The absence of federal laws regulating the design safety standards of firearms puts Americans at risk.
The United States holds manufacturers to strict safety standards regarding almost every consumer product built within its borders. From toys to cars to medications, we can reasonably assume that the products we buy and use every day are safe. But with guns, the story changes. There are no federal regulations regarding the safety standards of firearms produced within the United States—an oversight in consumer protection that often proves deadly.
Federal law imposes no design safety standards on domestically produced firearms. That is because, unlike every other consumer product produced in the US, firearms and ammunition are exempted from the health and safety standards set by the federal Consumer Product Safety Act.1 As a result, many firearms are manufactured and sold in the US without undergoing appropriate safety testing and without including basic safety features. Poorly constructed firearms play a significant role in unintentional shootings and are disproportionately associated with criminal misuse, especially by juveniles and young adults.2
Gun manufacturers have taken advantage of this consumer protection oversight, in some cases disclaiming responsibility for correcting deadly design defects. For example, a 2010 CNBC investigation revealed that Remington Arms sold millions of rifles with a design flaw that buyers claimed resulted in at least 24 deaths and 100 injuries when the rifles discharged without the trigger being pulled.3 As the deaths and injuries multiplied, Remington refused to recall the rifle—even when a Remington engineer testified that the company had intentionally decided not to use a safer trigger design because it would increase manufacturing costs by five and a half cents per unit.4 Facing numerous lawsuits, the company finally redesigned the trigger in 2007.5
Better Gun Designs Can Prevent Accidental Deaths and Injuries
Beyond simply ensuring that a firearm works as intended without mechanical defects, better gun designs also have the ability to significantly reduce the incidence of accidental gun deaths and injuries. Between 2005 and 2010, almost 3,800 people were killed and over 95,000 people were injured in unintentional shootings in the US. Over 42,000 victims of unintentional shootings during this period were under 25 years of age, and more than 1,300 of these children and young adults died.6
“Although unintentional or accidental shootings account for a small share of firearm related mortality and morbidity, these deaths and injuries are highly preventable through proper design of firearms.”Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, The Case for Gun Policy Reforms in America7
Two basic design safety features have the potential to prevent deadly gun accidents:
- Magazine disconnect mechanisms that prevent a firearm from discharging when the magazine is not attached.
- Load indicators that indicate when a gun is loaded. Load indicators are important because a bullet can remain in the chamber even after the magazine is removed, leading a person to believe the gun is unloaded.
Too many firearms are still produced and sold without these two lifesaving features.
Dangerous “Junk Guns” are Still Being Sold
Poorly constructed guns can fire even when the trigger hasn’t been pulled, or do not fire when the trigger has been pulled. Commonly referred to as “junk guns” or “Saturday Night Specials,” these low-quality handguns are often made out of inferior metals or plastic and designed in slipshod ways to reduce the costs of manufacture. Broadly speaking, junk guns are cheap, easily concealed, and more likely to misfire or malfunction than other firearms.
In the 1980s and 1990s, many junk guns were produced by the so-called “Ring of Fire” companies, a small group of gun manufacturers originally based in the Los Angeles area. After steadily increasing production during the 1980s, Ring of Fire companies manufactured one-third of all US handguns produced in the early 1990s.8 Five of the ten crime guns most frequently traced by ATF in 2000 were manufactured by Ring of Fire companies.9 Experts criticized the low quality of these guns, which were poorly constructed, inaccurate, unreliable, and widely considered inappropriate for either personal protection or sporting purposes.10 The State of California responded to this public safety threat in 1999 by adopting safety standards for handguns, and by 2003, five of the six original Ring of Fire companies had declared bankruptcy.11
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As described below, California and a few other states have continued to crack down on dangerous junk guns and enact strong design safety laws. There is evidence to support such measures: A 2002 study of Maryland’s junk gun ban found that the law resulted in an 8.6% decrease in firearm homicides in the state—an average of 40 lives saved per year—between 1990 and 1998.12Despite the evidence that banning them saves lives, junk guns are still widely available for sale in most states.13
Summary of Federal Law
As stated above, federal law imposes no health or safety requirements on domestically produced firearms. In fact, the federal Consumer Product Safety Act exempts firearms and ammunition from the requirements that apply to other consumer products.14 Federal law does prohibit the importation of junk guns through a ban on importation of firearms not suited for “sporting purposes.”15 However, because the federal government does not regulate the safety of domestically-produced firearms, there is effectively a protected market for domestic models of junk guns.
