I unboxed a new handgun the other day to find a powerful message from the Massachusetts Attorney General: “More than 200,000 firearms like this one are stolen from their owners every year in the United States. Also, there are more than a thousand suicides each year by children and teenagers who get access to firearms . . . [You must] keep this weapon locked in a secure place and take other steps necessary to limit the possibility of theft or accident. Failure to take reasonable preventive steps may result in innocent lives being lost . . . And in your liability for these deaths.”
Apparently, thieves are now victims of the people from whom they steal. It’s odd that someone who steals a gun and shoots himself or someone else is an “innocent, ” and the gun owner suffering the loss becomes criminally liable. Something wrong here?
But I digress. If you want to keep “innocents” from snatching your firearms and making you a crook, you must lock them up (the guns, that is; we wouldn’t want to lock up “innocents”). Gun safes come in all shapes and sizes. Recently I tried to make sense of the selection. Because a safe is just a metal box, I expected this to be an easy job.
The first salesman I talked with at the SHOT (Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trade) Show told me less about his company’s products than about the competition. He said the fire ratings on “those other safes” were not accurate. UL rating matter, he said, because your house may burn down. If the safe is a good one (like his), your guns will hardly feel the heat. Inferior safes act like toasters.
I went to the competition and found equally compelling reasons to buy there. After several more stops, I still couldn’t say which brand of safe gave me the most for the money or offered the most protection to my guns. But here are the main things to consider:
1. Space. You need lots of space in a safe. Gun safes are like tents, in that you shouldn’t believe the rated capacity. A four-man backpack tent can hold four men, but so can a bathtub. A 30-gun safe will hold 30 guns, but perhaps not your 30 guns. Buy a safe with more capacity than you think you’ll need. If empty slots bother you, buy more guns.
2. Versatility. You need versatility too. Most safe interiors are thoughtfully designed to make good use of space, but you’ll want the option of moving shelves and racks. You may want more and bigger shelves for hunting handguns, or fewer, shorter shelves if you have lots of long-barreled rifles and shotguns. A stack of shelves comes in handy for ammo and dies.
3. Weight and insulation. Extra weight means greater security. A heavy safe loaded with rifles also can exceed the load capacity of some floors. Fire protection increases with sidewall thickness but also depends on insulation. Compare UL ratings and ask how the safe will keep heat from entering around the door. Incidentally, in the event of a fire, a safe on the second floor may well end up in the basement suddenly enough to damage guns that would otherwise survive the heat. Examine the hinges and the fit of the door to its seat. A heavy door needs stout hinges. One more thing: Shipping charges for safes can be substantial, so compare delivery prices.
4. The lock. Most large safes have multiple dead bolts. The number, size, and hardness of dead bolts and their seats affect security. You can get a spin dial or digital lock. Neither is superior. Some locks have memories that allow you to open the door quickly or automatically shut down if the correct combination isn’t immediately forthcoming. Fire (a house fire or a torch wielded by an “innocent”) will disable some latching mechanisms, keeping the safe bolted shut until you get professional help to open it.
5. Fit. Safes are made to bolt to the floor or a wall. Whether you bolt your safe into place or not, consider it a piece of furniture. You’ll find colors to complement most room decors. Because gun safes are hard to move, think about where you want one before you buy it.