Monday, October 13, 2008

The safe storage of firearms

(EDITED TO ADD: I've written an update to this article, answering several questions e-mailed to me by readers. After you've read this, please read the update as well for more information.)

I had a conversation today with a friend who's got a fairly large collection of firearms. I've urged him in the past to get a gun safe (or two) to store them, as they're very desirable items for thieves: but he's always refused, pointing out that for the price of the average gun safe, he can get two more guns!

That changed over the weekend. One of his teenage children invited a friend to come home with her after school to play a computer game. The friend turned out to be not very trustworthy. He looked around while he was there, and came back over the weekend, when he knew that the family would be out. He broke in, and got away with a dozen firearms. Very fortunately, the cop who answered the father's 911 call knew enough to ask whether any new visitors had been in the house over the previous week. His daughter admitted inviting her 'friend', and the cop immediately recognized his name as someone who'd had a few run-ins with the law in the past. He went to his house, and found ten of the twelve guns in his room (he'd already sold two in exchange for drugs).

My friend got hold of me today, swearing to buy a gun safe at once, if not sooner. I had to cool him down, and tell him to wait a little while. All gun safes are not created equal, and his choice needs to be carefully thought through. I spent a while talking with him about what's involved, and I thought readers might be interested as well, since many of us are also gun owners.

The first thing to understand is that all safes are not created equal! The average 'gun safe', as sold by most stores, isn't a 'safe' at all. It's classified as a Residential Security Container, or RSC. RSC's are very much less expensive than a true 'safe', weigh much less, and offer a considerably lower degree of protection. Of course, they're also much more affordable! A true safe is a very expensive purchase. One large enough to hold a couple of dozen long guns can cost anywhere from $4,000 upwards, whereas a RSC holding the same number of guns can be bought for well under $1,000. For example, Sam's Club offers a Winchester-brand RSC, pictured below, rated to hold 24 guns, for only $623.

To understand the degree of protection offered by a RSC or safe, one has to refer to the standards and ratings used in the industry. The top standards are established by Underwriters Laboratory (UL), the largest testing organization of its kind in the USA. From their Web site:

UL's precision team gets 15 minutes to two hours to open a safe, creating an opening as little as two inches through which a burglar could fish out a small envelope or punch through a 96-square-inch hole needed to successfully pilfer a vault. Safes that survive the timed onslaught of the UL experts are likely to thwart the most professional of burglars for days, even when the safe is carted away for pummeling with the most sophisticated tools. UL tests for public safety by trying to knock the dial off and pick the lock, by forcing the handle, or drilling or blasting through an opening using high-tech torches and specified amounts of nitroglycerine.

Safes also undergo a rigorous test by fire when they are heated to 2,000 degrees F and dropped three stories onto broken cement blocks. Safes can't open, temperatures inside can't rise above 350 degrees F and sample papers left inside have to be readable.

There's a good summary of the UL standards for safes at this Web site. Note that no RSC meets even the minimum UL standards for a true safe. The UL standard for a RSC is that it resists penetration, by a team using standard burglary tools, for five minutes. The minimum period for the lowest category of safe is fifteen minutes - and to buy a safe meeting that standard will cost four to six times as much as the typical RSC. If you've got that kind of money to spend, that's great: but most of us don't. For us, the RSC has to suffice.

Selection of a RSC is complicated by the fact that many RSC manufacturers don't obtain UL certification for their products - probably because they can't meet UL's strict standards! They advertise their RSC's as certified by other organizations. However, UL is the 'gold standard' for certification, and I recommend buying a UL-rated RSC if it's at all possible. To illustrate why this is important, consider the video clip below. It shows a typical RSC (clearly not UL-rated!) being opened by two 'burglars', using only a pry-bar and a crowbar, in less than two minutes.

I suspect the Winchester unit from Sam's Club, referred to above, would offer a level of 'protection' no better than that illustrated in the video clip.

(EDITED TO ADD: I've had a couple of e-mails asserting that the RSC opened by the 'thieves' in that video clip was, indeed, UL-rated. No, I don't think so. Consider: the UL listing sticker first shown is on a dark interior door jamb - a different color to the exterior of the RSC, shown next. Also, the RSC shown by the spokesman is of a different color to that attacked by the 'thieves', and has no logo above the lock, unlike the one forced open, which has its logo masked by tape. Furthermore, the UL test requires RSC's meeting its standards to defeat such an attack for a minimum of five minutes. I suspect the spokesman showed us a UL-listed RSC for his own purposes (selling high-end safes), and then showed a lower-rated RSC being opened by the 'thieves' - scare tactics. That's my impression, anyway. Watch the video for yourself and make up your own mind. Nevertheless, the video makes a point: a non-UL-rated RSC is not very secure, and even a UL-rated unit won't withstand such an attack for more than a few minutes!)

