MAY 31, 1999
Two of the four weapons used in the Columbine High massacre, the Hi-Point 9mm carbine and the Intratec TEC-DC9 semiauto, are popular on the gun circuit because they look zoomy. The Intratec is designed to look like something used by commandos, the Hi-Point to look like a weapon issued to space marines for combat in orbit. The popularity of these guns reminds us that weapons manufacturers constantly redesign their products for appearance, features, and targetmarket appeal. Don't want futuristic, for instance? Then check out Smith & Wesson's "Ladysmith" gun series, designed with that feminine touch. Design features added to guns for marketing purposes are often as cosmetic as the features of car or clothing marketing--the TEC-DC9 may give users a commando feel, but no genuine commando would ever wield this inaccurate and jam-prone hunk of junk. Of course, that does not prevent them from being deadly to the helpless.
But, though gun manufacturers invest considerable sums in designing for appearance and firepower, what they don't design for is safety. As a gun owner, I think it's time they did.
"Safety" and "gun" are not mutually exclusive terms. Something that does intentional harm should also be engineered not to do unintended harm. Yet, while the design of firearms has been extensively elaborated in recent decades for such harmful characteristics as rate of fire, the safety engineering of guns has scarcely changed since the time of Samuel Colt. In 1996, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 1,134 Americans died in firearm accidents, 135 of the dead being children. Most of these fatalities were caused by the lack of safety engineering. Just try to imagine any other product still being marketed unchanged if inherent design faults caused a thousand accidental deaths annually. Why shouldn't the same logic that has been used to require recent gains in the safety of cars also be applied to guns?
People who don't own a gun may not appreciate how ridiculous most firearms are from the standpoint of safety engineering. Only a small percentage of guns, for instance, have internal safeties that prevent them from firing if dropped. Internal safeties are cheap and reliable: one of the deadliest new weapons on the market, the Austrian-made Glock pistol, has this feature, which could easily be added to all guns. The manual safeties on the outside of most guns are often poorly labeled, confusing to operate, or hard to see--the safety on my Savage 69RXL twelve-gauge shotgun has its designations imprinted so deep into the metal you practically need a flashlight to tell whether it's on or not. (The weapon's owner's manual actually says, under a section titled "TEN COMMANDMENTS OF FIREARMS," "1. Don't rely on your gun's safety.") There's no requirement that guns even have manual safeties, and some do not.
Also unchanged since the nineteenth century is the fact that it often requires labored inspection to determine whether a gun is loaded. For revolvers, you must look closely along the axis of the barrel, which is not exactly the world's greatest idea if the gun is loaded. For most shotguns and for pistols whose magazines snap into the grip, there is no way to tell from appearances whether the weapon is ready to fire.
And, for most guns, it is nigh unto impossible to know whether a round is chambered. That fact is deceptively dangerous. Popular firearms such as the AR15 rifle or the Baretta 9mm handgun seem harmless if the clip has been removed, but a bullet may sit unnoticed in the chamber. Perhaps a quarter of annual gun-death accidents occur when people fail to realize a round is chambered in an "empty" gun. This mistake is amazingly easy to make: I'm a college graduate, and that didn't stop me from once accidentally discharging a handgun after snapping out the clip but forgetting to check the chamber. (Fortune smiled and I only killed a couch.)
The simple addition of a magazine safety prevents chambered-round accidents. But the majority of gun manufacturers haven't incorporated this device, though Smith & Wesson has begun embossing a cheerful warning disclaimer about chambered rounds on some pistols. Magazine safeties cost less than $2 each. Every gun for sale in the United States could have this feature for a total cost that for new guns works out to roughly $30,000 per life saved in chambered-round accidents-making the magazine safety extremely attractive from the standpoint of the eternal benefit-cost tradeoff.
There has been some halting action in the direction of improved gun safety. A few manufacturers now include trigger locks with each gun sale; after Columbine, President Clinton proposed national legislation requiring trigger locks. Trigger locks would not have prevented Columbine High, but they might save hundreds of lives per year without one whit of firearm-freedom loss. Several handgun companies are experimenting with a fire-confirmation system that in theory would render pistols inoperative for anyone but their owners. (When shooting, owners would wear a ring that broadcasts a security code to the gun; the hitch is that kids or thieves might take the ring when taking the gun.) The Hi-Point carbine was conceived to appeal to gun fanciers, but at least its designer took the precaution of engineering the weapon so that it cannot physically accommodate the assault-style magazines that have no legitimate sporting or self-defense purpose. These are steps in the right direction.
But it's time to rethink gun engineering from the ground up, bringing firearms out of the antebellum era and into the technological age from the standpoint of the systems-engineering approach that has made so many other products safer. Trigger locks, for example, should not be add-ons that the buyer can simply discard. My cheap, reliable cell phone won't work unless I punch a four-digit code; why isn't my gun the same? (In an emergency, I'd rather fumble to punch a code than fumble to load.) Every gun should be designed so that it's completely obvious whether the weapon is loaded--transparent magazines, say. Safeties should be standardized and color-coded for rapid reading. Some visible cue should make it obvious whether a gun has a chambered round. (In addition to reducing gun accidents, making it visually obvious whether a firearm is loaded or chambered would be a boon to police.) Internal and magazine safeties should be ubiquitous. Firing actions should be redesigned so that it's not physically possible to convert semiautomatic weapons into illegal full automatics. Ammunition systems should be redesigned so that they cannot be converted for assault-style clips designed to spray death in all directions.
