Responding To A Detroit News Special Report

[In December 2003], the Detroit News ran what they called a “special report” on firearms manufacturers and safety issues. For three days, they ran multiple stories, describing victims in graphic detail, and attempting to blame gun manufacturers for negligently ignoring safety devices that would have prevented the incidents. It was a tour-de-force of anti-gun propaganda. But propaganda is all it was.

I have written an extensive rebuttal of each story they posted. Please read the rebuttal along with the original story. But before you do that, read the rest of this article to give yourself a grounding in the basic facts of the issue — a grounding the Detroit News doesn’t want you to have.

Some facts from about death from firearms accidents: Compared to dying in a firearms accident, the average person is twice as likely to choke to death, seven times more likely to be poisoned, ten times more likely to die in a fall, and 31 times more likely to die in a car accident. Think about those numbers for a second. Then realize those estimates are from 1997, and accidental firearms deaths have fallen every year since, even though the number of firearms in the US has grown and continues to grow. The “installed base” of firearms in US households is estimated at around 200 million firearms, with one firearm-owning household for every 2 or 3 unarmed households..

Want a solid number? Let’s look at children, since the Detroit News loves to present children as victims. In 1996, there were 21 accidental gun deaths for children under 15. Not 21 per day as the media or gun control advocacy groups might have led you to expect: 21. Period. That’s all.

So we’re not exactly dealing with a crisis here.

The real motive behind this special report is the chance to influence the manufacturer immunity bill currently in the Senate. The bill is designed to protect firearms manufacturers from being sued over criminal acts, in order to block a series of politically-motivated lawsuits seeking to impose gun control via the courts. The Detroit News wants to make it politically difficult to pass this bill.

But to do that, they have to take some serious liberties with common sense.

One of their articles covers a defect in pre-1981 Remington hunting rifles. Yes, this particular problem has been fixed for over 20 years; still they seem to feel it’s both current news and relevant to the current bill. A different section deals with Chinese SKS rifles, currently illegal to import for the past 10 years, and manufactured in 1945 — at the LATEST. Hmm. Real current problem.

Then they spend an entire article attacking Glock for lacking safety features that Glock has deliberately chosen to avoid, in favor of a design that will always fire when the trigger is pulled, and never fire when the trigger is not pulled. Although this is a departure from the tradition of manual safety devices that could block the trigger, it’s not an inherently unsafe one. Police departments have demostrated their approval of this design by purchasing Glock firearms in droves. You don’t have to agree with the design decision Glock made, because there are firearms with with traditional safety devices available. It’s disingenous to call this design decision a safety defect without so much as explaining the reasoning behind it.

And then there’s the “victim” file. By that I mean the article which spends its several pages describing a series of incidents in which a child or young adult shot a friend or family member. But there are some common threads to these cases: in almost all of them, the shooter was not authorized to have access to the firearm, and when they gained access, their first thought was to remove the magazine, point the gun at the victim, and pull the trigger.

The Detroit News thinks that’s an argument for “magazine safeties” which prevent the gun from firing if the magazine is removed. Guns with such devices are available, but the Detroit News would like them made mandatory, or at a minimum, they would like the victims (or their families) to be able to sue the gun manufacturers out of business… because their friend or child thought that pointing a gun at a human being and pulling the trigger was some sort of funny joke or acceptable horseplay.

Ha-ha. Very funny. Now take me to a hospital.

What those children lacked wasn’t a magazine safety on the firearm they weren’t supposed to have access to anyway. What they lacked was any concept of consequences or responsibility for their actions. How ironic, then, that the parents of those children are being asked to deny their own responsibility for their child’s ignorance of and access to their firearm.

As you’ve probably guessed, this “special report” isn’t exactly the most unbiased representation of the facts you’re likely to find. But now that the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act is the law of the land, approved by the Supreme Court, biased reporting like this is going to become the order of the day.

“Faulty Remington Rifles Shatter Lives”

Lloyd Woods is a Vietnam veteran and longtime hunter who has spent much of his life handling and using guns. But when he bought a used Remington 700 bolt action hunting rifle in 1988, he had no way of knowing that the sleek, carefully finished exterior hid a dangerous design flaw — a defect that has injured more than a hundred people.

The series of small, metal parts that control the gun’s firing mechanism were prone to failure, making the rifle accidentally discharge without the trigger being pulled.

Remington Arms Co. officials knew of this problem in some rifles as early as 1947, but for decades failed to fix the firing mechanism or warn customers of the danger. The problem, the company’s own records show, could have been fixed for 32 cents a rifle.

There are a couple things to bear in mind here as we begin a careful examination of the Detroit News’ attack on Remington.

  1. They’ve gone back to 1996 to find an illustrative incident, regarding a gun that was bought (used) in 1988. Thats about 15 years — quite a long time for something that is supposed to illustrate a current, serious problem. Especially when you have to go back even further to find the date of original sale.
  2. They claim the problem dates back to 1947, and their quoted cost figure to 1981, which means the “32 cents per rifle” figure is in 1981 “cents” rather than 2003 “cents” — what would be an almost trivial cost today would be more serious in 1981.
  3. They claim that over 100 people have been injured by this design flaw since 1970. Reality check here. 100 people over 30 years? More children drown in bathtubs over a SINGLE year.
  4. This “design flaw” does not occur on new rifles. The firing mechanism must first be damaged or worn.
  5. And, of course, in order for this design flaw to actually injure anyone, the person holding the gun must break the rules of gun safety — by pointing a loaded gun at something they are not willing to shoot.

It was far from an isolated incident. Since the 1970s, more than a hundred people — mainly hunters — have been injured, maimed or killed when their Remington rifles accidentally fired without the trigger being pulled.