There are a number of ways to improve the level of protection offered by even a lower-quality RSC. Consider some or all of the following:

  • Secure the RSC to the floor and/or walls with bolts. This makes it much harder for thieves to remove it, and/or to lay it flat where they can work on it more easily with pry-bars.
  • Place the RSC in a central location in your home. There have been cases where thieves brought a pickup truck up to the wall of a home, broke a hole in an exterior wall, passed a chain through the hole and around the RSC, and simply pulled it out through the wall! If your RSC isn't against or near an exterior wall, it's harder to remove in that way.
  • I strongly recommend buying a RSC small enough to fit inside a built-in closet. That way, it's not in plain sight, and it's also protected by the cramped space inside the closet. A thief or thieves won't have much room to work on it, particularly if it's also secured to the floor and/or walls. Some people object that a smaller RSC won't work for them, because they have too many firearms or other valuables to fit inside. They want a larger unit - too large to fit into a closet. To them I say, consider buying two smaller units rather than one large one, and putting them into closets in different rooms. That way, you still have the same overall storage capacity: and if one of your RSC's is stolen or broken into, the contents of the other may be left undisturbed, minimizing your loss.
  • For real security, if your garage is air-conditioned (because heat, or cold, or humidity, are not good for firearms and other valuables), consider placing your RSC against an interior wall and securing it by cementing breeze-blocks or brickwork beneath and around and above it. Reinforcing rods can be cemented inside the bricks or blocks, if desired. This offers a great deal of fire protection, and makes it virtually impossible to remove the RSC or lay it flat. Of course, if and when you move house, your RSC won't be moving with you! You'll have to buy a new one for your new home. On the other hand, selling the RSC with your home might add value to the latter.

Now, a word about locks. I strongly recommend buying a RSC with an old-fashioned combination lock, secured with a key. Electronic locks may be more convenient, but they're amazingly easy to bypass if you know how - and from my experience working in prison, believe me, there are plenty of criminals who know how! Consider the video clip below.

All it took was a screwdriver, a 9V battery and two pieces of wire. The cheap electronic locks on most RSC's can be bypassed just as easily. For that reason, stay with the combination-and-key lock. Keep the dial locked at all times unless you're in the home, and make sure that before you lock it, you turn the dial three or four times, to scramble the combination. That'll make it much harder for a casual burglar to get into your RSC.

On this point, there are those who point out that a gun locked in a RSC isn't quickly or easily accessed when you might need it, to respond to a burglar or intruder. They're quite correct, of course. To address those risks, you need to either have a gun on your person, or in a place where you can get to it quickly and easily. Unfortunately, such places are also well-known to thieves, who've learned all the likely locations from experience! There's also the complicating factor of children in the home, either your own, or those of neighbors and friends. Believe me, if there's an unsecured firearm anywhere in your home, children will, repeat, will find it! Tragedies are often the result. The only secure place for a firearm is either locked away, or carried on your person and under your direct and immediate control. Anywhere else is a risk, to a greater or lesser extent.

Finally, bear in mind that the claimed capacity of a RSC may not be realistic. I've seen RSC's 'rated' to contain 24 or 25 long guns that actually hold no more than 15-18. That's because things such as telescopic sights, bolt handles and other protrusions take up more space than the weapon would otherwise require. There's a firm called Store More Guns offering a very handy system of what they call Rifle Rods, as well as Handgun Hangers. I've seen their products, and like them enough that I'll be buying some myself. They greatly increase the number of firearms that can fit into a RSC. The video clip below demonstrates how it works.

You can also get products to hang handguns on the inside of the door of your RSC. I use the 'Acorn' brand holsters, which attach via Velcro tabs to a sheet of felt hanging inside the door. There are other, similar products. Here's what one such RSC door looks like on the inside:

That's about all I can tell you in a brief blog article. There's a lot more to learn, but that's best discussed with a professional in the field. Find a safe dealer (note: not a RSC dealer, but a proper safe dealer) in your neighborhood and ask questions. Go to the Web sites of dealers and manufacturers and read all you can. Inform yourself as fully as possible about what's available, check your budget, and go from there.

Here are some Web sites of RSC manufacturers that you might find useful. (There are many more - these are just the ones with which I'm familiar.) Note that even though they use the word 'Safe' in their name, this doesn't mean that they're actually selling you a 'safe' rather than a RSC! Many of their cheaper products may be manufactured in the Far East, rather than in the USA. In alphabetical order:


Cannon Safe

Fort Knox

Homeland Security Safes

Liberty Safe (I can recommend Liberty products from personal experience)

Patriot Gun Safes

Sentry Safe

Sportsman Steel Safe Co.

