Safe storage laws are laws that require guns to be stored in safes which cannot be opened immediately. They are there to supposedly reduce suicide and to reduce the chances of your own gun being used against you.

Now, some people are saying the safe storage laws are unconstitutional because they make guns less useful for self-defense. E.g.

“‘Safe-storage laws’ are fundamentally unconstitutional,” Mark Oliva of the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) told America’s 1st Freedom [...]

The reason begins with the fact that these laws are often unconstitutional infringements on the Second Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights; after all, if you must keep all your guns unloaded and locked away, then you will have no ability to use one to defend yourself if a criminal comes for you.

But what is it in the constitution that is interpreted as saying that laws which limit the self-defense value of guns are anti-constitutional? The 2nd Amendment says:

A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

It explicitly says why it is there: so that people can form a militia in case some tyrant attacks. Safe storage laws don't prevent that: in case some tyrant attacks, you almost certainly have hours to form a militia. So, how can people say that safe storage laws are unconstitutional?

  • 1
    You appear to be asking more of a legal question. Some scholars argue the 2nd amendment grants an individual right some argue that it grants a collective right. The individual right argument prevailed in Heller vs DC (britannica.com/event/District-of-Columbia-v-Heller). Feb 29 at 18:50
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    Where do you see people calling safe storage laws unconstitutional? In order to answer what people mean by this we are going to need to see exactly what they are saying which can include why they think that.
    – Joe W
    Feb 29 at 18:50
  • 3
    No one reads the bit before the comma.
    – Jontia
    Feb 29 at 20:52
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    @Jontia And they ignore all the gun laws that existed after the founding of the united states which included the wild west that people think was crazy with guns everywhere
    – Joe W
    Feb 29 at 21:04
  • @Jontia: ... +"anymore", since SCOTUS 2008 or something. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/District_of_Columbia_v._Heller Feb 29 at 22:45

4 Answers 4


This question seems to be far more broad than just the safe storage laws. You're essentially asking why the 2nd Amendment has been interpreted as prohibiting most gun control, despite the clause about "well-regulated militia".

As I understand it, there are two general interpretations of that clause.

The pro-gun faction treats that clause as an independent, parenthetical statement, not specifically limiting the rest of the amendement to that goal. In other words, they're reading it as if the Founders had written

a. A well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state.
b. The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

With that interpretation, they consider part b to be an absolute right of citizens, unrelated to militias.

The gun-control faction interprets the first clause as the intent of the Amendment, and the second clause was only meant to apply within that context. That reading means that gun ownership is not a right except for members of the militia.

While the interpretation of the 2nd Amendment has changed over time, since the Heller decision the first interpretation has been the prevailing attitude. Anything that infringes this right must have a strong public policy necessity, like any of the other rights granted by the Bill of Rights (and other amendments).

  • Even Heller recognizes the right to regulate guns in a reasonable way consistent with historic levels of gun regulation in the Founding era.
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 17 at 22:37
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    @ohwilleke True, even conservative courts have not yet gone whole hog to "anything goes". But many things termed "common sense gun control" have been ruled unconstitutional.
    – Barmar
    Apr 17 at 22:46
  • This answer doesn't address how interpretation (b) "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." makes safe storage laws unconstitutional. How does safe storage infringe on the right to bear arms?
    – Ben Cohen
    Apr 22 at 8:19
  • @BenCohen They consider any regulation to be impinging: "You can't tell me where I have to keep it!" Also, safe storage means it will take longer to retrieve your arms -- your assailant can easily shoot you while you're unlocking the safe.
    – Barmar
    Apr 22 at 14:37

Presumably the claim that (all) such laws are unconstitutional is based on a reading/extrapolation from Heller 2008 SCOTUS case.

District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), is a landmark decision of the Supreme Court of the United States. It ruled that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects an individual's right to keep and bear arms—unconnected with service in a militia—for traditionally lawful purposes such as self-defense within the home, and that the District of Columbia's handgun ban and requirement that lawfully owned rifles and shotguns be kept "unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock" violated this guarantee. [...]

As for your final quote, somehow that's oddly in the same case law:

It was the first Supreme Court case to decide whether the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms for self-defense or whether the right was only intended for state militias.

On June 26, 2008, the Supreme Court affirmed by a vote of 5 to 4 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in Heller v. District of Columbia. The Supreme Court struck down provisions of the Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975 as unconstitutional, determined that handguns are "arms" for the purposes of the Second Amendment, found that the Regulations Act was an unconstitutional ban, and struck down the portion of the Act that requires all firearms including rifles and shotguns be kept "unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock".

