12/05/2013 02:32 pm ET | Updated Feb 04, 2014

Guns as Dangerous and Privileged Products

There are many special laws that give firearms special privileges compared to anything else in our society. One of the worst is the exemption from ordinary safety regulation by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Gun lobbyists being such as they are, it's not easy to find this loophole slipped into Consumer Product Safety Act. In a list of items defined as not being consumer products and identified by name and the section of law where another agency has jurisdiction for safety, there are only two items which have no safety regulating agency. These are tobacco products and "articles subject to the tax imposed by section 4181 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986." In case you didn't know off the top of your head, section 4181 imposes a tax on guns and ammunition.

If we restore sanity and the CPSC begins to regulate firearms, then the fears of the gun manufacturers that most of their products will need revision are realistic. The number one change and the recall that we most desperately need concerns semi-automatic pistols and rifles that can fire a round remaining in the chamber when the magazine is removed. It's often laughed off saying 'everyone knows removing the magazine is not the same as unloading the gun.' But many people have died or killed others because they didn't know or in some state of confusion, emotion, boredom or inebriation forget this basic fact. It's just common sense that removing the magazine unloads a gun and makes it safe, and it's just wrong. There is a saying for such a weapon -- it's "as dangerous as a cocked gun."

A gun should be safe against accidents in all of the situations that might occur. Not just when in the hands of a trained owner in a calm controlled setting such as a range or training class, but safe when in the hands of the same person when scared, sleepy, startled or just in a careless mood. We know from sad experience that people spend a lot of time playing with guns even loaded guns and guns with a finger on the trigger. Safety is needed for a gun not just in the hands of the owner, but in the hands of anyone who might get to it. This includes children -- two or three year-olds who don't really know what a gun is -- six year-olds who are amazingly capable but don't know about playing for keeps -- and teenagers who think they can get away with anything. These are the same teenagers who, when left alone, have almost magic powers of finding the hidden and getting past locks. You can teach kids not to handle guns and they won't do it in front of you. This will also make guns irresistible when kids are in groups and adults aren't present.

You can see the pattern if you look at any of the websites that compile lists of gun accidents reported in the media. Some of these are: GunFail or Another Day in the (Gun Crazy) U.S.A at Daily Kos, The Gun Report at the New York Times and Slate's gun death tracker. You don't need to read a lot because the common kinds of accidents occur every week and just about everything happens in any given month.

Glock pistols get a special mention for not having an external safety. This means that there is no button or slide which puts the loaded gun into a state where it cannot be fired. There are three features built in to prevent the gun from discharging unless there is a finger on the trigger. But, even if those systems work perfectly all of the time, they miss much of the point of having this standard feature. Of course you shouldn't leave the gun under the bed where the kids can find it, but people do. It should at least be possible to put it in a state where a trigger pull doesn't set it off. And what about the people mentioned above playing with the gun? If you twirl a Glock on one finger like they do in the movies will it go off? Or if you grab for it and forget and put your finger in by the trigger, what can go wrong? Glock calls this a feature, the gun is always ready to fire -- you bet it is.

If we're really ready to find ways to make guns safe, then the CPSC would probably look for more advanced solutions. The CDC figure of 606 (2010)accidental firearm deaths is a big number and if the New York Times is correct the official count of 62 deaths of children per year is a serious underestimate and the real number is about double that. Many of the reasons for under-counting apply to adults as well. Far fewer fatalities have completely changed the designs of other products. In 2011 two million baby cribs were recalled on the basis of reports of 16 entrapments and no deaths, CPSC data showing approximately 2 deaths per year of children trapped by the suction of pool drains resulted not only in redesign of these drains but the adoption of a specific federal law -- the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act. These more comprehensive measures could include things like personalized guns that can't be fired by anyone other than the owner. If done effectively that would take a bite out of the much larger number of deaths by homicide from stolen guns.

We need to roll back this and all of the special privileges for guns. We need to open up data on gun deaths, injuries, and commerce. We need to fund academic and public health research. We need to remove the immunity that gun manufacturers have from responsibility for the design and the marketing of their deadly products. And apply the measure that I spend most of my time studying, insurance that makes every gun owner responsible when they let a firearm loose from their control. In any other activity with a built in risk, the government regulators lead the way in demanding safety, but critical work in developing, following up and applying safety measures comes from insurers.