More than half of U.S. gun owners store at least one firearm without any locks or other measures to prevent its theft or use by an unauthorized person, according to the first study in more than two decades to ask owners about weapons storage.
The remaining 46 percent of gun owners who responded to the survey said they kept all their weapons locked in a gun safe, case or cabinet, or inactivated their weapon with a trigger lock.
Among gun owners with children younger than 18 living at home, rates of safe storage were a bit higher. But 45 percent of these gun owners said they keep at least one firearm in an unsecured state, and 10 percent said they store all their guns in unlocked locations without trigger locks.
The study, published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health, revealed that 7 percent of survey takers keep all their guns and their ammunition together in an unlocked location.
In a country estimated to have 55 million gun owners, the findings suggest that at least 5.5 million households have at least one firearm that could be stolen by a thief, borrowed by a despondent or homicidal family member, or played with by a curious child.
A welter of previous research has found that such scenarios take a very real toll on the lives and health of Americans, contributing to criminal violence, suicide and accidents.
Sponsored Video Stories from LifeZette
About 500,000 firearms are estimated to be stolen each year, and they quickly become part of the vast ocean of illegally owned firearms in the U.S. An analysis of gun-related crimes committed in Pittsburgh in 2008 found that 79 percent were carried out with a firearm not legally owned by the perpetrator.
If that figure were nationally representative, it would suggest that gun theft played a role in close to 9,000 gun-related killings committed in 2015, as well as untold assaults, rapes and robberies.
The survey comes on the heels of other research revealing that gun-owning families whose children have psychiatric illnesses are no more likely than other families to store their firearms safely.
That study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, found that gun ownership rates among parents -- about 42 percent -- were similar in homes with and without a child or children who suffered from depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or other mental health conditions.