Stack-On Gun Safes

As I said, there are other manufacturers. Do an Internet search on 'gun safes' and you'll find many links to follow. Don't be put off by the prices listed on those Web sites - you can find discounted prices at many dealers and retailers. Also, consider the weight and bulk of a RSC when it comes to purchasing one. If you have a pickup truck and a couple of strong friends, you can save a bundle by picking it up from the vendor and installing it yourself. On the other hand, if you have to get it up a flight of stairs or two, or maneuver it into a confined space, it's probably worth paying professionals to move it for you. Your back, fingers and toes - and your friends - will thank you! (How do I know this, you ask? Trust me. I know this!)

I hope this information is helpful to some of you. I very strongly urge you to secure your firearms in a RSC if at all possible. It may not be legally required, but I consider it a moral obligation for us, as firearms owners, to make it as difficult as possible for thieves to get their hands on our weapons. I'd hate to think that my firearms had been used to rob, or assault, or rape, or murder another innocent person. It seems to me that I should do all in my power to prevent that happening. That way, if my weapons are stolen, I can at least sleep easier in the knowledge that I didn't make it easy for the thieves!

(As always, I don't receive any commission or consideration for listing any item I've mentioned here. I merely recommend what I know to be worthwhile. YMMV.)


EDITED TO ADD: See also the update to this article.


Murphy said...

Some great info here, thanks!

Crucis said...

I bought a Cannon safe a few years ago. I'm not pushing that particular brand, but here's something to check about the sellers.
1. Do they deliver? If not you'll pay $$ for shipping.
2. Shipping companies and many local dealers deliver TO YOUR DOOR. You will have to move it inside and install.

Bottom line, look for a dealer who will deliver inside your house and will also install it according to the manufacturers specification. Very important unless you have in mind giving several Sons-in-law hernias.

Anonymous said...

I have a couple RSC's. The whole point of an RSC is to "keep an honest man honest". That is to say your daughter's little friend would not have been able to do what he did IF your friend's guns had been in an RSC. Trust me, I work with safes, and there ain't no container that can't be opened if a trained non-owner really wants to open it. And that includes class five containers.

You are absolutely correct as far as mechanical locks verses electronic locks.

Anonymous said...

Having a bunch of guns and no safe to put them in is purely irresponsible. Having been the victim of a burglary where the thieves pummeled away at my Cannon safe (100% warranty took care of the repairs) to try to get its contents, I can say that my safe was the best investment that I ever made for my firearms. Knowing my guns aren't in a thug's hands is priceless.

Thieves aren't the only thing to worry about; I'm sure you recall SWAT editor Denny Hansen's house fire that destroyed his entire home, including his guns. He had no fire resistant safe. Insurance doesn't bring back precious heirlooms.

Anonymous said...

Also keep in mind that, like "safes", electronic locks are not all created equal. I know for a fact that Ft. Knox at least uses UL listed models on their products. To further on Crucis' point, many companies won't even deliver to your door - they'll only get it to your *curb*.

Finally, don't overlook the cruciality of a good fire protection rating (which should also be certified by the UL). Not to detract from anything you've covered here as it is all accurate and excellent, but consider the probabilities. Which is more likely, a burglar (or team) with preparation & practice for more than a simple smash-toss-grab capable of opening even an RSC, or, just for totally random example here, a faulty shredder or such sparking off a house fire?

Word verification: arzxh, the sound I made repeatedly along with the installers trying to maneuver 1125lbs through the house.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and if anyone still feels the need to get *really* fancy and use an electronic lock with a fingerprint scanner, it kinda helps if you wipe your print off the scanner after each use.

Robert McDonald said...

Thanks for the information. I'm going to be in the market for some secured storage for my firearms. I've moved around so much in the last couple of years that it hasn't been practicle (or budgetable) to have a safe in each place. Now that I've settled down it's a bit different.

ASLEvans said...

The Zanotti take-down safes are fairly reasonable to move and assemble quite tightly with no external access to the pins holding the walls together. We've had ours on the second floor of a house and disassembled/moved it with a good dolly and a few friends. Two people can reassemble easily. Unfortunately, they don't come cheaply - but at least they are not appreciably more expensive than comparable products.

TheBronze said...

If you live in/near Kalifornia, I highly recommend Visalia Safe Co.

They were great to deal with and they made me a fantastic fire-proof safe that I have complete faith in.

I dropped almost $2k on this safe and it has given me great peace-of-mind. It weighs half-a-ton, so it isn't going anywhere.

I differ with BRM in size though. I think (and it's been said) that you should always buy a safe that's bigger than what you think you need. Totally true. You'd be amazed at how fast it fills up with not only guns, but other valuables.

The Safety Officer said...

How large a pistol can you secure with an 'Acorn' brand holster?

Peter said...

To The Safety Officer:

I've stored everything from a 1911 to a Glock 17 with no trouble. I find weight to be a bigger factor than size. If a gun's heavy (e.g. a steel 1911), the Velcro strip can pull away from the felt backing sheet over time. A lighter gun, like a Glock, doesn't have that problem.

Anonymous said...

Note this post on Michael Bane's blog about his Cannon safe failure, and the bigger failure of their so-called lifetime warranty.