Summary of State Law
Seven states and DC have enacted laws to address federally unregulated domestic junk guns. The following jurisdictions have adopted a series of design and safety tests or standards that handguns must meet before they can be manufactured, transferred, or possessed:16
States Regulating Junk Guns Through Handgun Design and Safety Standards
Design and Safety Tests Can Detect Dangerous Malfunctions
Design and safety standards for firearms are intended to ensure the firearm’s structural integrity and prevent it from misfiring or malfunctioning. Design and safety tests typically must be conducted by a state agency or independent lab before a handgun may be manufactured or sold in the state. Examples of design and safety standards include firing tests, drop tests, and melting point tests.
- Firing tests confirm that a firearm remains structurally sound and does not malfunction after repeated firing. Typically, the test involves firing a handgun a specified number of times to ensure that it performs as intended, then examining it to make sure it is free from cracks or other defects.
- Drop tests confirm that a handgun does not fire when it is dropped. Guns that fire when dropped pose a serious risk of injury to people nearby. States typically require drop tests that examine firearms after they are dropped onto a hard surface from a specified distance.
- Melting point tests require that handguns be made up of metals with melting points above the heat generated by the ballistic forces when the handgun is fired, thus preventing the gun from being structurally weakened when fired. Melting point standards also may include standards for density and tensile strength. Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New York use melting point tests.25 The designated melting point ranges from 800 to 1,000 degrees.
Selected State Laws Requiring Firearm Design and Safety Tests
California, Massachusetts and New York have the most comprehensive schemes of design and safety standards for handguns:
California prohibits the manufacture or sale of any “unsafe handgun.” An unsafe handgun is any handgun that lacks specified safety devices, does not pass the state’s firing requirement, or does not pass the required drop test, as determined by an independent lab certified by the state Attorney General. Handguns sold through private sales are not required to comply with California’s safety testing requirements.
Massachusetts prohibits licensed firearm dealers from transferring any handgun that does not appear on a state roster of approved firearms. An “approved firearm” is a handgun that meets or exceeds various design and safety criteria, including drop testing, firing testing, and a melting point test. Tests are conducted by independent firearm testing laboratories approved by the Secretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety.26 A 2006 amendment to Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, § 123 exempts owners of handguns lawfully owned or possessed under a license issued on or before October 21, 1998 from the safety testing requirements.
New York requires that all handguns manufactured or assembled in the state must first receive a certificate of compliance from the Superintendent of State Police. The certificate requires compliance with various safety standards, including drop testing, firing testing, and a melting point standard.
State Laws Requiring Specific Handgun Safety Features
California, Massachusetts, and New York also define as “unsafe handguns” those lacking specified safety features that help protect users against unintended discharge. Such features include safeties to prevent accidental firing, chamber load indicators, and magazine disconnect mechanisms.
In California, an “unsafe handgun” includes any handgun that does not have both a chamber load indicator and a magazine disconnect mechanism (if the handgun has a detachable magazine). A “chamber load indicator” is a device that plainly indicates that a cartridge is in the firing chamber. A “magazine disconnect mechanism” is a mechanism that prevents a semiautomatic pistol that has a detachable magazine from operating to strike the primer of ammunition in the firing chamber when a detachable magazine is not inserted in the pistol.27 California is the only state that requires handguns to have both a chamber load indicator and a magazine safety disconnect. California also requires that all new semiautomatic pistols be equipped with microstamping technology. Detailed information on microstamping technology is contained in our summary on Microstamping & Ballistics.
Massachusetts requires that all handguns be equipped with a safety device designed to allow use only by the owner or authorized user of the firearm. Massachusetts also requires all handguns with a mechanism to load cartridges via a magazine to have either a chamber load indicator or a magazine disconnect mechanism.
New York requires that all handguns be equipped with a safety device to prevent unintended firing.28
States that Use Rosters of Approved Handguns
California, Maryland, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia use rosters prepared and maintained by a state agency to list approved handgun models that satisfy the state’s design and safety standards.
In California, the state Department of Justice (DOJ) publishes and maintains a roster listing all handgun models that may be sold in California because a certified testing laboratory has tested them and determined them not to be unsafe. The DOJ may retest up to 5% of handgun models listed on the roster annually. The Attorney General must remove from the roster any model that fails retesting, and the DOJ maintains a list of handguns removed from the state roster.
In Massachusetts, any person may petition the Secretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety to place a handgun on or remove a handgun from the state’s roster of approved handgun models, but must do so within 90 days of the Secretary’s original decision concerning the handgun.
