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Federal Safety Law Targets 15,000 Items, but Not Guns

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

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 even from venturing into the realm of guns.

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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 Assn. at the time.

“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, many involving children.

“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 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.

“This kind of thing happens over and over and over again,” said Kenzo’s father, Griffin. “This is not about freedom, about taking guns away or about preventing someone from owning one. It is just about making guns safer.”

Failed Attempts at Legislation

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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.

But safety education is no guarantee against deadly mishaps, even by highly trained experts. Just last week, the Santa Ana Police Department’s weapons trainer killed himself when he accidentally flipped a switch on an illegal pistol that had been seized, transforming it into a fully automatic weapon that unleashed a barrage of bullets.

At least one study suggests that experienced gun owners may be the most careless of all. The 1994 study, reported in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., found that trained gun owners were more likely to keep their guns loaded and unlocked, probably the result of overconfidence, the study concluded.

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

The commission, overseen by a three-member board appointed by the nation’s president for seven-year terms, regulates about 15,000 consumer products.

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.

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

Since 1991, at least four legislative efforts have been undertaken, all of them faltering without getting out of committee.

Several members of Congress, including California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, hope to reverse that trend. They say they plan to introduce bills this session requiring that guns be regulated like other consumer products.

“If we had a virus or a flu killing all these children,” Boxer said, “we would rally to do something.”

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To numerous lawmakers, violence prevention experts, physicians and gun control proponents, there is perhaps no greater irony than this: Although the commission is prevented from tackling firearm safety, it is free to crack down on toy guns.

The sound level of caps used in toy guns cannot exceed 158 decibels. Toy guns also must have brightly colored markings if they resemble the real thing too closely.

Asked whether authentic guns should be regulated, David Miller, president of the Toy Manufacturers of America, said: “Absolutely. It’s a public safety issue.”

When Congress was debating the consumer product safety bill in 1972, the number of annual deaths from accidental shootings had soared. That year it reached a five-year high, with 2,442 deaths.

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As the measure worked its way through the Senate, legislative staffers decided not to exclude guns from the law.

“We had this naive thought that if we treated firearms as consumer products . . . that even the National Rifle Assn. would not be unhappy, because it would be protecting their members without eliminating guns,” said Michael Pertschuk, former chief counsel for the Senate Commerce Committee.

The legislation--which called for the creation of the Consumer Products Safety Commission--passed the Senate and moved to the House, where the NRA had a well-placed friend--Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.).

Dingell not only was a ranking member of the Commerce Committee, which was controlling the bill, but was on the rifle association’s board.

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In committee, Dingell, who declined to be interviewed, spearheaded an amendment to exempt guns and ammunition from the bill.

Just before the final floor vote, the late Rep. Jonathan Bingham (D-N.Y.) resorted to theatrics in a last stand against the amendment. Clutching a toy pistol on the House floor, he said: “If this were the real McCoy, if this was something that could blow up in your face and kill you . . . it would not be covered [by the consumer law]. I suggest this is a topsy-turvy arrangement.”

Although the stunt added a touch of drama to the debate, it failed to sway a majority of his colleagues, who said that including firearms under the law would create “a backdoor to gun control” and a backlash by the gun lobby.

Anger From Weapon Owners

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Two years later, the new consumer protection agency got a taste of that fury when the Chicago-based Citizens for Handgun Control asked the agency to use its authority over hazardous products to ban the commercial sale of handgun ammunition.

The request triggered a storm of protest, including a letter-writing campaign that sent a memorable shudder through the rookie commissioners.

“I received hundreds of threats on my life,” recalled Richard O. Simpson, the commission’s first chairman.

Former Commissioner David Pittle said one gun owner warned in a letter that, if the commission banned bullets, he was going to “save the last one for you.”

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By a 4-1 vote, the commissioners decided that, even though Congress had given them jurisdiction over hazardous products, bullets did not fall into that category.