And a quote from the actual decision:

(1)(a) The Amendment's prefatory clause announces a purpose, but does not limit or expand the scope of the second part, the operative clause. The operative clause's text and history demonstrate that it connotes an individual right to keep and bear arms. [...]

(3) The handgun ban and the trigger-lock requirement (as applied to self-defense) violate the Second Amendment. The District's total ban on handgun possession in the home amounts to a prohibition on an entire class of "arms" that Americans overwhelmingly choose for the lawful purpose of self-defense. Under any of the standards of scrutiny the Court has applied to enumerated constitutional rights, this prohibition – in the place where the importance of the lawful defense of self, family, and property is most acute – would fail constitutional muster. Similarly, the requirement that any lawful firearm in the home be disassembled or bound by a trigger lock makes it impossible for citizens to use arms for the core lawful purpose of self-defense and is hence unconstitutional.

Since your argument ("in case some tyrant attacks, you almost certainly have hours to form a militia") is one about timing, the time to take a gun out of a vault is presumably similar (or longer) to the one to unlock its trigger lock. And since Heller decided that the latter was unconstitutional, one can easily make the argument that mandating storage in a vault fails (the scrutiny tests) similarly.

This didn't make into the final decision but was heard in the oral arguments in Heller:

however, another possible objection to the safe storage requirement: not that it criminalized acts of armed self-defense, but that it impermissibly burdened armed self-defense by making it too hard to use a gun in a moment of need. This was the thrust of a series of questions from Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia:

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: So how long does it take? If your interpretation is correct, how long does it take to remove the trigger lock and make the gun operable.

MR. DELLINGER: You – you place a trigger lock on and it has – the version I have, a few – you can buy them at 17th Street Hardware – has a code, like a three-digit code. You turn to the code and you pull it apart. That’s all it takes. Even – it took me 3 seconds.

JUSTICE SCALIA: You turn on, you turn on the lamp next to your bed so you can – you can turn the knob at 3-22-95, and so somebody –


CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Is it like that? Is it a numerical code?

MR. DELLINGER: Yes, you can have one with a numerical code.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: So then you turn on the lamp, you pick up your reading glasses – (Laughter.)

MR. DELLINGER: Let me tell you. That’s right. Let me tell you why at the end of the day this doesn’t – this doesn’t matter, for two reasons. The lesson –

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: It may not matter, but I’d like some idea about how long it takes.

MR. DELLINGER: It took me 3 seconds. I’m not kidding. It’s – it’s not that difficult to do it. That was in daylight. The other version is just a loop that goes through the chamber with a simple key. You have the key and put it together. Now, of course if you’re going – if you want to have your weapon loaded and assembled, that’s a different matter.

It's worth noting however that Heller ultimately struck down the law in question for the more direct reason that it was interpreted to require the lock to be in place at all times except in a prescribed list of circumstances that (fatally for DC) didn't include defense at home (they expressly did allow it, e.g. even for recreational shooting.) This is despite the DC arguing that there was an implied self-defense clause. So, while the time to use the gun was part of the banter in court, it didn't make it in the final decision. Thus one might say that Heller actually left the issue of time-to-ready unresolved. But given the relative ridicule that some justices heaped on the trigger lock thing (in the exchange above), one might guess [how] they'd consider the (timing) burden issue again if it came up in a related case.

The "prefatory clause" about militia actually did factor in a bit in the decision, but not in the way you say/expect:

"[O]rdinarily when called for [militia] service [able-bodied] men were expected to appear bearing arms supplied by themselves and of the kind in common use at the time." 307 U. S., at 179." "We therefore read Miller to say only that the Second Amendment does not protect those weapons not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes, such as short-barreled shotguns." "It may be objected that if weapons that are most useful in military service – M-16 rifles and the like – may be banned, then the Second Amendment right is completely detached from the prefatory clause. But as we have said, the conception of the militia at the time of the Second Amendment's ratification was the body of all citizens capable of military service, who would bring the sorts of lawful weapons that they possessed at home to militia duty."

