During CNN’s town hall meeting about gun policy, President Barack Obama lamented that the federal government is essentially powerless to make guns safer. That’s because guns are treated differently than almost every other consumer product. Obama noted that automobile regulations such as seat belts and airbags have reduced traffic fatalities, and that even toys and aspirin bottles are subject to safety standards. “The notion that we would not apply the same basic principles to gun ownership as we do to everything else that we own,” he said, “that contradicts what we do to try to create a better life for Americans in every other area of our lives.”
No federal agency oversees how firearms are designed or built. While the federal government can mandate recalls of unsafe toys, polluting cars, or even discolored medications, it’s unable to recall defective firearms. There is also no system in place to track accidental deaths caused by malfunctioning weapons. Rather, the firearms industry self-polices its products, establishing its own design standards and initiating its own voluntary recalls.
Gun manufacturers have operated without federal oversight for decades. When the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) was created by Congress in 1972 to set safety standards for most consumer products, firearms were specifically excluded from CPSC’s jurisdiction. Lawmakers in the House of Representatives feared that allowing the CPSC to regulate firearms would create a slippery slope ending with the agency keeping firearms out of the hands of law-abiding citizens. The House bill of the Consumer Protection Act banned the CPSC from asserting any regulatory control over the firearms industry, but the Senate bill made no such exemption. It was the House’s version that passed in 1976.
With the federal government boxed out, gun safety standards are set by a trade organization called the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI). SAAMI imposes regulations such as maximum pressure standards, which ensure that a weapon doesn’t explode, but compliance with its standards is strictly voluntary.
According to Stephen Teret, director of the Center for Law and the Public’s Health at Johns Hopkins University, SAAMI does not behave like other standard-setting organizations. Though SAMMI belongs to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which oversees the creation of safety designs and guidelines for a host of American products, it does not solicit feedback from the public as other ANSI members do. Parents might air their ideas about how to make monkey bars safer to an ANSI group that monitors playground equipment, for instance. But SAMMI doesn’t ask gun owners how to improve safety features on firearms. (SAMMI did not reply to multiple requests for comment.)
With firearms uniquely exempt from federal safety regulations, the American gun market has been flooded with thousands of defective weapons.
Congress has tried repeatedly to wrest control of gun safety standards from SAAMI. In 1993, a New York congressman proposed a bill that would have expanded the regulatory authority of the ATF to include the design and manufacturing of firearms, with the aim of developing safety standards for guns. The bill died, then died again in the next Congress. Similar measures failed in 1999, 2001, and 2003.
With firearms uniquely exempt from federal safety regulations, the American gun market has been flooded with thousands of defective weapons. The Saturday Night Specials of the 1970s and the so-called “junk guns” of the 1980s and early ’90s were notorious for malfunctioning. In 1974, Field & Stream described Saturday Night Specials as “highly inaccurate, cheap in cost and even dangerous to the user — it is a gun of the streets … it is made for only one specific purpose, and that is to kill people.” These cheaply-produced handguns reportedly fired when the trigger was locked or when the owner was unloading the weapon. Despite such hazards, their low price led to high volume: An infamous group of junk gun manufacturers in Southern California called the “Ring of Fire“ controlled one-third of the U.S. handgun market in 1992.
More recently, Brazilian manufacturer Taurus settled a $39 million lawsuit that alleged some of its semi-automatic handguns discharged when dropped. One plaintiff, whose suit went to trial in 2009, was carrying a Taurus pistol in his holster when the weapon fell to the ground and fired a bullet into his left lung. Taurus testified in court that it didn’t conduct drop-testing on its weapons. In 2013, a Sao Paulo police force recalled 98,000 Taurus pistols for their propensity to fire unexpectedly. Guns made by American companies are liable to carry similar defects. The Remington 700 bolt-action rifle, the company’s most popular product, has been reported to fire without the trigger being pulled, which has resulted in the deaths of two dozen people and injuries to at least 100 others. The incidents spurred more than 75 lawsuits. Remington executives were reportedly made aware of the defects by engineers, but according to CNBC, the company held off on replacing the faulty trigger because it feared such a design change might be viewed as “an admission of guilt.”
The company has historically been reluctant to release important documents about its design and manufacturing processes to courts and plaintiffs. Because of this, a judge in 1983 found Remington in contempt of court, calling the company’s secrecy a “flagrant disregard of the law” and “obstructive and offensive … to justice.” Even a significant jury verdict can’t convince a manufacturer to fix a malfunctioning weapon: Remington kept its defective trigger design after a Texas jury forced it to pay $17 million in 1994 to a man who lost his foot when his Remington rifle accidentally discharged.
As part of a class action settlement that’s been pending since last June, Remington launched a recall program in which consumers could either be reimbursed or have their guns retrofitted with new triggers. But the recall program is completely voluntary, and even though an estimated 7 million defective firearms were sold, only 2,327 gun owners have submitted claims to Remington. The company’s recall process stands in stark contrast to how the federal government recalls dangerous products. For instance, the CPSC can mandate a recall of toy guns or crossbows that malfunction even if only one complaint has been filed with the agency.
In the absence of a federal agency that could set safety standards for the industry, some states have stepped in to regulate firearms sold within their borders. California and Massachusetts, for instance, require independent labs to drop-test firearms to ensure they don’t accidentally discharge. Those states, along with Washington, D.C. and Maryland, also prohibit the sale of handguns that are not on a list of approved models. New York and other states require that handguns include various features, such as a safety device to prevent firing. Even so, only eight states have such requirements, and since firearms commonly travel across state lines, Teret believes only the federal government could effectively administer firearm regulations.
Until that can happen, firearm safety falls chiefly on the shoulders of gun owners. But Teret says that responsible practices such as safe gun storage, handling, cleaning, and loading, can only do so much.
“Of course you should hope gun owners act prudently and kindly,” he says. “But if you can save lives by changing gun designs, then you should do that, too.”