Watchdog says Marin should buy back guns, improve safety

11/11/2020

In Marin, thousands of guns are stored unlocked and loaded, accessible to anyone in the home, according to a civil grand jury report published on Oct. 30. The Marin County District Attorney and Sheriff’s Office should do more to encourage firearm safety by launching public awareness campaigns, offering free gun locks and allowing residents to turn in unwanted weapons, the 19-member watchdog group recommended. 

The need for firearm safety is paramount: Although it is impossible to know exactly how many guns are in Marin, conservative estimates say there could be 100,000 weapons in the county’s homes, offices and cars. California surveys suggest that around 18,000 of these guns are stored unsafely, increasing the likelihood of accidents, stolen guns, mass shootings and suicide.

Although county-specific data is lacking, even if Marin has just half the guns as the rest of the country, 22,000 of Marin’s 105,000 homes would have at least one firearm. Between 2001 and 2015, 46,300 guns were purchased in Marin, according to California Department of Justice data that is no longer published.

The pandemic has heightened the need for firearm safety. Nationwide, the first half of 2020 saw a surge in gun purchases: More purchases were recorded in June 2020 than in any previous month. At the same time, mental health has deteriorated.

“Although the increased threat of suicide from owning a gun is not a new phenomenon, we are living in times of extraordinary stress and tension, both of which are risk factors for suicide,” the grand jury wrote. “Marin County is not a magic kingdom immune to trends in the rest of society. The spring and summer of 2020 brought fundamental change to the way we live our daily lives. Covid-19 shuttered our schools and left our children and grandchildren at home much of every day. Marin County shed jobs, and many of us are unemployed, at home, and worried.”

Guns increase the risk of suicide by making suicide attempts more impulsive and lethal. According to Marin’s suicide-prevention strategic plan, many suicide attempts occur with little planning during a short-term crisis. Survivors of suicide attempts have a high rate of long-term survival, showing that most suicidal crises are short-lived, even if there are underlying, longer-term factors behind them. Between 2013 and 2019, there were 83 suicides by gun in Marin.

The presence of guns increases risks not only for gun owners but for everyone living with them. Guns are the second highest cause of death for children in America, following only automobile accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Studies show that 75 percent of guns used in school shootings by minors came from the home of a parent or relative; in half of these cases, the firearm was not secured in a meaningful way. In California, 65 percent of firearms are not stored in the safest manner, with a gun lock in a safe.

Stolen guns are a major issue, both in Marin and nationally. Law enforcement officials report that guns are a prime target in home and automobile burglaries, and the United States Department of Justice estimates that more than half of guns used in crimes were stolen. Over the past 10 years, there were 265 armed robberies and 180 armed assaults in Marin, though the grand jury could find no Marin-specific statistics on stolen guns used in these crimes.

What can be done? The grand jury suggests that public agencies launch awareness campaigns, expand gun buyback programs and offer free gun safety kits, including trigger locks and cable locks that run through the chamber.

Public awareness campaigns, like those related to condom use, smoking and the use of seat belts, have shown success in changing behavior, so the grand jury recommends a similar gun-safety campaign. Some agencies have undertaken efforts, like earlier this year, when the Marin County Office of Education sent letters to families informing parents about California laws requiring safe storage of firearms. The letters told parents to ask about the presence of unsecured guns when planning playdates. 

The grand jury suggested building on this messaging with emails, billboards and social media messages that will also reach those without children. Marin’s district attorney is in an ideal position to lead such a campaign, the grand jury says.

Marin has conducted two gun-buyback programs over the last 10 years, successfully removing hundreds of guns from homes. These programs are contingent on funding; in the 2013 and 2016 buyback events, the county offered $100 for single-shot rifles, revolvers and shotguns, and $200 for semi-automatic handguns and rifles. At the most recent event, 685 guns were surrendered, including 48 at the Point Reyes substation. The grand jury recommends that the district attorney seek grants and public donations to fund another buyback day.

The Marin County District Attorney and Sheriff’s Office have until Dec. 30 to respond to the report.