February 2, 1998 in Nation/World

When It Comes To Guns, Consumers Beware Due To Fears Of Back-Door Ban, Guns Not Subject To Safety Laws

Los Angeles Times
 

Before the wildly popular Tickle Me Elmo doll hit the market, testers at Tyco Toys subjected it to a battery of grueling exams. They scratched its eyes to check for lead in the paint. They pummeled, yanked, contorted and poked, all to ensure that the doll met government safety standards for children.

Four-slice toasters, bean bag chairs and thousands of other consumer products must comply with government safety requirements before ever landing on a shelf.

But there is a noteworthy exception to the legion of products governed by the Consumer Product Safety Act: guns.

There is not a single federally mandated safety standard or child-proofing requirement for firearms made in the United States. The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission is forbidden by law from venturing into the realm of guns.

How did this happen, with numerous deaths and injuries linked to the lack of safety features or flawed designs?

A review of decades-old congressional records and dozens of interviews show that, for 25 years, public safety concerns have been swept aside by politics and special interests. In fact, the congressman who led the successful charge in 1972 to exempt firearms from the nation’s new consumer law sat on the board of the National Rifle Association.

“It wasn’t a question of somebody making a good argument to exclude guns,” said Robert J. Spitzer, author and political science professor at State University of New York at Cortland. “It was a political decision, pure and simple.”

Although gun interests and many legislators agree that firearms are inherently dangerous, they argue that any government regulations will inevitably lead to wider gun control. Critics say that philosophy has come with a heavy price.

Repeated studies have shown that inexpensive safety technology and the elimination of flawed guns could prevent a third of the 1,500 accidental firearm deaths and thousands of injuries each year.

“Of all the things to leave out of the law, guns should not be one of them,” said Lynn Dix, whose 14-year-old son, Kenzo, died four years ago in Berkeley, Calif., when his best friend was playing with a gun he thought was unloaded. She believes the gun manufacturer should have been required to use available technology that would have prevented an unauthorized user from firing the weapon.

Gun advocates contend that arms manufacturers voluntarily hold themselves to high standards of safety and that education, not regulation, is the best way to avert tragedies.

“All the technological features don’t do much good if you shut your brain off. That’s the most important safety feature there is,” said Richard Feldman of the Atlanta-based American Shooting Sports Council, which represents the gun industry.

To the Consumer Product Safety Commission, education is important, but no replacement for required safety precautions.

The commission, often prompted by casualties representing a fraction of those caused by firearms, has banned, recalled or otherwise regulated numerous items, including lawn darts, halogen floor lamps, infant pillows, marbles and crib slats.

But not firearms.

“It would require Congress to change the law,” agency spokesman Russ Rader said. “And how likely is that?”

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STATE TAKES ACTION

Massachusetts has decided not to wait for Congress to enact gun safety measures.

After the accidental gun deaths of three young people in a 10-day period, the attorney general’s office last year decided to use its consumer protection law to regulate guns.

Under Massachusetts regulations, the sale of Saturday night specials is banned, and all other handguns are required to include child-proofing features such as built-in trigger locks.

The gun lobby has filed suit to block enforcement of the law.

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