Missouri attorney Richard Miller, who estimates he has handled about 100 cases against Remington, said the firearm manufacturer’s own records show it has received more than 1,500 complaints of unintentional discharges involving the 700 rifle.

Leaving aside the interesting habit of the Detroit News reporters of quoting from lawyers on only one side of these cases, there’s an interesting ratio here: 1,500 complaints resulting in 100 cases. That is, a 15-to-1 ratio of people experiencing the problem versus people being injured by the problem. Once more we see that safe gun handling is the order of the day.

Remington, under new ownership since it was sold by DuPont for $300 million in 1993, insists that modifications in the 1982 rifles — which allow them to be unloaded with the safety on — have ended the problem. And they say an ongoing recall of pre-1982 rifles, initiated last year, is addressing the problem with older rifles.


Hmm. I’m trying to recall the theme of this series — you know, how current laws are not enough to encourage responsible behavior from firearm manufacturers? And yet, I’m seeing that Remington fixed this problem in 1982, and has a recall in progress for guns made prior to that year!

Seems like Remington is making it right to me.

“Top Police Gun Prone to Accidental Firing”

When police Officer Randall Smith was accidentally shot in the head by a fellow officer with a Glock semiautomatic pistol in 1995, he sued the gun maker, claiming the weapon was defectively designed and unnecessarily dangerous.

Glock settled the lawsuit. But for the rest of his life, Smith, whose injuries left him permanently brain damaged and cost him his police job in Birmingham, Ala., is barred from talking about the case or revealing any details he learned about Glock before the settlement. His lawyer also is barred from talking, restricted by a confidentiality agreement that is a standard policy for Glock when settling lawsuits.

Glock’s and other gun manufacturers’ insistence on confidentiality agreements is common in product liability settlements. The agreements have kept critical information about the safety record of the gun from the public and are a prime example of how the gun industry actively conceals information about injuries and fatalities connected with its products. The industry has done so with the help of Congress and the powerful National Rifle Association lobby.

As any lawyer could tell you, confidentiality agreements regarding legal settlements and documents examined during discovery in a lawsuit are extremely common. Lawsuits often deal with and uncover many kinds of internal details of business’s operation that could provide valuable information to competitors, or even to those opposing the business on other grounds — like gun control advocates. The existance of a secrecy agreement in no way presupposes that the manufacturer has something sinister to hide — no more than if any citizen found himself hauled into court would want the details of his own life exposed to public view.

If the plaintiffs in this case felt they had uncovered some compelling evidence, they could have chosen not to settle. The Detroit News in this case is unhappy that the terms of the settlement did not give them additional information with which to attack the gun industry, justified or not; and I have little sympathy for their desire to do so.

As for the facts of this case, and many of the others relating to Glock firearms, they are somewhat different than the description given by this editorial might indicate. Glock firearms use a safety mechanism called a “trigger safety”; they operate on the principle that the gun should fire when the trigger is pulled. Each time, every time. Police departments often choose Glock for exactly this reason. Glock firearms are simple to use; point the gun at the target and pull the trigger.

As the article itself admits, “The guns safety features effectively prevent accidental discharges if the weapon is dropped or bumped. But the Glock has no safety features that prevent it from firing if the trigger is accidentally pulled.” And this is by design. When you need a firearm, you need it to work. And when you are a police officer, the extra time needed to click off a safety could mean your life — and doubly so if you forget about the safety, and try to fire the gun while it is engaged.

Following the rules of gun safety with a Glock will prevent accidents just as with any other firearm. Don’t point the gun at what you aren’t willing to shoot; don’t pull the trigger unless you expect the gun to go off. Remember that each time you see someone talking about a firearms “accident”: if they pulled the trigger while the gun was pointed at someone, it’s not an accident.

People who buy Glock firearms do so making an informed decision about the qualities of the firearm. The popularity of Glock firearms with police departments across the nation suggests that the Glock designs are well-received and fill the needs of those departments well. That’s an indication of the free market working as designed — because other firearms, with more safety features and consequently less reliability in a crisis, are available if police departments wish to purchase them.

The gun has no manual safety to prevent it from firing if the trigger is accidentally pulled. In fact, the gun’s safety features — extremely effective in preventing discharges if the gun is dropped or hit — automatically are turned off every time the trigger is depressed.

In addition, most Glocks have no indicator that shows the guns are loaded and no magazine safety to prevent them from firing when the ammunition clip is removed. And unlike many other guns, the Glock is always semicocked and ready to shoot. This inner tension in its firing mechanism increases the likelihood of discharge if the trigger is accidentally moved, some gun experts say.

“What you have is a gun that is almost too eager to fire,” said Carter Lord, a national firearms and ballistics consultant. “I think it may be an appropriate weapon for highly trained paramilitary officers in a SWAT team, but not for most police officers and certainly not for civilians.”

Nonsense. The design features of a Glock are clearly oriented towards the simple principle of firing when the trigger is pulled, each time and every time. As they say in software development, that’s a feature, not a bug. It does require careful handling, and some people may prefer a firearm with more safety features — but that’s no reason to prevent those who do have a need for the Glock’s design features from buying firearms with those features.

If you don’t want the gun to fire, don’t pull the trigger. It’s that simple.

One of the Glock’s most frightening attributes is its ability to easily be converted into a full automatic weapon capable of firing at the rate of 1,000 rounds a minute. Glock has issued no warnings and made no changes in its design that would prevent its weapons from being converted into submachine guns. Experts say the problem can be corrected with minor changes in how Glock pistols are made.

A full automatic Glock will fire 33 bullets in seconds with one trigger pull. And the gun can be quickly converted to full automatic mode for as little as $10 with homemade parts. It is a well-documented danger known to law enforcement.

