The Consumer Product Safety Commission has imposed recalls of candles whose flames burn too tall, fleece pajamas shown to cut infants, and classroom chairs with loose welding. But the commission has never ordered a recall of a firearm, even if the weapon explodes in someone’s hand or spontaneously fires a bullet — because it’s never had the authority to do so. That’s thanks to a 1972 amendment written by the late Michigan Congressman John D. Dingell, a Democrat who sat on the National Rifle Association’s board of directors. Without federal oversight, gunmakers themselves are left to investigate reported defects.
To find out more about why firearms manufacturers are exempt from product safety regulations, I spoke with The Trace’s Champe Barton, who covered the history in his eight-month investigation, published with The Washington Post, into an alleged defect in the SIG Sauer P320: The handgun, one of the most popular in the nation, has gruesomely injured scores of people who say they didn’t pull the trigger. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Sunny Sone: Can you tell me a little more about the history behind the CPSC’s inability to impose a recall on firearms?
Champe Barton: The CPSC was actually an outgrowth of a 1967 presidential advisory committee called the National Commission on Product Safety. The goal of this committee was pretty straightforward: figure out how vulnerable the general public was to product safety hazards and write a report about how the government might protect people from being hurt.
Firearms were excluded even from this exploratory committee’s charter. A Republican Senator from Nebraska, Roman Hruska, introduced an amendment to exempt firearms from the scope of its study, meaning its report would not offer insights into how firearms might pose particular product safety risks.
When the Senate handed a version of the Consumer Product Safety Act to the House years later, this omission proved consequential. The Senate, after reviewing the advisory committee’s report, had not specified any exemption for firearms from the CPSC’s oversight. But John Dingell argued that since the advisory committee had excluded firearms, the CPSC should, too.
He met little resistance. The sole legislator to oppose Dingell’s amendment was New York Democrat Jonathan Bingham who, during deliberations on the bill, took to the House floor with a toy gun in his hand to argue Dingell’s exemption should be repealed: “This [toy] pistol will be covered under the provisions of this bill,” he said. “But, if this were the real McCoy, if this was something that could blow up in your face and kill you or with which you could kill other people, it would not be covered. I suggest that this is a topsy-turvy arrangement.”
No representatives voiced support for Bingham’s proposal, and it failed moments later. In the decades since, several Congress members have proposed bills to repeal Dingell’s amendment, or to grant oversight of firearms to a different agency with greater firearms expertise like the ATF. But none of the proposals have ever gained traction.
Tell me a little about Dingell’s influence on gun laws outside the CPSC amendment. What’s the legacy of his tenure?
Just as Dingell stood in the way of extending product safety regulation to firearms, he stood in the way of a number of other gun reforms through the years. His interventions helped shape the modern American gun debate. In 1999, after horror at the Columbine shooting reignited a push to close the “gun show loophole” — a carveout that exempts unlicensed dealers from having to conduct background checks when hawking their wares at gun shows — Dingell stepped in. He proposed alternative legislation, backed by the NRA, that would close the loophole for unlicensed dealers while simultaneously weakening the background check system. His proposal divided legislators, ultimately stalling efforts to close the loophole.
In 2007, after the Virginia Tech massacre, Congress considered legislation to help states improve recordkeeping of people deemed dangerously mentally unfit in the gun background check system. Dingell again intervened. This time, he tweaked the legislation to condition federal funds necessary for the recordkeeping improvements on states’ willingness to allow those barred from owning guns, including convicted felons, to petition to have their rights restored.
Over the years, Dingell provided a key Democratic vote on landmark pieces of gun legislation — like 2005’s Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act — that have insulated gunmakers from liability and scrutiny, and written amicus briefs in consequential Supreme Court cases — like District of Columbia v. Heller — that have cemented the NRA’s sweeping interpretation of the Second Amendment.
In the investigation, you mention lawsuits against other gunmakers over alleged defects. Can you tell me a little more about the significance of those suits?
The two situations mentioned in our story involve the American rifle manufacturer Remington and the Brazilian handgun manufacturer Taurus. Controversies with their guns represent some of the most scandalous product liability cases in firearm history.
In Remington’s case, the gunmaker sold its iconic 700 rifle for more than five decades with a defective trigger. More than 100 people were injured and at least two dozen killed by errant discharges from the gun, according to an investigation by CNBC. As early as 1946, the gunmaker had received warnings from the rifle’s designer that the trigger could be vulnerable to malfunction. The company changed the trigger in 2006, then recalled the new version in 2014 after users discovered it was also susceptible to firing unintentionally. Owners of the gun with the original trigger had no recourse until 2018, when a class-action settlement went into effect.
