess a firearm under state or federal law; or 2) poses a risk of imminent personal injury to himself or herself or to other individuals. ⤴︎
- Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, § 131L(a). ⤴︎
- In October 2005, as part of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), Congress passed and the President signed a law immunizing any person from a “qualified civil liability action” who is in lawful possession and control of a handgun and who uses a secure gun storage or safety device with the handgun. 18 U.S.C. § 922(z). “Qualified civil liability action” is defined as a civil action for damages resulting from the criminal or unlawful misuse of a handgun by a third party if: (A) the handgun was accessed by another person who did not have the authorization of the lawful possessor; and (B) at the time the handgun was accessed it had been made inoperable by the use of a secure gun storage or safety device. 18 U.S.C. § 922(z)(3). ⤴︎
- In addition, Hawaii imposes absolute liability on the owner of a firearm if the discharge of the firearm causes injury to any person or property. Haw. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 663-9.5. ⤴︎