“In some regions of California, police are treating any Glock they encounter as a machine gun until proven otherwise,” states an advisory on the Association of Forensic Firearm and Toolmark Examiners Web site that lists dangerous or defective guns.

“The conversion from standard to fully automatic is fast and simple, requiring no technical expertise. The conversion is accomplished merely by swapping one piece for the other. A ‘real pro’ can make the switch in 15 seconds.”

Now, this is an allegation that I haven’t heard before. But, I do know the law on fully-automatic firearms. In case you do not, fully-automatic firearms are legal for civilians to own and transfer (but not to manufacture) by federal law. Some states restrict this further. But the federal law defining a fully-automatic weapon for this purpose defines it as any weapon capable of firing more than one round with a single trigger pull, or which is easily converted to do so.

Think about that for a moment. If you really could convert a Glock into a submachine gun in 15 seconds, the government would be regulating the Glock firearms as fully-automatic firearms already. The law makes no distinction between “fully automatic” and “readily converted to fully automatic”. And yet, Glocks are made and sold for civilian use every day.

So is this a valid claim? It’s hard to say. The Detroit News cites the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners website as the source of this claim. The only reference on that website is to an ATF advisory which is for “members only” and password protected. While the subject of the advisory is suggestive, without access to the full text it’s impossible to tell exactly what it says.

Did the Detroit News get special access to this advisory — or are they making assumptions based on the name and a website search?

“Defective Firearms Go Unchecked”

Tens of millions of guns in America share design flaws that put their owners and those around them in unnecessary jeopardy, a four-month Detroit News investigation found.

Firearm manufacturers, long aware of the dangers, have made no concerted, industrywide effort to improve safety.

The News found that many firearm manufacturers ignore technology — including their own — that would make guns safer and less apt to accidentally discharge. Internal memos, gun patents and employee depositions show that many of these safety features are cheap, easily installed and have been available for nearly a hundred years.

As you might guess, this isn’t an “investigation” so much as it is an editorial… and it isn’t an editorial so much as it is a polemic. So far, four separate stories on this theme have been published; more may be on the way. I will be debunking them here. For links to the additional stories, check the sidebar.

The basic premise is that gun manufacturers are somehow at fault for the stupidity of some gun owners who cause accidents with their firearms. The fact is, you would be very hard pressed to find a firearm on the market today that does not have at least one safety device incorporated into its design. Many have several.

But the authors of this piece aren’t about to let you start to wonder about the wisdom of their pronouncements. The very first thing you’ll see when you open up the link is a picture of a disabled child. The Web doesn’t carry the screeching “Save the CHILLLDREN!” sounds in the background, but any decent imagination will suffice to include them, because surely they are there.

Another thing that many people do not realize: firearms accidents are rare in this country. Firearms accidents involving children are extremely rare. Depending on his age, your child is more likely to die from drowning in a swimming pool or from injuries sustained playing football than he is from a firearms accident.

So why do we keep hearing about it? Because it’s the only way the news media can keep up the pressure on guns.

In addition, many manufacturers routinely disregard customer complaints and fail to recall guns even after losing or settling lawsuits over faulty, dangerous firearms. Some gun makers go further, using confidentiality agreements as part of legal settlements to conceal problems with their firearms.

Gun manufacturers have strong allies in the National Rifle Association and the U.S. Congress.

Lawmakers have ensured that no federal agency has the power to set safety standards for firearms manufactured in the United States, and that no agency can demand a recall of defective guns. And the NRA, a gun owners lobby group, has used its considerable political clout to help fend off all attempts to impose safety standards for guns.

Actually, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms already regulates the manufacture of firearms. They are under some political restraint, true, because in the past they have been used as tools of anti-gun administrations trying to do a lot more than “regulate”. But the fact is, additional “safety standards” for firearms are nothing more than political tools to make firearms more expensive.

How can I know this? Simple: many of the proposed standards include such wise decisions as requiring the use of a metal with a melting point higher than some arbitrary number. Since there aren’t any firearms on the market that are actually in danger of melting from extended use, what relationship does this have to safety? Well, you see, it bans guns made from “cheap” material, thus effectively outlawing the infamous “Saturday Night Special” that gun controllers love to talk about.

What they don’t realize is that banning cheap firearms will deny the poor the ability to defend themselves effectively — but that’s another issue. My point is that the proposed “safety” standards often have nothing to do with safety.

Want another example? Try the case against Beretta being argued in California (after the original jury returned “not guilty”). The plaintiffs are arguing for a “chamber loaded indicator” as mandatory safety equipment on all firearms — and in fact that’s one of the proposals in this editorial. So what’s the problem? The gun used in the California incident that spawned the lawsuit had a chamber loaded indicator already. The plaintiffs claim it was “too small”.

The real problem in that case is that the person holding the gun broke the rules of gun safety:

Always point the gun in a safe direction.
Always assume all firearms are loaded.

Rather than following those basic rules, they pulled the trigger on a firearm they thought was unloaded while it was pointing at someone, and a tragedy occurred. That’s regrettable, but it’s not the fault of the manufacturer.

Safety features, like those missing from the Bryco pistol that shot Brandon Maxfield, are especially effective in preventing accidents among people with limited knowledge of firearms.

“A large number of children and teen-agers who are killed by other children in unintentional shootings are shot in the face, sometimes between the eyes,” said former Guns and Ammo magazine senior editor Whit Collins, a national firearms expert and historian who has testified in dozens of gun defect cases across the country. “That’s because the child with the gun pulls out the magazine and thinks the gun is empty.

“Then they try to scare the other child by pointing the gun right in his or her face and pulling the trigger. They expect to hear a click, but the gun goes off.”

