Only 37 percent of Washington gun owners store the firearm locked and unloaded.
Only 37 percent of Washington gun owners store the firearm locked and unloaded. sdigital/getty

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Most Washingtonians are not storing their guns locked and unloaded, according to new research from the University of Washington School of Public Health published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Researchers used data from an annual survey by the Washington State Department of Health and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to analyze gun habits. They also compared those habits with suicide risk factors. Gun safety advocates promote locking guns unloaded to prevent use by minors or thieves.

Of about 35,000 adult respondents in Washington across three years, 34 percent had a firearm in their household and only 37 percent of those stored the firearm locked and unloaded.

The researchers also looked at potential indicators of suicide among gun owners. Past research has shown higher suicide rates when guns are prevalent. In households with guns, the UW researchers did not find significant evidence that other factors like mental health issues or binge drinking were enough to account for higher suicide rates.

The study found that alcohol misuse was highest among gun owners who did not store their weapons locked and unloaded. People who consume alcohol are more likely to commit suicide with a firearm than those who do not. "That this suicide risk factor is most prevalent among individuals in homes with the least safe storage practices is a cause for concern," the researchers write. "Because of the impulsivity that contributes to death by suicide, even the extra minutes required to unlock and load a safely stored firearm may prevent some deaths by suicide."

Among the other findings: Gun owners were more likely to be older, white, and male than non-owners. They were also more likely to live in a rural area and have reported an annual household income of more than $50,000. Those who had firearms stored locked and unloaded were more likely to be younger women with children under 18 living in the home.

The researchers write that they believe the study is the first of its kind in a decade. Grandmothers Against Gun Violence funded the study.

Safe storage laws are among the latest trends in the gun safety movement.

Advocates in Oregon are gathering signatures for an initiative to require gun owners to store weapons with trigger locks or in locked containers. The initiative would also hold gun owners liable if their guns were used to cause certain injuries.

In March, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced city legislation to require gun owners to lock up their weapons when they're not carrying or transporting them. Durkan offered little clarity in the way of enforcement, though, telling reporters, "We won't be going into homes."