Journal Issue: Children, Youth, and Gun Violence Volume 12 Number 2 Summer/Fall 2002
Gun Manufacturers' Efforts to Make Safer Handguns (1/2)
The technology already exists to make safer guns. Grip safeties, loaded chamber indicators, and magazine disconnect devices all show promise for reducing unintentional injuries, especially among children and youth. Emerging technologies to create "personalized" guns, which would make guns operable only by authorized users, may be able to reduce intentional injuries as well. Table 1 lists several safety-related product modifications currently being used or developed for guns.
The value of changing product design to avoid injuries to consumers is not wholly unknown to gun manufacturers. Clearly, guns are made principally to have the capacity to injure, but from the manufacturer's perspective the gun owner and the owner's family members are not the planned, intended victims of these injuries. From the point of view of the gun maker, the gun should not injure the owner/user or that person's children through inadvertent firing or through firing by unauthorized users. As the story of Smith & Wesson's "childproof" gun illustrates, gun manufacturers over the past 100 years have paid some attention to protecting the gun owner and user from unintended injury—but clearly not enough.
Smith & Wesson's "Childproof" Gun
One of the oldest gun safety devices is the grip safety, which has existed for more than 100 years. The gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson intended the grip safety to serve as a child safety device. Although the device is no longer used on Smith & Wesson guns, the development of the grip safety makes it clear that the company recognized and was concerned from early in its history about the danger handguns present to young children.
In his book entitled History of Smith & Wesson,9 Roy G. Jinks, the company's official historian, tells the following story:
Legend has it that D.B. Wesson (one of the founders of the gun manufacturing corporation) developed the Safety Hammerless model in a night-long session after hearing that a child had accidentally been hurt by cocking and pulling the trigger on one of the Smith & Wesson Double Action Revolvers. This legend cannot be substantiated, since factory records show a methodical development of the revolver. D.B. Wesson was a sensitive person and perhaps after hearing of this accident was inspired to work very closely with his son Joe to develop a revolver with a safety on the handle and a strong trigger that would require a long pull, making it impractical for a child to pull through and fire.
By 1886, Smith & Wesson's .38-caliber Safety Hammerless was in production, and the .32-caliber model followed in 1888. These handguns were designed with a squeezable grip safety. On the rearmost portion of the gun (the part of the handle that rests below the user's thumb as the gun is gripped) was a metal lever that the shooter had to depress by squeezing the gun for the trigger to operate. Thus the user had to perform two tasks simultaneously with one hand for the gun to fire: depress the lever with the base of the thumb and pull the trigger with the forefinger. The premise of the technology was that young children lacked the hand size and strength to successfully do both at the same time.
According to Jinks, Smith & Wesson manufactured more than 500,000 guns with grip safeties between 1886 and 1940. These guns were known as the company's "New Departure" models. No epidemiologic or biomechanical data exist on the effectiveness of the New Departure grip safety in preventing young children from operating a handgun, but Smith & Wesson felt strongly about its effectiveness. The catalog description of the New Departure for many years included the following claim: "One very important feature of this arrangement is the safety of the arm in the hands of children, as no ordinary child under eight years of age can possibly discharge it." 10 (emphasis added)
When Smith & Wesson encountered financial trouble in the late 1930s, the company moved away from making guns for the consumer market, focusing instead on providing British soldiers with guns for World War II. The grip safety was not used on those guns. Today, however, Smith & Wesson has returned to the business of supplying handguns to the American public. For example, the company has manufactured the LadySmith®, a small handgun marketed to women. Notwithstanding the likelihood that a woman's gun might be in the same environment as a young child, Smith & Wesson no longer makes use of the child safety technology it developed more than 100 years ago. The LadySmith® has no grip safety or other device to make it inoperable by a young child.
Even so, the grip safety does maintain a presence today. Many handguns produced by manufacturers other than Smith & Wesson are outfitted with a modern-day version of the device—a lever on the back or the front of the grip that must be depressed for the trigger to be engaged. These grip safeties are neither advertised nor utilized for the purpose of child protection, however. Their function is to ensure that the user has better hand positioning and control of the firearm, and their effectiveness as a child-resistant safety device remains untested.
In recent times, Smith & Wesson has pledged to take new measures to prevent young children and other unauthorized users from firing the guns that they manufacture. At least in part, the company's desire to settle lawsuits brought against it has stimulated this pledge. In March 2000, Smith & Wesson reached an agreement that freed the company from ongoing legal action brought against several gun manufacturers by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and several counties and cities throughout the country. In this agreement, Smith & Wesson consented to design changes that incorporate certain built-in safety features, including electronic locking devices. The company also agreed to monitor the distribution of its guns more closely so that scofflaw gun dealers would be identified and would not receive any Smith & Wesson products.
No other gun manufacturer signed this agreement, leaving Smith & Wesson to bear the brunt of what became a devastating economic backlash. Gun dealers and gun buyers boycotted Smith & Wesson guns, bringing the company to the brink of bankruptcy. Smith & Wesson was put up for sale and purchased by an Arizona company, Saf-T-Hammer, which makes trigger locks and other safety devices designed to prevent unauthorized access to firearms. Saf-T-Hammer intends to use its newly acquired Smith & Wesson division in the development of technologically advanced firearm security systems.11 A partnership between Smith & Wesson and the New Jersey Institute of Technology, for example, will test the feasibility of the biometric identification systems for personalizing guns mentioned later in this article.12