Twenty years ago, Philadelphia native Tamika Haines suffered massive brain injuries that left her partially paralyzed on her right side when she was shot in the head by a teen-age friend. Haines was 14 at the time.

The friend, Walter Butler, then 16, removed the clip from the .25-caliber Raven handgun and believed it was empty. But a bullet remained in the chamber.

Butler told police he was kidding around and trying to scare Haines when he pointed the gun at her head and pulled the trigger. He never expected the gun to go off.

Can you hear the violins? But aside from the musical accompaniment, we have here a typical “firearm accident”. The editorial would like to blame this accident on the manufacturer. I would like to blame this accident on Walter Butler, who deliberately pointed a gun at someone and pulled the trigger. Guns are not toys; they are intended for purchase and use by responsible adults.

“The reaction of the gun industry is to blame all unintentional shootings on human error and negligence,” Collins said. “But part of manufacturing is to assume that human error will occur and find ways to minimize it. We have applied this approach to appliances in the home and cars, why not to a product like firearms that carry such a capacity for catastrophic injury?”

The fact is, there are a huge number of different models of firearms available. All the safety features described in this article are available, on the market, today. If a responsible adult chooses to purchase a firearm without those features and bear the associated risks, it is their choice. Manufacturers should bear liability for their products in the same way as other products — that is, for actual safety flaws. But just as you cannot sue Chrevrolet for making a car capable of tripling the speed limit, you cannot sue the person who made a firearm because one of their customers was stupid or criminal.

“Firearm Defects Take Toll”

Firearms with manufacturing defects or that lack safety features are involved in thousands of unintentional shootings each year. In many instances, human error and poor judgment play a role. But firearms experts who support manufacturing standards for gun makers say human error and possible misuse should be taken into account when designing weapons.

The National Safety Council advises designers to “anticipate common areas and methods of abuse and take steps to eliminate or minimize the consequences associated with such action.”

In many cases of unintentional and accidental shootings, the guns provided no protection against human error. The Detroit News looked at more than 1,000 shootings across the country going back decades. Some were purely accidental, some human error, but many could have been mitigated if the guns had addition safety features, say a number of firearms experts. Among the cases The News reviewed:

What we have here is simply a list of “accidents” that the Detroit News contends could have been prevented by a government regulatory agency. I contend that most could have been prevented by the gun owner following the simple rules of gun safety. Let’s cover them one by one.

AMT .380 Back-up semiautomatic

Safety issue: No magazine safety and no loaded chamber indicator.

On Dec. 23, 1992, a Texas gun dealer who sold firearms from his garage removed the magazine from the AMT pistol to give prospective buyer Ricardo Antonio a demonstration. The dealer didn’t realize there was a round left in the chamber and he shot and killed Antonio.

The dealer pointed the gun at someone and pulled the trigger, breaking the rules of gun safety.

AMT .380 Back-up semiautomatic

Safety issue: No magazine disconnect.

In 1989, Daniel Milewski, then 13, took the magazine out of the pistol like he had seen done many times on television. Milewski, of Pennsylvania, thought the gun was empty and began twirling it with his finger in the trigger guard. The gun went off and shot him in the face.

The child had unsupervised access to a firearm and was playing with it. In the course of his play, he pointed the gun at himself and pulled the trigger. Both the child and his parents broke the rules of gun safety.

Lorcin 9mm semiautomatic

Safety issue: No drop safety.

Timmy Jones, a 35-year-old Kentucky truck driver, was killed in 1996 when his Lorcin semiautomatic dropped and discharged a bullet into his stomach. He died of massive internal injuries and bleeding.

This one I’ll grant, although obviously dropping a loaded gun is a little careless. But the market offers many firearms with drop safeties, so the option to purchase one was available to this individual. If you drop a knife on your foot, you will end up with a knife in your foot — sometimes, you just have to be careful not to drop things.


Safety issue: Firing pin.

Clarence Lemmon purchased an RG pistol for $99.95 on Dec. 10, 1980, to protect his Texas business. While attempting to put a round in the chamber, the firing pin dropped before the chamber closed and the pistol went off, firing a bullet through his left hand.

This one is borderline. The gun was not pointed in a safe direction and it sounds like the owner was not exactly familiar with proper firearms operation. It’s hard to say who was at fault without knowing exactly what happened.

Tec-9, 9mm

Safety issue: No magazine disconnect.

Detroit resident Darnell Crawford, 16, was shot in the back and killed in 1987 by a friend while they and two other friends were eating pizza at home.

Crawford had taken the Tec-9 semiautomatic pistol from a closet and removed the ammunition magazine. A round remained in the chamber. Crawford passed the gun to a friend who, seeing the clip removed, thought the gun was empty. The friend, who got pizza grease on the gun, tried wiping it clean before giving it back to Crawford. In doing so, he pulled the trigger and the gun went off, striking Crawford.

Trigger pulled, gun pointed in unsafe direction.

Hawes Firearms Co. Western Marshall revolver

Safety issue: No drop safety

Clara Sue Cobb was wounded and left a paraplegic after a Western Marshall revolver on the back floorboard of a car in which she was a passenger discharged without the trigger being pulled. The Louisiana woman was 18 at the time.

Couple thoughts here. First, the picture in the article depicts an old-west-type revolver rather than a modern design — such a historical design might be expected to lack modern safety features. Second, how do they know the trigger was not pulled? Not deliberately pulled, sure, but any firearm bouncing around on the floorboards of a car could easily snag on something. And bouncing around on the floorboards of a car is not exactly safe gun handling in any case.

F.I.E. Model D38 derringer

Safety issue: No hammer block, no transfer bar and no rebound safety.

