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Using a Lockbox     by Lyn Bates

The review article in this issue, “Lock Boxes 2000,” gives a thorough overview of the features of various types of lockboxes intended to safely contain a loaded, ready-to-use, defensive firearm.  Safely containing a gun is easy ... safely getting that loaded gun into and out of the box, however, is not always easy.

Regardless of which method you choose, however, your responsibility doesn’t end there.  You’ve got to find the right place in your home (or other location) for your box, you’ve got to be very careful what you put in it, you need to select a “good” combination, and you need to practice, practice, practice.

What’s the best location for your lockbox?

A gun that goes with you when you leave the house needs to have a safe place to reside when you return.  This might be a location near the entrance you usually use, whether that is the front door, the kitchen, the garage, or somewhere else.  It is easy to get into the habit of removing the gun from your outside-the-home carry method as soon as you come indoors, and putting it in a nearby lockbox, where it will be ready to pick up again the next time you get ready to leave.  

Don’t carry the loaded gun from, say, the closet where you divested yourself of the jacket with a holster in the pocket, to a lockbox upstairs in the bedroom.  Even if you live alone, walking around with a loaded gun can frighten and/or endanger your neighbors. Arrange to lock up the gun close to where you unholster it.

If you wear an on-body holster in public, and simply keep it on when you are in the house, taking it off only when you get undressed in the evening, then having a lockbox in your bedroom lets you follow the rule above and also allows you to have access to the gun at night, if necessary. 

If you never carry your gun in public, then you don’t have to be concerned about the locale of unholstering it, but you still need to be concerned about where you want the gun to be.  Do you want to have it in your bedroom, as a safe room, at night?  Or do you want to have it near an entrance to your home where you think you may need it to deal with someone at your door?  (Hint:  If you think there might be someone unsavory at your door . . . don’t open it!!  It would be far better to retreat to your bedroom, stay there with your gun, and call the police, than to open the front door with a gun in your hand (or concealed) when you are worried about who might be on the other side.

If you have kids, a whole other set of considerations come into play.  You should not let your kids see you operate the lock on your lockbox, regardless of whether you have a box with a Simplex (5 pushbutton) lock, a key, or an electronic keypad lock.  Even a single observation of you opening the box may let an older child know enough about the combination (or the key’s location) to tempt them to try to get in the box the next time you aren’t around.  Tamper detectors that warn you when lots of incorrect buttons have been pressed are no good if your young genius guesses the combination without going over the tamper detector’s threshold.  

To prevent young ones from seeing too much, consider mounting the box in a closet, or on a high shelf, or in any other location that absolutely shields anyone’s view (or hearing) as you open the box.

Regardless of the location you choose, you must be able to reach it easily, quickly, and securely.  

How about under a bed?  That might be good, if you choose a box that doesn’t require a lot of room above it to open.  And if you are sure you will wake up enough to get the gun without mishap.

If you want a gun near an entrance to your home most of the time, and with you in the bedroom at night, there are two possible solutions.  One is to have two different guns in two different lock boxes in different parts of your home; ideal but expensive.  Another possibility is to have one gun, one lockbox, and two mounting plates in different locations.  In the morning, carry the gun in the lockbox from the bedroom to the entrance and fasten the lockbox there.  Take the gun out when you go out, put it in the lockbox when you return, and take the lockbox upstairs to the bedroom with you at night, secured on the second mounting plate.

Do you want to secure your gun in two different buildings (or vehicles, if that is legal for you), such as home and office, home and RV, home and boat, or home and vacation home?  Then you might can save a lot of money by getting a single lockbox and two mounting plates to secure the box in two different locations, even if you have to unload the gun when carrying it between those locations to comply with your laws.

What to put in it?

Most small boxes are designed for one or at most 2 firearms.  Unless you have a darn good reason to keep 2 guns there (such as two well-trained adults in the household who may need access to them), I suggest that the safest configuration is a single gun, with a couple of spare magazines or speedloaders, loaded.  Always put the gun into the box the same way, so that it is easy to remove.  Figure out whether it is easier for you to draw the gun with the muzzle pointing to the right or to the left, and be absolutely consistent with putting the gun into the box that way.