Who am I to criticize SCOTUS, but TBH this last bit sounds rather circular: M16 banned for civilian use [because!] -> not commonly possessed at home (unlike semiauto variant AR-15) -> ban of M16 is therefore constitutional. So the scarcity at home of an item (possibly/probably itself caused by a law/ban) is taken as an argument that banning that item was constitutional. I mean, if you're gonna drop a "bad guy" robbing your house at close range, wouldn't a 3-round burst be more of a sure thing? That's precisely why the M16 even has the feature. (It's less precise that way at long range.) So, if that's a useful feature for the military [at close range], I'm rather sure civilians would have it too for the same reason. But it was banned for civilian use, and so it became uncommon among civilians, and so it's argued that that ban is constitutional because the item/feature is now scarce among civilians' possessions. SCOTUS!

(For the nitpickers, only the currently-in-service M16A4 has that 3-round burst; older models had 'full auto'. As wikipedia says "The reason for this replacement was the massive waste of ammunition and very poor performance of soldiers who fired their rifles in fully automatic mode during the Vietnam War".)

One can even argue that the "bump stocks" and similar items that attempt to circumvent that kind of ban are prima facie evidence that that ban was imposed to curtail an actual demand. Of course, there's the more complicated argument whether that demand is mainly from "law abiding citizens" or would-be mass murderers.

And I'm kinda guessing this Q was in part asked because the latter happen to be in the news with SCOTUS tied in again:

February 29, 2024

The Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared open to upholding a Trump-era ban on bump stocks as devices that turn weapons into rapid-fire illegal "machine guns," however it was not clear that a majority of justices would ultimately back such a ruling or agree on the rationale.

During oral arguments in the case Garland v. Cargill, both liberal and conservative justices suggested the devices – which allow a shooter to fire a semi-automatic rifle more rapidly and accurately – pose a significant danger and could reasonably be considered the types of weapons Congress sought to outlaw in the 1934 National Firearms Act.

"Can you imagine a legislator thinking we should ban machine guns but we should not ban bump stocks?" asked Justice Samuel Alito.

"There was significant damage from machine guns, carnage, people dying, et cetera. And behind this is a notion that the bump stock does the exact same thing," noted Justice Clarence Thomas. "So, with that background, why shouldn't we look at a broader definition?"

But interestingly enough, the fact that some possess such devices already did give some pause to [some of] the justices:

"It's going to ensnare a lot of people who are not aware of the legal prohibition," said Justice Kavanaugh, echoing Gorsuch. Justice Alito also called potential prosecution of people who had legally purchased bump stocks as "disturbing."

Argument from prior possession again--like in Heller for handguns. Or perhaps better said more suggestive of how new machine guns were banned from 1986 onwards under (the possibly ironically titled) Firearms Owners' Protection Act. (To be fair, this latter ban was added as a rider/amendment to that legislation which ostensibly put checks on ATF abuses.)

But to get back to the main topic, the NRA for instance argues that such (safe storage) laws are often redundant and intended to deter legal ownership. Here's a typical argument:

if acting recklessly with firearms around children is already illegal, why would gun control advocates bother to make it even illegaler with mandatory storage laws?

Because mandatory storage laws aren’t about reducing unauthorized child access to firearms. These laws target benign conduct and are about stigmatizing and encumbering law-abiding gun owners and placing restrictions on how responsible parents can introduce their children to firearms and the shooting sports. As with all gun control, the overarching goal is to discourage gun ownership and eventually eliminate it.

Take for instance another mid-Atlantic state, Maryland. MD Code, Criminal Law, § 4-104, titled “Child's access to firearms,” provides,

(c) A person may not store or leave a loaded firearm in a location where the person knew or should have known that an unsupervised child would gain access to the firearm.

But this statute isn’t necessary. MD Code, Criminal Law, § 3-204, the state’s reckless endangerment statute, provides,

(a) A person may not recklessly: (1) engage in conduct that creates a substantial risk of death or serious physical injury to another;

This statute has been used to prosecute those who keep firearms in a reckless manner accessible to children. The fact pattern in the case Tabassi v. Carroll Country Department of Social Services (2018), makes clear that a defendant was convicted under both Criminal Law, § 4-104 and Criminal Law, § 3-204 for keeping a firearm in a reckless manner accessible to a 12-year-old child.

However, this hasn’t stopped anti-gun Maryland lawmakers from trying to pass further legislation dictating just how law-abiding gun owners store their firearms and micromanaging how they can introduce their children to shooting.

Whether it’s a child endangerment statute, a criminal negligence statute, or a reckless handling of firearms statute, states already prohibit actual reckless behavior with firearms around children. The statutes may look different and may not reference firearms explicitly, but the prohibition on reckless conduct involving firearms is clear.

