Center for American Progress

Frequently Asked Questions About Firearm Safety for Consumers
Fact Sheet

Frequently Asked Questions About Firearm Safety for Consumers

Firearms must be subject to the same federal safety requirements as other consumer products.

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The dome of the U.S. Capitol is reflected in displaced stone on the east front plaza, December 2019, in Washington (Getty/Samuel Corum)

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This fact sheet will be periodically updated to account for new policy developments. It was last updated on November 10, 2021.

What is consumer product regulation, and why is it important?

Most consumer products are subject to regulations and safety standards set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), a regulatory agency created in 1976 through the enactment of the Consumer Product Safety Act (CPSA).1 This act authorized the CPSC to create and enforce mandatory safety standards, issue bans on consumer products deemed unsafe for public use, and oversee product recalls.2 The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Drug Enforcement Administration, meanwhile, regulate food items, cosmetics, and prescription drugs; the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regulates motor vehicles; and the Environmental Protection Agency has jurisdiction over pesticides. Safety-focused regulation of products is essential to protecting consumers from defective or harmful products and ensuring that any complications or defects are made public and addressed in a timely manner through consumer alerts and product recalls.

Are guns regulated by any federal agency to ensure their safety?

No. The firearm industry is not subject to federal government safety regulations.3 Because of a carveout in the jurisdiction of the CPSC that was added at the urging of the gun lobby when the agency was created in 1976, the gun industry is the only domestic manufacturer of a consumer product in the United States that is exempt from federal health and safety regulations. No federal agency is responsible for collecting information on safety complaints, issuing recalls for defective firearms, or requiring independent premarket safety testing.

Why is this lack of consumer protection and safety oversight a problem?

Left unchecked by federal regulatory standards, the gun industry has a mixed record when it comes to product safety. In the 1980s and 1990s, the manufacturing of highly defective weapons, referred to as “Saturday night specials” or “junk guns,” became so popular that by 1992, one-third of the U.S. handgun market was controlled by a group of junk gun manufacturers operating in California known as the “Ring of Fire.”4 The firearms produced by these companies were widely considered not suitable for protective or sporting use and criticized by experts for having numerous design flaws and low-quality materials.5 To combat the public safety threat junk guns posed, in 1999, the state of California passed design safety standards for handguns. By 2003, all but one “Ring of Fire” company had declared bankruptcy.6

More recently, there have been a number of high-profile allegations of firearm design defects and manufacturing laws that have resulted in injury or death. In 2017, the SIG SAUER P320 pistol gained notoriety after numerous reports emerged of it unintentionally firing and injuring users. One report of the alleged defect was made that year after a member of the Stamford, Connecticut, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team was shot in the leg after accidentally dropping his pistol.7 Another report, from 2018, showed the pistol malfunctioning after a sheriff’s deputy attempted to remove it from her holster; the gun unintentionally fired, shattering her femur.8 Despite claims SIG SAUER had knowledge of the defective trigger mechanism, more than 500,000 of these pistols were sold commercially before the manufacturer offered a voluntary trigger upgrade on the model.9 In offering the upgrade, the manufacturer declined to acknowledge the product’s potential defects or issue a safety recall notice.10

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Taurus, a Brazilian gun manufacturer, has also gained notoriety for claims of design defects that result in guns that fire when jostled or dropped, often resulting in tragic, fatal, and entirely preventable injuries and deaths. In 2016, 28-year-old Jarred Brown tragically died in front of his parents after his holstered Taurus PT-145 Millennium Pro pistol fired without a trigger pull and hit his femoral artery.11 In 2015, the Taurus PT-609 pistol malfunctioned and unintentionally fired, fatally shooting 11-year-old D.J. Simms as his father attempted to seat the magazine in the gun.12 In 2015, a class-action suit against Taurus resulted in a $39 million settlement and a recall requirement for nearly 1 million pistols.13

Even well-known gun manufacturers such as Remington have been involved in manufacturing dangerous and defective firearms. The company’s most popular product, the Remington Model 700 bolt-action rifle, has long been known to have a design defect that causes the gun to fire without the trigger being pulled.14 Despite learning of the gun’s defect in 1947, Remington went on to produce nearly 7.5 million rifles with defective triggers over more than 60 years, concluding that redesigning the rifle would be too expensive.15 As a result of this defective design, roughly two dozen people have died and at least 100 others have been injured using Remington rifles.16 Recently, Remington launched a recall program through which consumers can be reimbursed or have their guns updated with new triggers as part of a class-action settlement against the company. The program is voluntary, however, and in its first year only 2,327 gun owners submitted claims as part of the program.17

If the federal government doesn’t regulate firearm safety standards, who does?