Mary Goodman was killed when a derringer dropped and discharged without the trigger being pulled. Alvah Yates was killed at work when a derringer fell from a deliveryman’s pocket as he stooped to put down a crate of milk. The gun struck the ground and discharged, hitting Yates.

Don’t drop your gun if it’s cheap; if you intend to drop your gun, buy one with a drop safety. ’nuff said.

Winchester ’94

Safety issue: Firing mechanism problem.

Lois Mamo was severely injured in 1978 when a Winchester 94 fired without the trigger being pulled. The gun went off when a family member in another room in their Michigan home adjusted the gun’s lever, without pulling the trigger.

The bullet went through the kitchen wall, a stove and pots on the counter before striking Mamo in the stomach and arm. Bullet fragments hit her liver and nearly severed her right hand. She spent 62 days in the hospital and has had numerous operations. She still has shrapnel in her body.

Last month, Michigan gunsmith John Tunney Jr. was repairing a customer’s Winchester ’94, similar to the one that wounded Mamo 25 years earlier. As Tunney took the rifle, the customer mentioned that there was a round in the chamber and the rifle had a tendency to fire without the trigger being pulled when the lever was adjusted.

Tunney pointed the rifle at a sand bag designed to capture bullets and racked the lever without touching the trigger. On the very first attempt, the rifle discharged.

This sounds like a legitimate flaw, though whether it’s a design flaw or something that occurs due to damage in the field is unclear. But note the difference in outcomes! When you follow the rules of gun safety, even if the gun is defective and goes off, no one gets hurt.

“Firearm Patents Addressed Safety”

Tens of millions of firearms in America lack critical safety features. U.S. gun patents dating back a century confirm that gun makers were long aware of the danger and had developed ways to fix the most glaring problems. But many of these safety features have never been implemented on a wide scale.

This article is a simple timeline covering the period from 1908 (chamber-loaded indicator patented) to 1922 (last noted patent, one of 5 dealing with magazine disconnect safeties). What are the most notable parts of this article? Simple: firearms with these safety devices have been around and on the market since 1908.

In some cases (such as the Beretta case in California) those features don’t prevent injuries, and the victims (who broke the rules of gun safety) sue anyway. In others, lawsuits are brought because a manufacturer failed to prevent their customer from behaving irresponsibly with their firearm. It is hard to believe that mandatory safety features are a better answer than training gun owners to handle their firearms safely.

No safety feature is perfectly reliable, but a safe gun owner can keep his gun safely even when those safety features are not present, or fail. Those who depend on safety features to protect them from unsafe behaviors are an accident waiting to happen — just as soon as they can devise a new stupidity to engage in.

“Law Fails to Control Junk Guns”

The 1968 Gun Control Act, aimed at stopping the flow of cheaply made, easily concealed handguns into the country, has done little to prevent the import of millions of guns that lack important safety features.

Most imported firearms don’t have features that show if the guns are loaded or that prevent them from firing if the ammunition clips are removed, a Detroit News investigation found. Fewer still have pistol grip safeties, effective in preventing children from discharging firearms by rendering the gun inoperable unless the grip safety and trigger are depressed at the same time.

The law, which set no rules for American-made guns, also has created a breed of low-end gun makers in the country. Manufacturers, domestic and foreign, have set up U.S. operations to take advantage of the freedom from restrictions and safety standards granted guns made in the America.

With no federal agency empowered to recall problem guns, their weapons continue to injure, maim and kill.

Once again, we see a call for magazine safeties and chamber-loaded indicators. And yet, guns with both features are readily available on the market. The only reason to have a gun without those features is choice — and the choice to buy a gun that lacks them is a perfectly valid one, as many police departments have proven by their choice of Glock firearms, which lack both safety features by design.

Why has the Detroit News focused so heavily on those features? It might have something to do with the lawsuits being brought against gun manufacturers around the country. Those lawsuits, particularly the one against Beretta in California (which has recently been ruled a mistrial for the second time), focus on obtaining in a settlement the agreement to include those safety features on handguns.

Yet the gun in that very lawsuit already had a chamber loaded indicator. It just “wasn’t large enough”, according to the plaintiffs, who also claimed to have no idea the feature existed. And here, in fact, is where we find the common thread: people who are hurt in firearm accidents are people who either ignored the rules of safe gun handling, or were victims of those who did.

Is a gun which fails to include a magazine disconnect and chamber loaded indicator a “junk gun”? Glock doesn’t think so; neither do their customers. And while many people make fun of the Glock design (“combat tupperware”, for their partially plastic construction), no one would deny that they are a major handgun manufacturer and make a quality product.

But the gun control organizations want you to think they are talking about “junk guns” rather than an optional feature which some guns happen to lack. They illustrate this with the case of Rohm GMBH, a german-based corporation selling firearms. Apparantly, in 1981, they were the fourth largest handgun manufacturer in the US. It’s strange how they have to go back over 20 years to find a suitable example… but it is a good one.

The guns, manufactured for $14 apiece, lacked several important safety features, such as magazine safeties and loaded chamber indicators.

In addition, several models of RG pistols had a tendency to fire when dropped. The quality of the company’s guns was further compromised because RG workers, who were paid by the piece, were required to assemble 100 pieces every two hours to make minimum wage.

With no standards to adhere to for its American-made guns, safety features on the RG models were left to the discretion of the company’s firearm designer, Edwin Kroisandt. But Kroisandt, who joined the company as a tool and die maker, admitted during a 1994 deposition that he knew nothing about such features as magazine safeties and loaded chamber indicators until he read about them in an Italian gun magazine 13 years after he started designing RG pistols.

He also admitted that he learned gun design on the job at RG and that his only formal training was from a correspondence course. Kroisandt said had he known of the magazine safety when he designed the RG pistols, he most likely would have incorporated it into his design.