After the vote, Citizens for Handgun Control turned to the federal courts, where a judge overruled the commission, clearing the way for a reconsideration of the issue.

But before that could happen, Congress swiftly passed a law specifically prohibiting the consumer protection commission from regulating bullets.

“It was one of the fastest passages of legislation in the history of Congress,” said Michael D. Hausfeld, an attorney for the gun control group that brought the court challenge.

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Accidental Shootings Claim Thousands

During the years that gun safety proponents have been pressuring Congress to reverse its stance, accidental shootings have claimed 34,000 lives and injured 300,000 people.

Certainly, not all of those incidents could have been averted by government-mandated safety requirements. But congressional critics and consumer advocates speculate that many lives could have been saved.

The discussion is not theoretical. They say technology is available to make guns much safer at a minimal cost and that, if lawmakers refuse to act, victims must turn to the courts for protection--as has the Dix family.

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Griffin and Lynn Dix believe that their son, Kenzo, would be alive if a law requiring “personalized” guns had been in effect four years ago.

On May 29, 1994, Kenzo’s best friend was showing him a 9-millimeter Beretta pistol that his father kept loaded under the bed. He removed the ammunition clip and inserted an empty one. He didn’t realize a round was still in the chamber.

“I was messing around,” the friend said in court papers in a pending suit filed by Kenzo’s parents against Beretta. “I was pretending, like cops and robbers, like ducking and stuff, or that’s what I had planned to do, before it went off.”

Typical of adolescents involved in such tragedies, he said he wanted to hear the gun click.

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Beretta officials have declined to comment, but in court papers denied responsibility, blaming the tragedy on the youth’s recklessness. The case is expected to go to trial in summer.

Arguing for Safety Devices

Gun regulation proponents say gun manufacturers should know that people, especially children, will make mistakes in handling guns and that it is incumbent upon them to take reasonable precautions to guard against the accidental loss of life.

Kenzo’s mother argues that Beretta was negligent by failing to take advantage of available technology, including personalized guns designed to be fired only by a person wearing a magnetically encoded chip in a special ring. The device adds about $150 to the gun’s price.

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Besides personalized guns, other safety measures currently available include: mechanisms that prevent weapons from firing when their ammunition clips have been removed; making triggers too hard for children to squeeze; devices that clearly show whether or not a bullet is in the chamber; and built-in combination locks.

Some of these safety gadgets cost only a few dollars.

Gun manufacturers say that such technology sometimes fosters a false sense of security, perhaps leading to even less caution when using firearms. What’s more, they say, some safety devices make guns more difficult to use, undermining their use for self-defense.

“The problem with some of the folks coming up with political solutions is that they know nothing about the technology of firearms,” said Feldman of the American Shooting Sports Council. “That’s like having a eunuch telling us how to participate in sex.”

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That said, Feldman noted that 95% of domestic arms makers recently volunteered to provide manual trigger-lock devices with their weapons--a move dismissed by critics as a publicity stunt to head off stricter controls.

Kenneth Pugh, president of Fulton Arms, a Texas company that makes personalized guns, said he hopes that the law of supply and demand will bring about change naturally.

“If people buy it, others will make it,” Pugh said. “I would like to see it take hold without government regulation.”

One state has decided not to wait.

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After the accidental gun deaths of three young people in a 10-day period, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office last year decided to use its consumer protection law to regulate guns--a first-of-its-kind approach that many would like to see happen on the federal level.

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.

“You can’t help but to see this huge hole in the federal safety net,” said Glenn Kaplan, Massachusetts’ assistant attorney general in the consumer protection division.

But the gun lobby, as it did in 1972 with the Consumer Protection Safety Act, is fighting back. Two weeks ago, gun interests, led by the American Shooting Sports Council, filed a lawsuit to block enforcement of the unprecedented Massachusetts law.

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Times research librarians Janet Lundblad and Paul J. Singleton contributed to this report.


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