Design Safety Standards Policy Summary

Posted on December 1, 2013

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Federal law imposes no design safety standards on domestically produced firearms.  As a result, many firearms are manufactured and sold in the U.S. 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.1

Between 2005 and 2010, almost 3,800 people were killed and over 95,000 people were injured in unintentional shootings in the U.S. 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.2 As stated in an October 2012 study from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, “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.3

Some firearms are equipped with a feature known as a “magazine disconnect mechanism” that prevents a firearm from discharging when the magazine is not attached.  Other firearms are designed with a “loading indicator” that indicates when a gun is loaded.  These features 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. Many firearms are still produced and sold without these safety features, however.

Furthermore, poorly constructed guns can fire even when the trigger hasn’t been pulled, or do not fire when the trigger has been pulled.  Guns of this kind are commonly referred to as “junk guns” or “Saturday Night Specials.” These low-quality handguns are often composed of inferior metals or plastic and designed in ways to unreasonably reduce the costs of manufacture.  Broadly speaking, these handguns 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 U.S. handguns produced in the early 1990s.4  Five of the ten crime guns most frequently traced by ATF in 2000 were manufactured by Ring of Fire companies.5 Numerous experts criticized the low quality of the guns produced by these companies in terms of design (based on their lack of basic safety features), materials and performance.6  Because these guns were so poorly constructed, inaccurate, and unreliable, they were widely considered inappropriate for either personal protection or sporting purposes.7

The State of California responded to this public safety threat by adopting safety standards for handguns in 1999, and by 2003, five of the six original Ring of Fire companies had declared bankruptcy.8 As described below, California and a few other states have continued to adopt strong laws in this area. Junk guns are, nevertheless, still widely available for sale in most states.9

There is evidence that legislation banning the sale of junk guns directly affects the number of firearm homicides.  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 1998.10

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As stated above, federal law imposes no health or safety requirements on domestically produced firearms.  In fact, the federal Consumer Product Safety Act, which imposes health and safety standards on consumer products, exempts firearms and ammunition from its requirements.11  Federal law does prohibit the importation of junk guns through a ban on importation of firearms not suited for “sporting purposes.”12  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.13

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Seven states have enacted laws to address the regulatory void regarding domestic junk guns, establishing a series of design and safety tests or standards that handguns must meet before they can be lawfully manufactured, transferred and/or possessed: California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New York. The District of Columbia also has established a roster of handguns determined not to be unsafe which constitutes handguns from the rosters established in California, Maryland and Massachusetts, that may be manufactured, sold, given, loaned, exposed for sale, transferred or imported into the District and that may be owned or possessed within the District.

California, Massachusetts and New York also require that all handguns have certain safety features.

States Regulating Junk Guns Through Handgun Design and Safety Standards

Requires Drop Testing and Firing Testing Imposes a Melting Point Test Requires Specific Handgun Safety Features Uses a List of Approved Handguns
California14 Yes Yes Yes
D.C.15 Yes
Hawaii16 Yes
Illinois17 Yes
Maryland18 Yes
Massachusetts19 Yes Yes Yes Yes
Minnesota20 Yes
New York21 Yes Yes Yes

 

Description of State Design Safety Standards for Guns
For citations to these laws, please see the above chart.

1.         Design and Safety Standards:  Design and safety standards are intended to ensure the structural integrity of the firearm and to prevent the firearm from misfiring or malfunctioning.  Examples of design standards include drop testing, firing testing, and melting point testing, which must be conducted by a designated state agency or independent lab before a handgun may be manufactured and/or sold in the state.  Firing tests are intended to confirm that a firearm remains structurally sound and does not malfunction after repeated firing.  Typically, the test involves firing the handgun a specified number of times to ensure that it performs as intended, and then examining the firearm to confirm it is free from cracks or other defects.  Drop testing is used to determine whether a handgun can fire when dropped, thereby exposing persons nearby to risk of injury.  States typically require tests that examine firearms after being dropped onto a hard surface from a specified distance.

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, that does not meet the state’s firing requirement, or that does not meet the state’s drop safety requirement, as determined by an independent lab certified by the state Attorney General.  Junk guns sold through private sales are not required to comply with the state testing requirements.

Massachusetts prohibits licensed firearms dealers from transferring any handgun that does not appear on a 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.22 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 testing requirements.

In New York, under rules promulgated by the Superintendent of State Police, 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.

Melting point tests are another standard used to measure a handgun’s design safety.   These tests require that the working components of handguns be comprised 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).  Melting point standards also may include standards for density and tensile strength.  Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New York use melting point tests.  The designated melting point ranges from 800 to 1,000 degrees.  Minnesota and Massachusetts also impose density and tensile strength standards.