Safe gun engineering has nothing to do with gun control. Today, government requires extensively detailed safety engineering for many products that are dangerous but only lightly controlled, such as automobiles, and for products that are completely uncontrolled, such as toys, furnaces, and baby strollers. It's preposterous to think that as a society America imposes rigorous safety-design standards on strollers but merrily exempts firearms from the benefits of modern safety engineering, allowing gun manufacturers to continue using design assumptions that date to Colt's tinker's shop.
Ideally, gun manufacturers would offer safer designs of their own accord. But marketing experience has shown that, although police departments, hunters, and sport shooters will buy gun-safety features, significant elements of the gun market probably won't--gun buyers who are criminals, for example, have as a class not shown themselves to be overly concerned with public safety. In pure textbook theory, we'd let gun buyers sort out their own safety choices and pay for the level of risk they accept. But gun buyers aren't making safety decisions solely for themselves; they impose their choices on the people they might accidentally shoot. Thus, public safety dictates a gun-safety regulatory standard.
Needless to say, the gun lobby will fight firearm redesign, but does NRA opposition have any meaning to anyone anymore, other than to the sold-out? For responsible political leaders, or responsible firearm owners, to contend they can't advocate safer guns because the gun nuts will howl is an indictment of the responsible, not of the nuts. Gun proponents constantly say they oppose controls but favor safety. Let's call them on this claim and demand a national initiative to reinvent the gun with safety in mind.
Would the right-to-bear-arms clause of the Constitution permit this idea? Because the preamble of the Second Amendment places gun ownership in the context of the raising of state militias--an anachronistic goal the NRA today methodically fudges--the Supreme Court has given states broad discretion in gun statutes. This means there is little doubt states could legislate firearm safety standards. Congress probably has the power to do so, too, though legal challenges are inevitable. The Second Amendment specifies a right to bear arms but also that firearms be "well-regulated," and, in this context, the Supreme Court has upheld national restrictions against the sawed-off shotgun and automatic weapons. Gun-safety engineering wouldn't stop individuals from owning weapons--it would require only that their weapons incorporate the best available safety features.
And, as an added bonus, if there were firearm-safety standards, many of the manufacturers stung by new design engineering costs would be foreign. As Tom Diaz points out in his new book, Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America, a surprising percentage of the companies flooding U.S. gun shows and Kmarts with firearms are foreign-owned-Baretta being an Italian firm, Browning being Japanese-owned, Smith & Wesson being English, Germany's Heckler & Koch and Austria's Glock being leading U.S. gun suppliers, and the Chinese (who generally bar their own citizens from owning guns) selling in the United States about half the rifles imported here. When European politicians prattle on in high dudgeon about the shocking American gun culture, they never pause to add that it is their own corporations busily exploiting and encouraging that culture; roughly half the guns sold in the United States are imported, mainly from Europe, with the firearm import sector growing much faster than domestic manufacture. It might be argued that European and Asian firms are dumping unsafe guns here-not only mass-marketing the types of weapons favored by criminals (such as North China Industries' SKS assault rifle, which is similar to the AK-47) but also shipping, by the millions, firearms that lack basic safety features. If the United States were exporting cars without seat belts to Italy, Germany, or China, those nations would be apoplectic. Why is it OK for their companies to ship to us firearms without magazine safeties?
It's possible that, if gun manufacturers begin to lose liability suits, they will adopt safety engineering for reasons of legal exposure. Generally, liability law allows products to be dangerous if they are obviously dangerous, in the way that cigarette lighters obviously cause open flame. Absurdly, gun makers' legal departments may fear that adding safety features will increase liability by reducing the obviousness of danger. But such problems as the lack of magazine safeties create firearm dangers that aren't obvious, more akin to the Pinto gas tank than the Bic lighter; considerations such as these may eventually lead to plaintiffs' victories in liability suits against gun manufacturers. Why endure another decade of avoidable gun-accident deaths as the lawsuits mount rather than working for safe-gun engineering right now?
Safer guns would seem to be in the long-term interest of those who support the right of honest citizens to own firearms for hunting, self-defense, and sport shooting. And public support appears evident: polls show that 68 percent of Americans favor gun-safety regulation. But if Congress lacks the will or courage to take on the NRA, there is another way the national government could assume the lead.
Firearms aficionados pine for guns with the latest military features: folding stocks, banana clips, laser sights, black-carbon finish, flash suppressors, and so on. Suppose the Pentagon reengineered its guns with safety in mind. Defense Department contractors have both the technical know-how to accomplish breakthroughs in firearm design and the financial incentive that flows from the dollar volume of Pentagon purchasing. If the Defense Department made a commitment to safer guns, training accidents would decline, the technology of gun safety would be advanced-and safety might become cool and high-tech rather than square, because everything the military does with guns is copied by the gun culture. Something to think about, Secretary Cohen.