Taurus, in a situation similar to the controversy surrounding SIG Sauer’s P320 pistol, sold nine handgun models that users said fired without the pull of a trigger. The discharges, which occurred between 1997 and 2013, injured more than a dozen people and killed two. As part of a class-action settlement in 2016, Taurus agreed to replace or buy back guns in circulation, but did not admit that its products possessed any manufacturing or design defects.
It’s hard to say how frequent these situations are because there’s no federal agency keeping track of unintentional shooting incidents or investigating them the way the CDC might investigate reports of food poisoning. But the pattern shown by the situations we do know about is fairly clear: Without a regulator to force their hand, gun companies often ignore long-standing problems, taking action only when facing pressure from lawsuits or bad publicity.
From Our Team
One of America’s Favorite Handguns Is Allegedly Firing On Its Owners: SIG Sauer’s P320 pistol has wounded more than 80 people who say they didn’t pull the trigger.
What to Know This Week
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, a Republican, called for the General Assembly to pass an “order of protection law” — commonly referred to as a red flag law — and signed an executive order strengthening background checks. [The Tennessean]
Justin Jones, the Tennessee House member who was reinstated this week after Republicans expelled him for participating in a gun violence protest, says all of his upcoming legislation will be centered on firearm reform. Memphis-area officials voted to return Justin J. Pearson, the other expelled lawmaker, to the House on Wednesday. [CNN/Mother Jones]
A young gun enthusiast known as “OG” was allegedly behind the massive leak of classified Pentagon documents that exposed tactical information about the war in Ukraine. [The Washington Post]
Kentucky law requires police to sell confiscated guns at auction. That means the Louisville shooter’s legally purchased assault-style rifle “will be back on the streets one day,” according to Mayor Craig Greenberg. [The Guardian]
Victims of the 2021 mass shooting at an Indianapolis FedEx are suing American Tactical, the distributor of the gunman’s high-capacity magazine, alleging that the company negligently and unlawfully marketed the magazine. [U.S. District Court filing]
After a two-year decline, a new CDC report shows, the number of people who died by suicide increased in 2021, reaching the highest number recorded in 2018. [ABC News]
Elementary school enrollment in Portland, Oregon, is plunging — and concerns about gun violence, which appears to be a bigger problem in Portland’s schools than in other cities, might be contributing to the decline. [Willamette Week]
Chicago Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson vowed on the campaign trail to cancel the city’s contract with controversial gunshot-detection technology company ShotSpotter — but this week, he stopped short of saying he wouldn’t renew the deal. [Block Club Chicago]
Over the past decade, the Army has let hundreds of service members accused of violent crimes leave the military rather than face trial. The long-standing practice has allowed some soldiers to evade legal consequences. [Military Times, ProPublica, and The Texas Tribune]
California police are required by law to release footage of police shootings. Many of the videos released to the public follow the same script. [CalMatters]
Ernest “Lightning Bug” Hall, 32, was readying for a fight. A junior featherweight, the boxer was preparing for an upcoming match in New Jersey, The Baltimore Banner reports. Hall was killed in a mass shooting in West Baltimore in late March. The father of three was a prominent figure in the city’s boxing community: He offered classes to children and women at his club, Lightning Quick Fix, not only to teach them to fight but also to build their self-esteem. Hall was dedicated to helping others, loved ones said, a characteristic he learned from the family who took him in at age 12. “Ernie’s vision for this city was to make sure that all of the kids were safe,” his father told the Banner. “And no matter what he was struggling with in life, ever since we first brought him home, that boy never stopped smiling. He even smiled in his sleep.”
One Angry Man: “The case concerning the shooting of [Garrett] Foster was not a he said, he said. … Major political forces in America that identify themselves as being in favor of ‘law and order’ have a very conditional view of what law and order means: law for thee, not for me. Abbott is feeding a growing appetite, in some quarters, for vigilante violence.” [Texas Monthly]
“It is a little hard to swallow the idea of him going to a bigger school when there are all the shootings. I think of it as being a random thing that could happen.”
— Susan Snow, parent of a 4-year-old, on deciding against sending her son to a neighborhood public school in Northeast Portland, to Willamette Week