With the federal government unable to regulate gun safety standards, gun manufacturers are generally left to police themselves when it comes to responding to reports of defective products and issuing product recalls.18 Gun manufacturers often fail to adequately inform consumers when there is a product defect; rather than issuing mandatory recalls that provide consumers with necessary information about known defect-related incidents, many manufacturers instead issue “warnings” or “product safety notices” that fail to meet any of the content requirements necessary for recalls of other regulated consumer products.19 This voluntary recall process is starkly different from the treatment of potential safety hazards of other consumer products.20

In addition to piecemeal efforts by individual gun manufacturers, the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI) provides some product oversight for firearms. Unlike federal regulatory agencies such as the FDA or CPSC, however, SAAMI is a membership organization serving the gun industry that creates suggested safety guidelines with voluntary compliance, rather than setting mandatory health and safety standards. Therefore, SAAMI’s effectiveness is drastically limited.21 Moreover, rather than serving as an independent oversight organization acting in the best interest of consumer safety, SAAMI is deeply embedded in the gun industry, with prominent members from the firearms industry placed among SAAMI leadership.22 SAAMI is unique from other standard-setting organizations in that it declines to solicit feedback from consumers on how to improve firearm safety features.23 Despite numerous attempts by Congress to bring safety standards and regulatory control of the firearms industry under federal jurisdiction, SAAMI remains the only organization that claims to “create and promulgate technical, performance and safety standards for firearms.”24

Guns should be regulated in the same way that other consumer products are regulated

Defective firearms don’t just pose a threat to the owner; they put family members and the general public in danger as well. Poorly constructed firearms frequently fail or result in unintentional shootings, often with fatal consequences. On average, nearly 500 Americans die every year from unintentional firearm injuries.25 Yet despite evidence that firearms often misfire and result in fatal or serious injury, no federal agency documents harm done by defective firearms; therefore, it is difficult to know how many of these deaths are the result of product defects. Firearms are inherently dangerous products and as such should be designed in a way that protects users from foreseeable harm. They should also be subject to the same basic safety requirements as other consumer products. Congress must pass legislation to empower a federal regulatory agency to monitor guns and ammunition for safety risks, create safety standards for gun industry products, and oversee recalls to protect consumers from dangerous and defective products. Both the CPSC and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are well-positioned to serve this function. Regardless of which agency is granted jurisdiction over firearms and ammunition, Congress must provide sufficient additional funding to ensure the agency can provide effective oversight.