  • "If [an M16 with 3-round burst is] a useful feature for the military [at close range], I'm rather sure civilians would have it too for the same reason." The thought of some untrained yahoo firing off bursts from an assault rifle (or worse, a battle rifle) in a crowded residential neighborhood at a real or imagined home intruder is chilling. It'll go right through multiple layers of drywall.
    – Schwern
    Mar 1 at 3:24
  • @Schwern: yeah, a pistol/submachine gun round is a lot more sensible in many US homes for those [walls] reasons, and the lack of need for great range in self-defense (unless you plan to take down the next DC sniper yourself.) But people buy AR-style rifles to trot on the street rallies at least, some even hunt with them, so... multipurpose. Mar 1 at 3:31
  • Rifles aren't a great choice for self-defense. One issue is that they are too long - the army uses the M-4 for that reason. The Germans have tried to introduce a PDW for non-frontline units, but got laughed out of the room (barrel length is widely known as a proxy for, that other barrel). And of course excessive penetration is a problem as well. Even pistol rounds are designed to pierce interior walls and car doors.
    – Therac
    Mar 1 at 10:01
  • @Therac: You sure about that? Short barrel rifles are pretty good actually.
    – Joshua
    Apr 17 at 15:15
  • @Joshua Subcarbines you mean? That's a rifle, but it's not a legal one to own. SBR are in the same legal category as machine guns or mortars - not entirely illegal, but effectively blocked from the market by extreme restrictions and taxes.
    – Therac
    Apr 17 at 15:57

The interpretation and application of the Second Amendment changed over time. Once upon a time, "the people" excluded persons of color, or the poor. That is not considered acceptable any more.

A requirement for all gun owners to buy a gun safe, and to have a home where it can be installed, might effectively prohibit gun ownership by the poor. This could be seen as an unconstitutional restriction of the group called "the people."

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    The problem is I don't think that the people who are arguing that they are unconstitutional are doing it because the poor can't afford to have a safe place to store their guns.
    – Joe W
    Feb 29 at 21:05
  • This can easily be solved by the government paying for the safes and providing affordable housing. Where I live, many people keep their guns in the clubhouse at the shooting range. This allows to amortize the cost for the gun safes by buying in bulk and generally shifting the responsibility of compliance with the law to the gun club. Feb 29 at 21:15
  • I can't think of any ruling which interprets the Constitution in this way. Also, if you can afford a gun (and ammo) you can afford a gun safe.
    – Schwern
    Mar 1 at 3:26
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    @Schwern Safes are EXPENSIVE. 3-4 times as much as a gun.
    – Ryan_L
    Mar 1 at 6:02
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    @Schwern the argument "if you can afford X you can afford Y" overlooks the possibility that some may be able to afford X or Y but not X+Y. If affording X consumes all of your disposable income then you have no money left to spend on Y.
    – phoog
    Mar 1 at 8:18

When I was a kid we had an intruder running from the cops through the vacant land next door. My dad got his hunting rifle off the locked rack and had it loaded in 30 seconds, by which time the intruder was already in your yard. As it happened, the dog was deterrent enough.

The point being, the time to fill hands in defense of one's own home is only 30 to 45 seconds. You can't get the gun out of safe storage fast enough. This isn't a solvable problem; thus there's something fundamentally wrong with the safe storage laws. It's not a big jump to say unconstitutional outright. In order to argue the safe storage laws are constitutional, you would have to be able to argue that private militia use is protected but self defense is not. This position does not exist.

Even if so, there's a reason they were called minutemen back in the day, because they could be out the door in one minute. That's the intention at the time the constitution was written. That's what is protected. "Cannot be opened immediately" is unconstitutional outright.

  • This asked not about the wisdom or usefulness or anything else of safe storage laws, it asked about the constitutionality. I see nothing in the 2nd amendment about self defense, and see affirmative evidence that the writers of that amendment were thinking of something other than self defense. You don't address the constitution at all in your answer.
    – cjs
    Apr 17 at 15:14
  • @cjs: Did you read the third paragraph?
    – Joshua
    Apr 17 at 15:16
  • Yes. I don't see any evidence in your post that "minutemen" was literal rather than figurative, nor do I see any evidence that either way it has any relation to that amendment. I certainly do know that no modern military expects to be able to call up even reservists in less than a couple of days, and I see nothing that's changed in the past few hundred years that would make this any different in the past. When it comes to calling up a milita, it's absolutely ridiculous to think that an extra five minutes of weapon setup time would make any difference.
    – cjs
    Apr 17 at 15:32

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