OPINION: Secure firearm storage is crucial to Alaska children's safety

Recent studies have found firearms to be the leading cause of death of children and youth in the United States. Alaska may have been the first state to report this.

In 2000, colleagues and I published a study in Alaska Medicine titled: “Serious and Fatal Firearm Injuries Among Children and Adolescents in Alaska: 1991-1997.” It found that firearm injuries were the leading cause of serious and fatal injuries to children and youth in Alaska. In that seven-year study period, there were 165 firearm fatalities and 222 serious non-fatal firearm injuries among Alaskan children and youth ages 0-19. Among the fatalities, 24 were unintentional, 95 were suicides, 45 were homicides and one was of unknown intent.

An Alaska Epidemiology Bulletin in September 2020, based on the Alaska Violent Death Reporting System, identified 90 suicides and 36 homicides among children and youth ages 19 and younger (the majority by firearm), and 8 unintentional firearm deaths among youth ages 17 and younger.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 1999 until 2017, Alaska’s firearm death rate for all age groups increased more than 50% from 15.9 to 24.5 per 100,000 residents, about double the national rate of 12.96 per 100,000. Our suicide death rate continues to be much higher than the national average and most involve firearms. Alaska’s gun suicide rate is more than double the national average (16.85 per 100,000 residents in Alaska vs. 7.07 per 100,000 in the U.S. as a whole).

People have argued that safe storage of firearms would not reduce suicides because, if a firearm is not available, other methods would be used. A 2023 study by Everytown for Gun Safety, “Two Decades of Suicide Prevention Laws: Lessons from National Leaders in Gun Safety Policy,” refuted that argument. It concluded that “Gun suicide has been rising consistently in the U.S. since 1999. But residents of some states have fared far better than others. In states with the most protective secure gun storage laws, the rate of gun suicide among young people ages 10-24 was lower in 2022 than in 1999. In states with no secure storage laws, the rate increased 36%.”

Proposed legislation in the Alaska House of Representatives (HB 164, the “Alaska Child Access Prevention and Secure Storage of Firearms Act”) would impose legal penalties on firearm owners if children or other prohibited persons gain access to the owner’s firearm and “uses the firearm to commit a crime or injure self or another.” The passage of this legislation is likely to increase the secure storage of firearms because public health and safety studies have typically shown that laws increase safety behaviors.

Many gun owners believe they need quick access to firearms to defend themselves and their families against dangerous intruders. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the District of Columbia vs. Heller decision (June 26, 2008), ruled that “private citizens have the right under the Second Amendment to possess an ordinary type of weapon and use it for lawful, historically established situations such as self-defense in the home.”


Although studies have shown that a gun in the home is more likely to result in death or injury to a family member or acquaintance than to an unwanted intruder, there also have been incidents when persons successfully use firearms to defend themselves.

Many years ago, my wife apprehended an intruder and held him at gunpoint until an Alaska State Trooper arrived to arrest him. However, we believe we have found a way to reconcile the seemingly contradictory goals of protection and safe storage. We keep firearms in a locked safe. In the unlikely event of an intruder, it takes about 20-30 seconds to retrieve a firearm from the safe. If an intruder somehow accesses our home in under 30 seconds, my wife keeps cans of bear spray nearby.

Safe firearm storage is especially important to us because we are currently raising two elementary school-aged children.

I encourage readers to contact legislators and Gov. Mike Dunleavy to urge passage of firearm secure storage legislation. It would help reduce serious and fatal firearm injuries, including suicides, among children, adolescents, and other at-risk persons in Alaska.

Mark S. Johnson has lived in Alaska for almost 46 years. He had a lengthy career in public health and, since retirement, has done volunteer work and part-time consulting with several health-related organizations. He and his wife live in Juneau with two grandchildren.

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Mark Johnson

Mark S. Johnson, MPA, served as Chief of EMS and later Chief of Community Health and EMS in the Department of Health and Social Services for more than 25 years, and he is a member of the Alaska Trauma System Review Committee.