Remember, under stress, not much works as planned, unless you have planned actions that resist the physical and mental effects of stress.  Believe me, if you have your favorite semi-auto and a couple of spare mags in the same lockbox with your revolver and a couple of speedloaders, there is a darn good chance that when things go bump in the night and you grab for your gun, you will come up with the semi in one hand and a speed loader in the other.  Not exactly a recipe for survival.

Besides, the more items you put into the box, the more you have to place them carefully, and your just-so packing will make it harder to get the gun out safely.

If you must put a lot in a lockbox, at least get a big one, preferably one with a shelf, so you can completely separate one gun and its ammo from another, or completely separate your gun from non-gun objects.  Be sure the gun is on the shelf that is the easiest for you to reach.

Don’t think of these boxes as limited to firearms.  You can easily store money, keys, coins, medications, jewelry, passports, and other small valuables in one, INSTEAD of a gun!  Think of getting one for Granny’s money and jewelry in the nursing home where some of the staff are light-fingered.  Think of getting one for the office, your vacation home, or anywhere else you might need to stash some important objects securely.  

But don’t have a single lockbox that has a gun mixed with valuables tossed into it until it looks like the kitchen junk drawer! 

What condition should the gun be in?

One lockbox manufacturer says right on their website, “For safety purposes we recommend that your gun not be loaded to the point where it can be fired just by pulling the trigger when you first handle it.”

Sounds like good advice, but let’s think it through. With a revolver, you could store the wheelgun empty, with a charged speedloader handy; you will have to take out the gun, open it, load it, drop the speedloader, and close the gun before you are ready to go into action.   Or, you could load your wheelgun with one empty chamber, carefully positioned so that you will have to pull the trigger twice to make the first shot happen.  That reduces the amount of ammo you can fire before reloading by 17% or 20%, depending on whether you have a 6 shot or a 5 shot revolver.  It may also, in an emergency, make you think you have to pull the trigger prematurely, just to get the gun ready to fire.

If you have a good, heavy, double action pull on your defense revolver, and if you have had adequate training, I see no reason to handicap yourself in terms of ammo supply or time to the first shot, but if you choose this conservative approach, that’s OK, too.  Just be very aware of the consequences.

If you have a semi-automatic with a manual safety, typified by a  1911-style, Browning Hi-Power, or most Smith&Wesson automatics, you should be absolutely certain that the safety is on before you put the gun in the box.  Train at the range so that taking the safety off becomes automatic.

If you have a semi-automatic without a manual safety, such as a Glock, some Berettas, or some Taurus pistols, then you are back to the dilemma that if you want the gun to be in a condition where it cannot be fired with a single pull of the trigger when you take it out of the box, then you must load the gun one down (which fortunately does not reduce your ammo supply by as large a percentage as if you had a revolver), and put the gun into the box with a fully loaded magazine in place, slide down, but no round in the chamber.  Then, when you remove the gun from the box in an emergency, you must get in the habit of racking the slide to chamber a round; this will leave your gun in single-action mode, which can be highly dangerous!! Best keep the gun pointed into the open lockbox as you do this.  Then, if the “emergency” turns out to be nothing, and you want to return the gun to its box as you found it, you will need to remove the magazine, rack the slide to remove the chambered round, reinsert it in the magazine, reinsert the mag in the gun, and replace the gun in the lockbox, all with the pounding heart and shaking fingers that the “non-emergency” caused.

Why not put the gun in empty, along with a loaded magazine or speed loader?  Well, who are you trying to protect the gun from?  Yourself?  Do you really think you will be safer, under the stress of a situation in which you and your loved ones are in extreme danger, loading the gun after you take it out of the box?  Or would you prefer to depend on your finger-off-trigger discipline, coupled with whatever manual safeties may be on the gun?

I think it is actually safer for you to keep the pistol fully loaded in the box than to go through the process just described, if you have adequate training and practice with a completely unloaded gun until you know for sure that you will always keep your index finger out of the trigger guard as the gun is going into or out of the box.

What combination to choose?

If you have a keyed safe, this isn’t an issue, of course, but Simplex and electronic keypad locks let you change their combinations easily.

Whatever you do, don’t just leave the combination set as it came from the manufacturer!  Every Simplex lock in the world is made with the same initial combination, and any professional thief is going to know it, so CHANGE IT!