2.         Specific Safety Features Required:  California, Massachusetts and New   York also define as “unsafe handguns” those lacking certain specified safety features to protect users against unintended discharge, including safeties to prevent accidental firing, chamber load indicators, and magazine disconnect mechanisms. 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.23

In California, as of January 1, 2006, an “unsafe handgun” includes any pistol that does not have either a chamber load indicator or a magazine disconnect mechanism.  As of January 1, 2007, handguns in California are required to have both a chamber load indicator and, if they have a detachable magazine, a magazine disconnect mechanism.  California is the only state that requires both a chamber load indicator and a magazine safety disconnect.  As of January 1, 2010, California requires that all new
semiautomatic pistols be equipped with microstamping technology in order to be sold in California. Detailed information on microstamping technology is contained in our summary on Microstamping & Ballistic Identification.

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 a chamber load indicator or magazine disconnect mechanism.

New York requires that all handguns be equipped with a safety device to prevent unintended firing.24

3.         Use of Roster of Approved Handguns:  California, Maryland and Massachusetts, as well as 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 Department of Justice (“DOJ”) publishes and maintains a roster listing all handgun models that have been tested by a certified testing laboratory, determined not to be unsafe handguns, and that may be sold in California.  The DOJ may retest up to 5% of handgun models listed on the roster annually.  The Attorney General will remove from the roster any model that fails retesting.  The DOJ also maintains a list of handguns removed from the state roster.

In Massachusetts, any person may petition the Secretary to place a handgun on or remove a handgun from the Roster, 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 handgun’s 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, the Chief of Police shall review any additions or deletions to the California Roster of Handguns Certified for Sale, at a minimum, 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.

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 1991 and went into effect in 2001.

50 State Summary

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The features listed below are intended to provide a framework from which policy options may be considered.25 A jurisdiction considering new legislation should consult with counsel.

  • Drop testing and firing testing are required, and standards are set, for all handgun models manufactured, transferred or possessed in the jurisdiction (California, Massachusetts, New York)
  • Melting point testing is required, and 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, D.C., Maryland, Massachusetts)
  • All testing is conducted by a certified independent lab (California, Massachusetts)
  1. Garen Wintemute, California’s Guns and Crime: New Evidence 7-8, Violence Prevention Research Program, University of California, Davis (May 1997); Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, U.S. Department of the Treasury, Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative, Crime Gun Trace Reports (2000) – National Report 15-16 (July 2002). []
  2. Nat’l Ctr. for Injury Prevention & Control, U.S. 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, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Web-Based Injury Statistics Query & Reporting System (WISQARS) Nonfatal Injury Reports, at http://webappa.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/nfirates2001.html. []
  3. Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, The Case for Gun Policy Reforms in America, October 2012, available at: http://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/johns-hopkins-center-for-gun-policy-and-research/publications/WhitePaper102512_CGPR.pdf. []
  4. See, e.g., Garen Wintemute, Ring of Fire: The Handgun Makers of Southern California ix, 11-17, Violence Prevention Research Program, University of California, Davis (1994). []
  5. Id. []
  6. Id. at 17-51. []
  7. Id. []
  8. 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. []
  9. 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. []
  10. Daniel W. Webster et al., Effects of Maryland’s Law Banning “Saturday Night Special” Handguns on Homicides, 155 Am. J. Epidemiology 406, 409-411 (Mar. 2002).  Another study on Maryland’s ban showed that the law reduced the use of prohibited junk guns by criminals in Baltimore, finding 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 U.S. 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 259, 261-263 (Dec. 1999). []
  11. 15 U.S.C. § 2052(a)(1)(ii)(E), referencing 26 U.S.C. § 4181. []
  12. 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 positive 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, among other criteria.  Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms, U.S. Department of the Treasury, ATF Form 4590. []
  13. A 2007 report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) recommends that Congress enact 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 26 (Sept. 2007). []
  14. Cal. Penal Code §§ 16380, 16900, 17140, 31900-32110; Cal. Code Regs. tit. 11, §§ 4047 – 4074. []
  15. D.C. Code Ann. § 7-2505.04 ; D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 24, § 2323. []
  16. Haw. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 134-15(a). []
  17. 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/24-3(A)(h). []
  18. Md. Code Ann., Pub. Safety, §§ 5-405, 5-406. []
  19. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, §§ 123, 131½, 131¾; 501 Mass. Code Regs §§ 7.01 – 7.16; 940 Mass. Code Regs. §§ 16.01 – 16.09. []
  20. Minn. Stat. §§ 624.712, 624.716. []
  21. N.Y. Penal Law § 400.00(12-a); N.Y. Comp. Codes R. & Regs. tit. 9, § 482.1 – 482.7. []
  22. Massachusetts, through the initiative of its Attorney General, was the first state to utilize
    statutory powers under the state’s 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.  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, available at http://www.lcav.org/library/reports_analyses.asp.  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 18-38 (2001). []
  23. See Cal. Penal Code § 16900. []
  24. 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). []
  25. 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.  []