In Maryland, handguns may not be manufactured for distribution or sale if they are not included on Maryland’s handgun roster. The handgun roster is compiled by the Handgun Roster Board, an entity of the Maryland State Police, which considers the following characteristics of each handgun: concealability, ballistic accuracy, weight, quality of materials, quality of manufacture, reliability as to safety, caliber, detectability (vis-à-vis airport and courthouse security equipment standards), and utility for legitimate sporting activities, self protection, or law enforcement purposes.
In the District of Columbia, there is a roster of handguns determined not to be unsafe and which may be manufactured, sold, given, loaned, exposed for sale, transferred or imported into the District. The roster must include handguns that were listed on the approved handgun rosters of California, Massachusetts, or Maryland as of a specified date. For more information, see our page on Design Safety Standards for Handguns in the District of Columbia. DC’s Chief of Police must, at a minimum, review any additions or deletions to the California Roster of Handguns Certified for Sale on an annual basis. For purposes of District law, the Chief is authorized to revise, by rule, the roster of handguns determined not to be unsafe and to prescribe by rule the firearms permissible under specific narrow exemptions of District law.
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Selected Local Laws Regulating Junk Guns
Los Angeles and San Francisco (and at least 54 other communities in California) adopted junk gun bans between 1996 and 2000. These local bans led directly to the state law (described above), which was adopted in 1999 and went into effect in 2001.
Key Legislative Elements
The features listed below are intended to provide a framework from which policy options may be considered.29 A jurisdiction considering new legislation should consult with counsel.
- Drop testing and firing testing are required, and testing standards are set, for all handgun models manufactured, transferred or possessed in the jurisdiction (California, Massachusetts, New York).
- Melting point testing is required, and testing standards are set, for all handgun models manufactured, transferred or possessed in the jurisdiction (Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York).
- New models of handguns are required to be equipped with a chamber load indicator and, for handguns with detachable magazines, a magazine disconnect mechanism (California).
- A roster is created and regularly updated of approved handgun models that satisfy the jurisdiction’s safety tests, and that lawfully may be manufactured, transferred or possessed in the jurisdiction (California, DC, Maryland, Massachusetts).
- All testing is conducted by a certified independent lab (California, Massachusetts).
Comprehensive child access prevention and safe storage laws are an incredibly effective tool to curb gun deaths and injuries among children and teens.
Smart guns provide another layer of security by preventing unauthorized users from firing guns.
The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act shields the gun industry from nearly all civil liability for the dangers their products pose.
- See 15 U.S.C. § 2052(a)(5)(E), referencing 26 U.S.C. § 4181.
- Garen Wintemute, California’s Guns and Crime: New Evidence, (Violence Prevention Research Program, University of California, Davis, 1997), 7-8; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, US Department of the Treasury, Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative, Crime Gun Trace Reports (2000) – National Report (July 2002), 15-16.
- Scott Cohn, “Deaths, Injuries and Lawsuits Raise Questions About Popular Gun’s Safety,” CNBC, Oct. 20, 2010, http://www.cnbc.com/id/39740539.
- Adam Weinstein, “Federal Judge Says Remington Settlement Over Deadly Rifle Defect May Be Too Lenient,” The Trace, Feb. 15, 2017, https://www.thetrace.org/2017/02/remington-settlement-deadly-rifle-defect-too-lenient/.
- Id.In other instances, too, purchasers of defective firearms have filed lawsuits after a manufacturer refused to or was unable to fix a design defect. For example, in 2017, the New Jersey State Police brought suit against Sig Sauer for providing the department with service weapons that jammed so frequently they were found to be “unfit for police use” and unreliable during life-threatening situations. The lawsuit alleges that Sig Sauer made efforts for sixteen months to resolve the defect by retrofitting the firearms it had provided, but the company was ultimately unable to provide an adequate fix. Complaint at 3, 7, State of New Jersey v. Sig Sauer, Inc., No. MER-L-895-17 (N.J. Super. Ct. Apr. 27, 2017), https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/3723773/New-Jersey-State-Police-Sig-Sauer-Complaint.pdf.
- Nat’l Ctr. for Injury Prevention & Control, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Web-Based Injury Statistics Query & Reporting System (WISQARS) Injury Mortality Reports, 1999-2010, for National, Regional, and States (Dec. 2012), http://webappa.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/dataRestriction_inj.html; Nat’l Ctr. for Injury Prevention & Control, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Web-Based Injury Statistics Query & Reporting System (WISQARS) Nonfatal Injury Reports, http://webappa.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/nfirates2001.html.
- October 2012, http://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/johns-hopkins-center-for-gun-policy-and-research/publications/WhitePaper020514_CaseforGunPolicyReforms.pdf.