The combination should be something that is easy for you to remember, either visually, tactically, or, if you have a keypad with letters, mneumonically.  It should be long enough so that someone just trying a few numbers won’t stumble across the right one by accident. 

Write down the combination.  Yes, even if you are going to be opening the box multiple times a day, there might be an unforeseen circumstance in which you don’t do it for long enough to forget the combination.  Hide the combination well (not in the box, of course!)  

Whenever you think your combination may have been compromised - say you open it one day and then suddenly realize your teenager was watching - you should change the combination. If you have lost the directions, contact the lockbox manufacturer for instructions on how to change the combination; that’s one of the most common questions they get.

How to practice?

Guns, even unloaded ones, and practice-in-the-home go together about as well as hot mustard and vanilla ice cream.  So, how can you practice safely?

For positioning the box, and learning to insert and access a “gun”, the best thing I’ve found is a cheap water pistol.  Unloaded, of course.  Try the box in several locations, and notice:  Do you tend to cross your other hand with the muzzle when you remove the gun?   It is important that you be able to get the gun out one-handed, because your other hand might be occupied with a telephone, a flashlight, or a child.  Be sure you can pass the water pistol test one-handed.  

Set the combination to the one you want, and then try the box in several locations, without anything bolted in place, with the water pistol in it. If it is under the bed, are the bedclothes likely to get in your way?  If it is in a corner, or on a shelf, will things get piled in front of it, or on top?  If it is on the floor, is it awkward to reach?  Wherever it is, will it open all the way, or might something impede it?

At one of the AWARE classes, we sometimes do an exercise that requires a student to go through a simulated emergency in which getting a gun out of the lockbox and calling 911 are both necessary -- but in what order?  If you have a phone in your hand as you approach the box, you may have to switch it to your non-dominant hand, or put it down, in order to open the box.  If the box takes two hands to open, having a phone in one really slows you down.  If you go for the gun first, with empty hands, the gun access is fast and safe, but then you have the problem of whether you can safely dial 911 with a gun in your hand.  

There is no absolute best method here, but I generally recommend getting the gun before the phone, on the principle that you may need the gun instantly, so 30 seconds delay in getting to the firearm may be fatal, while it is unlikely that 30 seconds delay in calling 911 will mean the difference between life and death.  

But you should make up your own mind, and you should practice, slowly and with that unloaded water pistol, so that you will know what you want to do in terms of using the gun and the phone.  A few minutes of practice with this problem may even make you modify where you place the lockbox, or the phone, so that you can have your gun, your phone, and good cover all at the same time.

As you slowly practice, you should keep in mind what you would actually do in an emergency after you have your gun in hand.  I hope you are going to retreat and take cover.  Going in search of the noise in the night is much too dangerous.  Figure out where your best cover is, and how you are going to get there from the lockbox location.  Actually do it.  Do it some more!!

You can even try the water-pistol test for several days, to be sure that you can open the box easily at different times of the day and night, under different lighting conditions.  Not until you are certain that you have found the perfect location should you bolt the box in place.  (Sure, you can move it later, but you probably won’t bother, so get it right the first time.)

Once the box is in place, you are ready to start practicing with your UNLOADED, UNFIRABLE gun.  Slowly, and paying particular attention to keeping your index finger along the frame of the gun, put the gun into the box, along with any (empty) magazines or speedloaders you intend to keep there.  Lock the box.  Slowly, and paying particular attention to that index finger again, unlock the box and take the gun out.  

As you take the gun out, you need a safe direction for the muzzle.  The safest is probably the lockbox itself.  While not all lockboxes are going to be able to contain an accidental discharge, some will, and others will at least do a partial job.  Your hands may be endangered by bits of the bullet and blowback from the firearm in the close confines of the box, but the alternative is probably endangering someone else who might be in a nearby room.  

Practice slowly and carefully with the unloaded gun.  Move up to a loaded one only when you are absolutely certain that you have internalized the process of safely acquiring the gun, and locking it up again.

Properly handled, lockboxes are the greatest thing for defensive gunowners since sliced bread.   Use your box properly, and your firearm will be there, waiting and loaded when you need it, but safe from all curious or larcenous hands.


This article first appeared in the Jul-Aug 2000 issue of Women&Guns magazine.  Copyright (c) 2000 Lyn Bates