Hype Over Trigger Locks Provokes Fear of Firearm Accidents

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The October 1997 ceremony was an unprecedented show of solidarity between gun control advocates and firearms makers. The heads of some of the nation's largest gun companies, facing even stricter legislation, had gathered around President Clinton in the Rose Garden and signed an agreement to include "child safety locks" with new handguns.

"This will affect eight of 10 handguns made in America, and it will save many young lives," the president declared.

Now, a month after the deadline for including the locks, only a handful of the 27 arms makers who eventually signed on are complying, according to industry insiders--although others are scrambling to include the devices with their guns.

Although gun control advocates are disturbed by the lack of timely compliance, many find themselves in a similarly unusual position of agreement with the National Rifle Assn. and other firearms groups: Trigger locks, by far the most popular of the locking devices, are being hyped well beyond their capabilities--to the point, some say, that they might actually lead to accidents because gun owners frequently don't understand their limitations.

"If it is a loaded gun, there isn't a lock out there that will keep it from being fired," said Tracy Lang of Master Lock, which manufactures the devices. "If you put a trigger lock on any loaded gun, you are making the gun more dangerous."

Many gun control advocates also question the wisdom of promoting trigger locks in the name of child safety and wonder how many people forced to buy one--either as part of their gun purchase or under a growing number of laws--will actually use it.

"We're not the biggest cheerleaders for trigger locks," said Kristen Rand of the pro-gun control Violence Policy Center in Washington. "They've been way oversold."

But, Rand added, "We're taking baby steps. We need to keep our expectations low. These things are going to work to prevent a very small number of gun injuries . . . off the top of my head, [perhaps] 10 to 20 child injuries a year."

In 1996, the most recent figures available, 220 children under the age of 15 were killed in accidental at-home shootings. Forty of those were under the age of 5.

Skeptics--and even some of the lock makers themselves--say the Rose Garden agreement and laws from Los Angeles to Massachusetts that require buyers of some firearms to also purchase a locking device are "feel-good" policies that have served primarily to create a small but booming industry and offer gun owners an exaggerated sense of security.

"If they were really effective, people would have started buying them long before now," said Michael Saporito, a former New York state judge who is now with RSR Management Corp., an Orlando, Fla.-based firearms distributor.

Although a host of gun locks--from cable locks to devices that are inserted in the barrel--fulfill the requirements set forth in the Rose Garden agreement and most local laws, trigger locks have taken center stage in this latest push for firearms safety.

They are simple to use, as effective as most other types of locks in many circumstances, and perhaps most importantly, are inexpensive--averaging around $10, with the cheapest versions available for about $2.

The first trigger lock was patented in 1969 by Milwaukee-based Master Lock, and remains the standard. A two-piece rubber-coated steel device with a center bar, the lock snaps over the trigger guard.

Such devices were never designed to prohibit all movement of the trigger. Rather, they function primarily by denying easy access.

And although virtually all lock packaging includes an explanation that the device must be used on unloaded firearms, that message has been lost, some say, as cities and community groups offer trigger lock giveaways and legislators praise the devices as an easy way to childproof a firearm.

"Even the politicians today are calling them 'child safety devices,' " said Lang, who heads Master Lock's gun lock branch. "We never market our products like that, and I would guess the Consumer Product Safety Commission wouldn't like it either."

Some gun control activists say it will take years, but eventually many owners will understand how to properly use the devices and the potential benefits of doing so.

"This situation is very analogous to seat belts," said Bob Walker, president of Handgun Control Inc. "When seat belts were first put in cars, there was a very low rate of compliance."

Eventually, Walker noted, through a series of laws and grim lessons, the rate of seat belt use grew from about 10% three decades ago to 69% today.

Walker and other gun control activists concede, however, that the single largest group of handgun buyers is going to be difficult to persuade.

About 60% of all handguns are purchased specifically for home- or self-protection. And some gun owners--among them peace officers--shudder at the notion of having their firearm locked.

Although few of the roughly 240 million firearms in the U.S. are ever wielded against a home intruder, most shootouts are over in a matter of seconds. And even if the gun owner were able to release the trigger lock in time, the gun would be unloaded if they've followed the manufacturer's advice.

"I'll probably stick [my gun] under my mattress," Joe Crump, a 21-year-old from Sherman Oaks who is saving for a handgun, said recently at a Burbank firing range. "And it's not going to have a lock."

Indeed, of those who are forced to purchase a trigger lock, "I would think a majority never use them," said Jack Adkins of the American Shooting Sports Council, which helped broker the Rose Garden agreement.

Even so, a series of nationally wrenching shootings by children, the growing number of must-purchase laws--and the support of politicians, including Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)--have led to a boom in the industry.

The Master Lock-style device was about the only type available until a few years ago. Today, sporting goods stores and chain retailers sell key-operated versions in various colors, combination-style trigger locks and a battery-powered version with a lighted keypad for easier nighttime access. There are locks with 110-decibel alarms and locks with motion sensors that indicate the gun has been moved or tampered with.

Unlike padlocks, trigger locks are not subject to a quality rating system, and some of the biggest sellers are little more than plastic-and-aluminum devices that can be picked with a paper clip or shattered by a simple hammer blow.

Opponents of the Rose Garden agreement and lock laws say trigger locks certainly serve a purpose, but that forcing people to buy them is a policy doomed to fail. Gun education programs, they contend, would be a far more effective way of reducing injuries and deaths.

"You have more children who die by drowning in buckets than by guns," said University of Chicago School of Law professor John Lott, the author of the controversial book "More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws."

"These are feel-good type rules, and people will say if we can save only one life, it will be worth it. But the solutions that are proposed also have costs."

Gun control advocates, who are pushing manufacturers to research "smart guns" that could only be fired by the owner, say trigger locks have great limitations but are better than NRA child gun-education programs--which they deride as gun promotion efforts--and are certainly better than nothing.

"Gun manufacturers and gun dealers have not done their part in seeking to reduce these deaths," Walker said. "They need to take steps. . . . We think this is a first step."

As gun makers and retailers brace for anti-tobacco-style lawsuits--by Chicago, New Orleans, Miami-Dade County and Bridgeport, Conn.--aimed at recovering costs from gun-related injuries and deaths, they are doing their best to promote themselves as responsible corporate citizens--and skeptically going along with the push for trigger locks.

Several new versions were unveiled at the gun industry's annual trade gathering, the SHOT Show, this month in Atlanta. The city of Atlanta, meanwhile, is considering filing its own suit against gun manufacturers and retailers.

Times staff writer Kurt Streeter and correspondent Joseph Trevino in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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