10 February 2009

Fables, Myths,and Tales XI

Firearms are unsafe and therefore ought to be regulated under consumer protection laws.

A quarter-century ago, anti-gun activists, disillusioned with the refusal of Congress and most state legislatures to prohibit, or severely restrict, firearms ownership, conceived the idea of subjecting the manufacture of firearms to the dictates of a federal bureaucracy. They believed that anti-gun policies that had been rejected by lawmakers and voters could be imposed anyway, by empowering federal agencies to regulate firearms design under the guise of "consumer products safety."

Their concept includes two obvious flaws: first, that firearms can be designed by bureaucrats with no technical knowledge of firearms engineering, firearms uses, or the preferences of consumers. Second, that firearms should be designed the same, without concern for the varied needs of individual gun owners and the purposes for which firearms are used.

Congress settled the question in 1976, voting overwhelmingly (76-8 in the Senate and 313-86 in the House) to exempt the firearms and ammunition industries (and certain other industries) from the Consumer Safety Protection Act of 1972. Congress recognized that firearms aren't traditional "consumer products." Like the tools of a free press, firearms are among the few products that the Bill of Rights specifically protects the right of the people to own, possess and use. Congress clearly stated its intent: "The Consumer Product Safety Commission shall make no ruling or order that restricts the manufacture or sale of firearms, ammunition, including black powder or gun powder, for firearms."

Today's anti-gun activists are trying to revitalize their predecessors' regulatory agenda. Their common refrain: "In America, Teddy bears are more regulated than guns." But the analogy is a fraud. U.S. firearms makers not only comply with a tangled web of federal, state and local laws, their manufacturing standards are reviewed by the FBI, the U.S. Customs Service, various other public and private agencies, and even the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Industry standards are set by the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute (SAAMI), an organization founded in 1926 at the request of the federal government. Today, SAAMI publishes more than 700 voluntary standards related to firearm and ammunition quality and safety.1

SAAMI is an accredited standards developer for the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). These standards are reviewed by outside parties, such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and every five years the validity of the standards is re-affirmed. The U.S. Armed Forces, the FBI and many other state and local agencies frequently require that their firearms are manufactured in accordance with SAAMI specifications.

Anti-gun activists also claim that the technology exists to make a "smart" or "personalized" gun that can be fired only by a single user and that consumer protection laws could mandate that technology be added to guns.

In fact, the technology does not exist. In 1994 the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) funded a "Smart Gun Technology Project" to study the issue for law enforcement use. The study concluded that the technology was still not in a reliable and marketable form and even stated: "It may take a generation of smart gun systems to come and go before a smart gun is not only common but is favored over a non-smart gun. . . . To accomplish this goal a great deal of time and resources will have to be expended for the smart gun application."2

On Oct. 7, 1999, Andrew J. Brignoli, vice president of Colt's Manufacturing Co.--which has received federal grants to research "smart" guns--told a special commission in Maryland: "No technology exists in a form that has been proven to be safe. We cannot support any effort to mandate this technology."3

More recently, in 2001, extensive research conducted at the New Jersey Institute of Technology found "no proven technology in development or in open scientific literature that satisfies requirements for an automated firearm whose design allows discharge only by an authorized person or class of people and blocks discharge by those outside the class.

"Specifically, no firearm meets the following NJIT specification for a personalized weapon, i.e., a gun endowed with an authentication system which:

Senses distinctions between authorized and unauthorized users

Allows only authorized users the ability to discharge the weapon

Possesses a power system to energize its electronic and electromechanical components."4

More importantly, however, no mechanical device should ever be relied upon as a substitute for safe gun handling practices. And no one should be fooled by "smart" gun rhetoric. Anti-gun groups push for a "smart" gun mandate, because it would add several hundred dollars to the price of a handgun, placing the most effective means of self-defense beyond the reach of less fortunate citizens--those who are most often forced to live in high-crime areas.


1. "SAAMI Is An Accredited Standards Developer for the American National Standards Institute (ANSI)," SAAMI 2002, www.saami.org/technical.

2. "A Boon to Sales, or a Threat? Safety Devices Split Industry," Washington Post, May 20, 1999.

3. "Colt Plans 'Smartguns' but Opposes Mandates, Official Tells," Washington Post, October 8, 1999

4. NJIT Personalized Weapons Technology Report, Executive Summary, 2001.

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