So what we have here is a single individual designing firearms for a company building them as cheaply as possible. The designer doesn’t include a magazine disconnect or a chamber loaded indicator because he doesn’t know about them. That’s not exactly a stellar description of his knowledge of the field, but then he never claimed to be an expert. And since he’s designing cheap firearms to be sold at low prices, he doesn’t need to be — people are free to purchase guns with, or without, whatever safety features they feel appropriate.

Such a safety feature could have saved Detroiter Craig Blaydes’ life. The 17-year-old was accidentally shot in the chest and killed in 1994 when a 14-year-old friend took the magazine with ammunition from an RG-26, and thinking the gun empty, pulled the trigger. A bullet remained in the chamber, and the gun fired, killing Blaydes.

Despite the deaths and injuries associated with its weapons, RG never has recalled any firearms for design defects. And it didn’t warn customers of any danger.

If this is the best case they can find, it’s pretty slim. But it follows the same pattern of their other stories; “young child finds gun, thinks it is empty, and shoots a friend.” Would a chamber-loaded indicator have saved a life here? No, because the shooter would not have known to check it. Would a magazine-disconnect safety have saved a life? Perhaps, if it had worked; in a gun this cheaply made that’s not a sure thing.

What would definitely have saved a life would be proper training in gun handling: never point a gun at anything you are unwilling to shoot, and most especially never in adolescent horseplay. But somehow, that is never acknowledged by those clamoring for more gun control. And neither is the fact that firearms accidents are at an all-time low.

RG closed its American operation in 1986 after the company lost its insurance following several lawsuits. But by the time it shuttered its Miami factory, the company had assembled more than a million guns in America, many of which have serious design flaws.

So, tell me again how the “law fails to control junk guns”. They spend an entire article talking about guns from a company that has not been in business for nearly 20 years, because consumer safety lawsuits prevented them from operating, and then have the gall to claim that laws don’t work to control “junk guns”?

Well, the 1968 Gun Control Act did not help much in this case. But other laws certainly did. So where’s the beef?

No foreign-made long gun has presented more problems than the Chinese-made SKS semiautomatic rifle. More than 300,000 of these rifles were imported into the country before they finally were banned in 1994.

The refurbished weapons, which sell for about $100, have major design and safety flaws. Built by the Chinese Defense Agency, the rifles can fire in full automatic mode while being loaded without the trigger being pulled. In automatic mode, the SKS can fire at the rate of 1,200 rounds a minute.

The Chinese government, which sold the rifles through North China Industries Company, has never recalled the weapon. As with other gun manufacturers, there is no federal agency with the power to force a recall.

At first glance, this looks to be the same basic issue. An imported, cheap firearm has safety issues; nobody can recall it; lives are being lost because the laws aren’t working!

And yet… that’s not all there is to it.

The guns are cheap, and by now, nearly 60 years old — or older. At that price and that age, malfunctions are hardly unexpected. Since 1994, they cannot be imported (presumably under the Assault Weapons Ban). The originals are made in China by a Chinese company. So, what are the options here? Order a recall, ship the guns back to China for repairs? Assuming the company was willing to repair or redesign firearms that are 60 years old, they would be unable to return them to the US! .

How many people who own SKS rifles — safety issues and all — would be willing to give them up with no compensation for a “recall” that amounted to confiscation? Not many. That renders a recall somewhat impractical at the least.

But maybe the Detroit News would prefer the guns be confiscated. They do seem to have an ulterior motive…

One of the unforeseen consequences of the 1968 Gun Act was the creation of a whole class of domestic junk gun makers.

More than any group of firearm manufacturers, they have used the freedom from safety and design standards to make guns that are unnecessarily dangerous.

“A gun maker can make a gun that fires backwards and violate no safety standards,” said Oklahoma attorney Richard Miller, who has successfully sued several gun makers for defectively designed firearms. “I can’t imagine we would allow that for any other product.”

Gee — tell me again how current laws are failing to control “dangerous junk guns”? Consumer safety lawsuits are being filed and apparantly won, where the cases have merit, Consumers have the choice of buying guns with safety features and without; understandably the cheaper models are often those lacking the safety features. That’s not a failure of the market or the law; it’s a reflection of the fact that for some people, a $100 gun they can afford is better than a $600 gun they can’t.

Are we to deny the poor the right to defend themselves? Of course not. But requiring safety features will increase the cost of defensive firearms enough to do just that.

“Technology Exists to Make Guns Safer”

Announcing that “the foremost consideration in firearms manufacturing is to produce a weapon that is safe under all conditions,” Smith & Wesson unveiled its new gun to the world.

The year was 1914.

Now, 89 years later, most American gun makers produce firearms that fall far short of the standards set by Smith & Wesson in its original safe gun. And even America’s biggest gun maker has retreated from some of the features in its super safe firearm.

In addition to internal safety features that prevented the gun from accidentally discharging if dropped or hit, the firearm had a manual safety and grip safety. The grip safety and the trigger had to be depressed at the same time, making it nearly impossible for young children to accidentally discharge the weapon and forcing the gun handler, according to Smith & Wesson, “to think before firing.”

What the Detroit News won’t tell you in this section of their “special report” is that while many guns today are available without the safety features listed here (ie, a manual safety, grip safety, and drop safety), many guns today are available with those features. It’s a choice you make when you buy a firearm: do you purchase a high-quality model with several safety devices, a low-quality model that lacks them, or perhaps a gun whose safety devices are designed in such a way that some of the safety devices on their list don’t make sense?