- See, e.g., Garen Wintemute, Ring of Fire: The Handgun Makers of Southern California, (Violence Prevention Research Program, University of California, Davis, 1994), ix, 11-17.
- Id. at 17-51.
- Dick Dahl, Campaign Seeks to Halt Gun Makers’ Bankruptcy Ploy, Join Together Online, May 28, 2004 (on file with author). Another Ring of Fire junk gun, the Raven .25-caliber semiautomatic, has not been manufactured since the Raven Arms manufacturing plant was destroyed by fire in 1991. Id.
- Daniel W. Webster et al., “Effects of Maryland’s Law Banning “Saturday Night Special” Handguns on Homicides,“ 155 Am. J. Epidemiology (Mar. 2002): 406, 409-411. Another study on Maryland’s ban showed that the law reduced the use of prohibited junk guns by criminals in Baltimore. The study found that a junk gun prohibited in Maryland was more than twice as likely to be the subject of a law enforcement crime gun trace request in 15 other major US cities combined than in Baltimore. Jon S. Vernick et al., “Effects of Maryland’s Law Banning Saturday Night Special Handguns on Crime Guns,” 5 Inj. Prevention (Dec. 1999): 259, 261-263.
- A brief survey of firearms available for sale through online retailers uncovers many handguns that are not listed on the current rosters of approved handguns in California, Maryland, and/or Massachusetts. Furthermore, certain advertisements for handguns specifically mention that these handguns are not available for sale in those states.
- 15 U.S.C. § 2052(a)(1)(ii)(E), referencing 26 U.S.C. § 4181. A 2007 report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) recommends that Congress fill this gap by enacting legislation to allow federal health and safety oversight of the firearms industry. International Association of Chiefs of Police, Taking a Stand: Reducing Gun Violence in Our Communities (Sept. 2007), 26.
- 18 U.S.C. § 925(d)(3). The Attorney General determines the criteria used to evaluate whether a particular handgun is one suitable for “sporting purposes.” Under these guidelines, a pistol must have a manually operated safety device, a revolver must pass a safety test, and all firearms must have a certain number of safety features to be approved for importation. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms, US Department of the Treasury, ATF Form 4590, https://www.atf.gov/file/61591/download.
- In addition to specifying safety tests that all handguns must pass, California, Massachusetts and New York also require that all handguns include specific safety features. For more information, see the section on this page titled “State Laws Requiring Specific Handgun Safety Features.”
- Cal. Penal Code §§ 16380, 16900, 17140, 31900-32110; Cal. Code Regs. tit. 11, §§ 4047 – 4074.
- D.C. Code Ann. § 7-2505.04 ; D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 24, § 2323.
- Haw. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 134-15(a).
- 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/24-3(A)(h).
- Md. Code Ann., Pub. Safety, §§ 5-405, 5-406.
- Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, §§ 123, 131½, 131¾; 501 Mass. Code Regs §§ 7.01 – 7.16; 940 Mass. Code Regs. §§ 16.01 – 16.09.
- Minn. Stat. §§ 624.712, 624.716.
- N.Y. Penal Law § 400.00(12-a); N.Y. Comp. Codes R. & Regs. tit. 9, § 482.1 – 482.7.
- Minnesota and Massachusetts also impose density and tensile strength standards.
- Massachusetts, through the initiative of its Attorney General, was the first state to use state consumer protection laws to implement gun safety regulations. See 940 Mass. Code Regs. § 16.00 et seq. These regulations were later codified by the state legislature. Id. Based on a detailed analysis of Illinois law, The Law Center has concluded that the Illinois Attorney General has similar authority to implement gun safety regulations. This analysis is contained in the Law Center’s May 2003 report, The Illinois Attorney General’s Authority to Promulgate Handgun Safety Regulations Under the Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, https://giffords.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Illinois_Attorney_General_Authority.pdf. Other states, including Alaska, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont and West Virginia, may have similar regulatory authority. See Legal Action Project, Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, Targeting Safety (2001), 18-38.
- See Cal. Penal Code § 16900.
- Pistols must have a “positive, manual or automatically operated safety device to prevent firing.” Double-action revolvers must have a “safety feature, that when the trigger is in its most forward position, automatically allows the firing pin to retract to where it does not connect the primer of a cartridge.” N.Y. Comp. Codes R. & Regs. tit. 9, § 482.5(f).
- A comprehensive design safety law for handguns may also include required locking devices. A detailed discussion of locking devices is contained in our summary on Safe Storage & Gun Locks.