Few topics elicit as much heated discussion as guns in America. It’s a political lightning rod, something we’ve all probably had arguments about. Though not all that often, the topic may come up in regards to commercial real estate, like when a corporate office or a retail store posts a sign banning guns inside their properties. Whether or not an establishment can ban guns could depend on their states’ laws and policies for open carry and concealed carry of firearms. But how does that affect multifamily properties?
One thing that multifamily landlords may not have considered is whether or not they can restrict guns in rentals, too. I hadn’t considered the topic, either, until I saw a lively discussion about it on Twitter. The back-and-forth between landlords was enlightening, and it showed the confusion about gun laws for multifamily and the stark differences between states and regions.
Some landlords responded they’d never even thought about it or cared, for that matter. One landlord shared a story about evicting a problematic tenant with an anger problem. When he visited the angry tenant, the landlord saw an AK-47 hanging on the wall behind him. Another landlord shared that he heard about properties in Montana and Wyoming that advertised the amenity of gun storage lockers. Yet another landlord said he was against banning guns in rentals until two landlords got shot trying to collect rent in New York City. “I took it as a sign,” the commenter said. But the main theme in the discussion was that few of the landlords seemed to know the laws and regulations.
There’s a vast disparity between federal, state, and local gun laws for things like concealed carry and background checks. But when it comes to storing a gun in multifamily properties, there are few regulations. In most parts of America, it’s generally within a landlord’s rights to restrict gun ownership in rentals. Whether or not they’d want to do so is another question entirely. The federal government has stayed out of the issue altogether, making it a State’s Rights issue. And there are only a handful of states that address gun ownership in rental properties with specific laws. So, if a state doesn’t address the issue directly, landlords can do what they want by default.
One can think of issues like smoking or even marijuana use to frame the gun ownership in rental properties debate. Landlords obviously can’t prevent tenants from smoking cigarettes or weed, but they can restrict smoking on their properties in their lease agreements, just like gun ownership. Whether a tenant can keep a gun on the property is laid out and agreed upon in writing. It’s no different than if the tenant wanted a dog in the apartment. But even if the lease agreement doesn’t mention guns specifically, landlords can generally still forbid them in many places.
Only a few states address the issue of guns in apartment buildings: Ohio, Virginia, Minnesota, and Tennessee are the only ones with laws on the books. In Minnesota, landlords cannot prohibit firearms in apartments. Landlords in Ohio can ban guns unless the tenant has a concealed carry permit. Tennessee landlords can prohibit firearms, but only if stated in the lease. The rest of the states are mum on the subject, presumably leaving it to landlords’ discretion.
Public housing, on the other hand, is different. Tenants in government-assisted housing have the right to keep guns in their apartments. When the feds provide public housing with public money, 2nd Amendment rights and other fair housing issues get factored in. Federal law is silent about guns in private rental properties, but that could change eventually. A lawsuit involving a non-government tenant claiming infringement on 2nd amendment rights is always possible. Denny Dobbins, general legal counsel and vice president of Crimshield, told Rental Housing Journal he believes that “someone is going to finally get that case to the Supreme Court someday.”
Regardless of the laws, most of the issue comes down to common sense. If a renter is storing a gun and the landlord never finds out, it may not matter. Responsible gun owners usually keep firearms locked away, so the issue may never come up. Most landlords probably couldn’t care less unless there happened to be a crime committed or prevented involving a gun. The situation also depends on how the landlord feels about guns. If they find out a tenant has one, it could go several ways. Some landlords may believe keeping guns off the property reduces the chances of crime, while others may believe that having responsible gun owners actually reduces the chances of a crime. Other landlords may simply be anti-gun and feel uncomfortable about it. But if the tenant pays the rent on time and is well behaved, the situation can probably be hashed out civilly between the two parties. A landlord could decide to evict if they find out about a stored gun, but usually only when it’s stipulated in the lease.
Banning guns in multifamily is relatively simple, but enforcing the ban is another story. Landlord inspections cover the property and improvements, but they can’t rummage through a tenant’s stuff. If a renter has a gun locked away in a safe, it’s off-limits to the landlord. Some landlords add no-guns on the lease but don’t enforce it. Adding the ban covers their backsides in the event of an accident and places the burden on the tenant who broke the lease obligation. Some insurance companies may also provide discounts to property owners who restrict guns. Landlords also have to worry about liability if a shooting happens on their property, so adding a gun ban could help, even if they don’t put effort into enforcing it.
Consultants and legal experts advise multifamily landlords to take a few steps if considering a gun ban. First, check the state law and seek legal counsel. Though the state may not address firearms in rentals specifically, other laws such as open or concealed carry policies may preclude a ban. If landlords decide to ban guns, they most likely have to post signage that tells visitors and residents that firearms are prohibited on the property. No matter what landlords choose, it’s in their best interest to include language about guns in leases and house rules. For example, language should explain that gun owners must follow federal and state laws or perhaps if guns are allowed in private residences, the rules can prohibit them in common areas.
Whether or not landlords ban guns is ultimately a personal decision in most cases, and, as expected, the sentiment toward gun restrictions is also likely heavily influenced by regional differences. I grew up in the politically liberal Philadelphia area, where gun laws are fairly strict, and in a family that didn’t hunt or care much about guns. I remember feeling shocked and uneasy during some trips to Tennessee, seeing people walk around in public with handguns strapped to their hips. In more conservative states, we’d venture to say few landlords would have problems with guns, and some may even offer the amenity of gun storage lockers. The situation in California or New York, which has some of the nation’s strictest gun laws, is probably vastly different.
Some multifamily owners may think that banning guns will shield them from legal liability in case of crime or accidents but actually enforcing a gun ban is more complicated. It could even open them up to discrimination lawsuits considering the right to bear arms is a civil rights issue. Whether or not guns make a property more safe or less safe depends on how you view the gun control issue. An ill-tempered tenant packing heat during an eviction probably sounds dicey to most landlords, but legally armed tenants have also been known to help prevent violent crime. Many landlords may never think about gun bans at all, but those who do must figure out the right balance between gun ownership rights and their own property rights as a landlord.