If you value a gun that will fire each time and every time the trigger is pulled, you might buy a Glock, which has a number of safety devices that accomplish exactly that — but lacks a grip safety or a magazine disconnect. According to the Detroit News, those features should be mandatory, even though the Glock brand is one of the most popular brands for police officers nationwide.

The fact is, there’s more to gun safety than technology. Gun safety starts in the person holding the gun.

The lack of safety features in many guns in America poses a serious risk to gun owners. Many have been wounded or killed when their guns accidentally discharged or were unintentionally fired because of manufacturers’ safety omissions.

Remember, “many” is a very small number when compared to things like bathtubs, bicycles, or cars.

Gun makers have been allowed to decide what safety features, if any, to use on their weapons because no federal agency can set standards for firearms manufactured in the country. Not only have gun makers ignored long-established safety options, but they have been slow to embrace new technology.

Actually, gun makers haven’t “ignored… safety options”. Where the firearm was at fault, they have issued product recalls, changed the design of their firearms to correct the defects, and even today offer firearms with all the safety devices the Detroit News is so fond of. How that can be construed as “ignoring” I don’t know.

In 1996, the Sandia National Laboratories — a highly respected research unit in the Department of Energy — completed a $620,000 study for the National Institute of Justice on available technology to personalize police guns and prevent their unauthorized use. But much of the technology reviewed by the lab has practical applications for gun safety in general.

The government decided to fund the study because statistics showed 16 percent of officers killed in the line of duty were shot with their own weapons, or those of their partners, by assailants who managed to get the guns.


The concept of a “smart gun” that can only be fired by its owner is a reasonable safety option, but not a reasonable safety requirement. Any firearm must make a tradeoff between reliability of operation and safety. Any improvement in safety (ie, making it harder to fire the gun in an unauthorized manner) has a corresponding decrease in reliability (ie, making it harder to fire the gun when intended). Most mechanical safety devices are reliable and simple; they are durable and rarely fail.

No one has yet devised a “smart gun” system that can distinguish between authorized and unauthorized users that even comes close to that level of reliability. This is a concern not only for the traditional reasons to value reliable operation, but because of the nature of firearm use — a firearm that fails to fire at a shooting range or while hunting is a trivial matter, but a firearm that fails to shoot an attacking criminal in your home may cost you your life.

“Smart guns” are pushed for precisely that home defense use. It is believed that a “smart gun” can keep your child or a criminal from firing your handgun, while allowing its use for self-defense against a criminal. But what technology can be used to fit this scenario? The Detroit News covers a number of possibilities. But they all have the same flaws:

  1. The gun needs batteries. Batteries fail.
  2. The recognition system can be confused (by misplacing a special object, radio interference, or just dirty hands).
  3. The keyed object in some designs can be misplaced, or simply not worn, or stored with the gun.

All of these potential problems could be fatal if you are depending on your firearm to stop a criminal. They could be just as fatal if you are depending on them to prevent your gun from firing in unauthorized hands, because (as the other stories in this series have shown), even simple mechanical safety devices can fail. In actual practice, these devices have substantial safety tradeoffs that must be evaluated by the purchaser — including the increased chances for accidental discharge associated with the mechanism that readies the gun to fire.

Some states (New Jersey) have passed laws that pre-emptively ban “non-smart” guns from sale within that state after a gun manufacturer brings out a smart gun to the consumer market. This kind of heavy-handed threat ignores the real safety and reliability concerns of “smart gun” devices in favor of politically-motived regulation. Those safety and reliability concerns were acknowledged, albeit in a backhand way, by exempting the police forces of the state from the ban!

It seems that “smart guns” are not good enough for the police, even if they are good enough to force upon the average citizen. And until a smart gun mechanism is developed that is no less reliable than a standard mechanical firearm, “smart guns” will remain a fantasy.

“Law Would Shield Gun Makers Against Suits”

On April 9, with the nation focused on the war in Iraq, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to give gun manufacturers unprecedented immunity against most lawsuits, including many currently being litigated.

The purpose of the bill, its sponsors say, is to end lawsuits aimed at making gun manufacturers and dealers pay damages for crime-related firearm violence. But the bill also could end most lawsuits over unsafe, defectively designed firearms, say some product liability lawyers.

Their concern is centered on a clause in the proposed legislation that allows gun defect lawsuits only in cases in which the weapon was “used as intended or in a manner that is reasonably foreseeable.”

“This language is a legal smoke screen that puts immense burden on the plaintiff and could effectively end most product liability suits brought today,” said Brian Siebel, senior attorney for the legal action project at the Brady Center, a nonpartisan organization working to prevent gun violence. “In its entirety, this bill is a wish list of the gun industry and the National Rifle Association. It is a fantasy bill designed to protect the gun industry for all time at the detriment of victims of gun violence who will have no legal recourse to recover damages if they are injured.”

The NRA disagrees.

“This is a commonsense bill to stop frivolous lawsuits aimed at bankrupting law-abiding gun makers,” said NRA director of public affairs Andrew Arulanandam. “No maker of defective guns will be protected by this bill.”

This editorial, as you can probably guess, is the reason for the whole Special Report; the Detroit News wants to oppose the immunity bill moving through Congress, and they want to make a big splash about it in hopes of actually getting enough attention to stop the bill. They make the claim that the bill will protect gun manufacturers from being sued over the “defects” they have just spent so much space describing. But are they right?

Let’s find out.

As noted earlier, the firearms accidents detailed in this special report can be divided into four categories, with differing levels of responsibility between the gun owner and the manufacturer.

Unsafe Behavior

People in this category were shot when a gun was pointed at them and the trigger pulled. The shooter usually believed the gun to be unloaded, but no sane person would describe pointing a loaded gun at someone and pulling the trigger without intending for the gun to fire as an intended use. Either the person intended to shoot, in which case the gun was intended to fire, or the person was engaging in dangerous — even criminally negligent — behavior with a loaded firearm.