Endnotes

  1. U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, “Regulations, Laws & Standards,” available at https://www.cpsc.gov/Regulations-Laws–Standards (last accessed October 2021).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Violence Policy Center, “Misfire: The Gun Industry’s Lack of Accountability for Defective Firearms” (Washington: 2021), available at https://vpc.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Misfire.pdf.
  4. Olivia Li, “Cars, Toys, and Aspirin Have to Meet Mandatory Safety Standards. Guns Don’t. Here’s Why.”, The Trace, January 19, 2016, available at https://www.thetrace.org/2016/01/gun-safety-standards/.
  5. PBS Frontline, “Ring of Fire Guns,” available at https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/guns/ring/hazard.html (last accessed November 2021).
  6. Giffords Law Center, “Design Safety Standards,” available at https://giffords.org/lawcenter/gun-laws/policy-areas/child-consumer-safety/design-safety-standards/ (last accessed October 2021).
  7. John Nickerson, “Wounded Stamford cop sues gun manufacturer,” Stamford Advocate, August 12, 2017, available at https://www.stamfordadvocate.com/policereports/article/Wounded-Stamford-cop-sues-gun-manufacturer-11750213.php.
  8. Veronika Collazo, “Loudoun County deputy sues gun manufacturer for $10 million after having her femur shattered,” Loudoun Times-Mirror, July 5, 2018, available at https://www.loudountimes.com/news/loudoun-county-deputy-sues-gun-manufacturer-for-million-after-having/article_020df2e2-7eda-11e8-951b-7b8d88341850.html; Jose Pagliery, “Trigger warning,” CNN, June 6, 2018, available at https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2018/06/investigates/sig-sauer-p320-drop-fire/.
  9. Dan Zimmerman, “What Will the SIG P320 Voluntary Upgrade Cost the Company?”, The Truth About Guns, August 15, 2017, available at https://www.thetruthaboutguns.com/will-sig-p320-voluntary-upgrade-cost-company/; Dan Zimmerman, “BREAKING: SIG SAUER Offers Voluntary Trigger Upgrade for P320 Pistols,” The Truth About Guns, August 8, 2017, available at https://www.thetruthaboutguns.com/breaking-sig-sauer-offers-voluntary-trigger-upgrade-p320-pistols/.
  10. Violence Policy Center, “Misfire.”
  11. Michael Smith and Polly Mosendz, “How Defective Guns Became the Only Product That Can’t Be Recalled,” Bloomberg Businessweek, February 28, 2018, available at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2018-02-28/how-defective-guns-became-the-only-product-that-can-t-be-recalled.
  12. Violence Policy Center, “Misfire.”
  13. Violence Policy Center, “Misfire.”
  14. Scott Cohn, “Documents Reveal Remington Wrestled with Potential Gun Safety Problems for Decades,” CNBC, October 20, 2010, available at https://www.cnbc.com/id/39759366.
  15. Violence Policy Center, “Misfire.”
  16. Li, “Cars, Toys, and Aspirin Have to Meet Mandatory Safety Standards. Guns Don’t. Here’s Why.”
  17. Ibid.
  18. In the absence of federal safety standards, seven states and Washington, D.C., have passed legislation requiring design and safety tests or standards that handguns must pass before they can be sold or manufactured. Giffords Law Center, “Design Safety Standards,” available at https://giffords.org/lawcenter/gun-laws/policy-areas/child-consumer-safety/design-safety-standards/ (last accessed November 2021).
  19. Violence Policy Center, “Misfire.”
  20. In October 2018, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store issued a product recall and full refund on decorative pineapples after two consumers reported cutting their fingers on the ornamental fruit. U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, “Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Recalls Decorative Pineapple Hazard,” available at https://www.cpsc.gov/Recalls/2019/Cracker-Barrel-Old-Country-Store-Recalls-Decorative-Pineapples-Due-to-Laceration-Hazard (last accessed November 2021). In August 2017, L.L.Bean began selling a knife with a leather sheath. After receiving three reports of the knife cutting through the leather sheath and causing minor cuts, the company recalled the product, contacted all people known to have purchased it, and offered a replacement sheath at no cost to the consumer. U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, “L.L.Bean Recalls Knife with Sheath Due to Laceration Hazard,” available at https://www.cpsc.gov/Recalls/2018/L-L-Bean-Recalls-Knife-with-Sheath-Due-to-Laceration-Hazard-Recall-Alert (last accessed November 2021). The CPSC has even been known to recall products based on potential risk of injury before any actual injuries are reported. For example, after one reported incident of a candle shattering a glass holder, Bath Petals recalled soy candles from the market and offered a full refund to consumers. U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, “Bath Petals Recalls Soy Candles Due to Fire and Laceration Hazards,” available at https://www.cpsc.gov/Recalls/2012/Bath-Petals-Recalls-Soy-Candles-Due-to-Fire-and-Laceration-Hazards (last accessed November 2021).
  21. Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute, “About SAAMI,” available at https://saami.org/about-saami (last accessed November 2021).
  22. AmmoLand, “New Officers Elected by Sporting Arms & Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute,” June 17, 2014, available at https://www.ammoland.com/2014/06/new-officers-elected-by-sporting-arms-ammunition-manufacturers-institute/#axzz5ucvxCgTJ.
  23. Li, “Cars, Toys, and Aspirin Have to Meet Mandatory Safety Standards. Guns Don’t. Here’s Why.”
  24. Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute, “About SAAMI.”
  25. Sara J. Solnick and David Hemenway, “Unintentional Firearm Deaths in the United States 2005-2015,” Injury Epidemiology 6 (42) (2019), available at https://doi.org/10.1186/s40621-019-0220-0.

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Author

Allison Jordan

Research Assistant


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