We all know that gun violence is a crisis in America. According to the Gun Violence Archive, as of September 23, 2023, there have been nearly 32,000 deaths due to guns in the United States this year. This includes 14,178 homicide/accidental shooting deaths and 17,820 suicide deaths. Changing the laws, limiting access to guns, and responding to a culture of violence and the rising cases of mental illness takes time and resources. What can the public library do in the meantime to reduce deaths due to gun violence?
Anne Arundel County (MD) Public Library system has been working with the local department of health and county administration to address the issue. The county created a Gun Violence Intervention Team (GVIT) in 2019 in response to the deadly mass shooting at The Capital-Gazette newspaper in June of 2018 and due to an uptick in gun violence in the county. The team included representatives from partner organizations such as governmental departments, law enforcement, the county’s community college, and the Anne Arundel County Public Library (AACPL.) One of the recommendations from GVIT was to approach gun violence prevention from a public health and safety perspective.
In June 2021, Anne Arundel County Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman declared gun violence a public health issue. His stated commitment was to step away from the polarization of the gun rights debates and focus on partnerships to decrease deaths and injuries due to gun violence, similar to the way the county had focused on decreasing opioid deaths in previous years.
As a member of GIVIT and playing part in that approach to a solution, AACPL started giving out free gun locks at three library branches in April 2023. They chose the branches based on the highest percentage of gun incidents occurring in those communities. The library quickly ran out of gun locks and realized that this program was meeting a real need in the community. With the department of health and GVIT’s support, they gradually expanded to include all 16 branches. The gun lock giveaway was made possible through a roughly $12,000 grant from the Maryland Governor’s Office of Crime, Prevention, and Youth Victim Services. The locks cost around $10 each online.
Gun locks are devices that prevent a weapon from discharging. They are intended to be part of a gun safety protocol in addition to training and safe storage. Gun locks are usually universal, meaning that they can be used on any type or brand of gun. They do not necessarily prevent all gun deaths, but they provide a barrier that may slow down someone who is considering harming themselves or others. When customers pick up a gun lock, library staff also give them manufacturer instructions on how to use the gun lock, and a bookmark created by GVIT with a link to helpful information about safe gun storage, suicide prevention resources, and other valuable information.
Before the library got involved, the police department had obtained a small number of gun locks to hand out to the community, but they found that many community members were reluctant to stop by the police stations to pick them up. The 16 participating public library branches provided geographic reach, extended hours in the evening and on the weekends, and more anonymity.
When GVIT first approached the library, they didn’t realize how quickly the program would grow and that they would need to increase the supply to meet demand. They also wanted much more information from recipients than the library wanted to ask their customers to provide. The library administration knew that we needed to allow gun owners and their family and friends the ability to pick up the gun locks without giving their names so there would be no fear of tracking or retribution for any reason.
The library made the process easy: customers only have to be over the age of 18 (no ID required), and voluntarily provide a zip code and race. They could decline to answer those two questions. If no zip code was provided, staff used the zip code of the branch location. Due to a limited supply and limited funds, each person could only get two gun locks per visit. However, there was no limit on the number of visits and no tracking repeat visits. The library created an extensive FAQ document for staff and linked it to a video demonstrating the use of gun locks that they could share with customers.
Predictably, there was some pushback from the public. Comments on social media ranged from concern that gun ownership was being “normalized” to the statement that the library would only end up giving locks to those who already had permits and were “responsible gun owners” already. (The library does not ask for proof of legal gun ownership, or any gun ownership at all.) There was also fear on the part of library staff that customers would bring their guns into the library when they picked up their gun locks. Branches have signs on their front doors alerting customers to the library’s weapons policy limits weapons to law enforcement, a policy that is allowed within Maryland law.
It’s not just gun owners who are coming in to get the gun locks. Staff have seen grandmothers getting locks for their grown children to protect their grandchildren and people getting locks for their partners. Some customers have commented that their children urged them to visit the library to pick up the locks for their guns.
As of the end of September 2023, nearly 3,000 gun locks have been distributed through this initiative. Most gun locks have been given out at the library branches, but the health department also allows the library staff to take gun locks to outreach events, expanding the reach of the program to those who may not visit a library. They have just over 1,400 on hand for future distribution. The access points are also soon expanding to include the local community college and some senior centers.
AACPL is the only public library in Maryland that is giving out gun locks, but other library systems across the country have done so. Libraries in Missouri, Indiana, and Virginia, just to name a few, all have successful gun lock outreach programs to do their part to make their community safer.