The law would rightly protect manufacturers from this sort of suit.

Functioning as Designed

People in this category experienced an accidental discharge when they pulled the trigger on their firearm without intending to. In these cases, the gun was clearly not used as intended — that is, the trigger was pulled without the intent to fire.

The law would rightly protect manufacturers from this sort of suit.

Damaged Mechanisms and Unsafe Handling

Injuries in this category occurred due to a combination of factors. Usually, the firing mechanism of the gun needed to be worn or damaged (rather than new); the damaged mechanism would then become unsafe when the firearm was used as intended. Proper gun handling would have prevented the injuries, but still allowed an accidental discharge due to the faulty mechanism.

This category would not be prevented absolutely by the law, because the accidental discharge could occur when the gun was used as intended, although not on a new (undamaged) firearm. The outcome of each case would likely rest on what sort of damage to the firing mechanism was necessary to induce a risk of accidental discharge, and whether the damage was reasonably foreseeable or part of normal wear on the mechanism.

Dropped Firearms

Cases in this category involve people who dropped loaded firearms and had those firearms go off. The law would offer no special protection here, as a dropped firearm is clearly “reasonably foreseeable”; cases would likely hinge on whether the individual was handling the firearm safely, or whether they were taking risks that increased the chances of dropping the firearm.

So, would the industry be protected from valid lawsuits concerning firearms safety defects? Evidently not. But it would be protected from lawsuits involving criminally negligent behavior by the gun owner or an unauthorized user. And that, I think, is a good thing.

When Congress created the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1972, it specifically barred the agency from regulating firearms, along with ammunition and tobacco. The agency can’t set safety and design standards for guns and it can’t force a recall of defective firearms.

What the Detroit News won’t tell you is that the Consumer Product Safety Commission can’t regulate firearms for the same reason it can’t regulate tobacco – both products are regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Firearms are already highly regulated in their design and manufacture by that agency and directly by federal law.

Under the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution, even this amount of regulation is questionable. Putting firearms under the authority of the Consumer Safety Commission would only make it easier for proponents of gun control to achieve their desire — that is, banning firearms — without even a vote in Congress, simply lobbying a federal bureaocrat.

In 1997, Congress cut funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s injury prevention center after its research angered the NRA and the gun industry.

Using emergency room data from around the country, CDC-funded researchers produced a series of studies that found the risk of being injured by a firearm was three times higher in homes with guns. The gun industry complained the studies were biased and driven by anti-gun groups.

Congress cut the centers’ budget by $2.6 million, the exact amount the CDC spent on the firearms research the previous year.

In addition, Congress has added language in every CDC budget since that prohibits the agency from spending money on studies “to advocate or promote gun control.”

The CDC insists its work never advocated gun control. And Congress never has spelled out what constitutes a violation of its order.

Of course the CDC insists that its work never advocated gun control. And yet the work that it funded was so dramatically one-sided and sloppy that no other conclusion could reasonably be drawn. Since the funding was removed, it’s interesting to note that while the CDC continues to engage in firearms-related research, the conclusions have changed dramatically. Their most recent research — a “state of the field” survey of gun control laws — found absolutely no evidence that any gun control laws had any effect whatsoever on gun safety or crime.

And yet, they asked for more money so they could keep looking. Is it any wonder that Congress doesn’t want to throw good money after bad?

The man whose work for the CDC most angered the gun industry was Dr. Arthur Kellermann, chairman of the department of emergency medicine at Atlanta’s Emory University. He insists his research was not anti-gun.

“My work was aimed at giving people information about ways to improve their safety,” Kellermann said. “I believe Americans are really smart. If we can find a way to make medicine bottles that are child-resistant, certainly we can do the same for firearms.”

I confess to being absolutely flabbergasted that the above quote is all the Detroit News has to say about Arthur Kellerman’s research. His studies have been repeatedly discreditted and Kellerman himself has admitted that many of them were irrepairably flawed.

Gun Safety Tips

The most useful aspect of this portion of their “special report” is to compare it with the victims they feature in their other stories. How many of those victims were following these rules? The answer might surprise you. The incidents can be grouped into four categories:

  1. People who removed the magazine from a handgun and, thinking it was unloaded, pointed the gun at someone and pulled the trigger.
  2. People who experienced an accidental discharge due to the gun functioning as designed, and were injured because the gun was not pointed in a safe direction while loaded.
  3. People who experienced an accidental discharge due to a flaw in the firing mechanism, without pulling the trigger, and were injured because the gun was not pointed in a safe direction while loaded.
  4. People whose firearm discharged when it was dropped.

The first two categories are clearly cases of negligent or simply unsafe gun handling. The third set of cases involve a mixture of fault; clearly, an accidental discharge that occurs without pulling the trigger is a problem. But following the rules of gun safety they lay out in this portion of their article is sufficient to prevent injury, so the gun owner must also bear some responsibility. Notably, most of the cases they present that fit this category are cases where appropriate corrections or recalls have already been made, and additionally cases where the fault occurs after damage to the mechanism rather than as an inherent flaw.

The last category is the only clear case with real fault in the manufacturing process. And yet, dropping a loaded gun is certainly a careless action. I have little sympathy for those who are injured as a result — the obvious solution is “Don’t drop a loaded gun”. This should be simple common sense. Yet by the same token, a dropped gun should not fire, as a common-sense safety measure by manufacturers.

It’s interesting that this last category is occupied entirely by “cheap” guns, rather than well-made firearms from reputable manufacturers. Why? Because reputable manufacturers make guns that do not fire when dropped already. The consumer has a choice.