By Dave Kopel. Mr. Kopel is research director of the Independence Institute.
3/29/00 10:30 a.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on gun safety.
Gun control advocates often analogize proposed laws requiring gun-makers to build internal locks into handguns to current federal law requiring "childproof" caps on medicine bottles. This is a very good analogy, and it shows the lethal dangers of mandatory locks.
As Harvard's Kip Viscusi has detailed, federal laws requiring "childproof" safety caps appear to have led to a documented increase in child poisonings. Lulled by the presence of the federally-approved safety device on medicine bottles, many adults have been leaving dangerous medicines within easy reach of children. Although the caps may be "childproof" to some three year old, they can never be completely childproof. The cap may be put on improperly by the consumer, or the child can simply break open the bottle, or cut through a plastic bottle with a knife.
Mandatory seat belt laws have a similar effect, increasing the deaths of innocents. Seat belts make it much more likely that automobile occupants will survive a crash. And for decades, safety-conscious drivers and passengers have worn safety belts voluntarily. But in recent years, governments have began imposing fines on auto occupants who choose not to buckle up. This strategy increases seat belt use — but it also increases the deaths of innocent people. Studies have shown that when forced to buckle up, reluctant bucklers drive faster. Recognizing that they are safer with the seat belts on, these drivers compensate for the increased safety by driving more dangerously. As a result, innocent, non-risky pedestrians and occupants of other automobiles end up being injured or killed in accidents caused by the extra risk-taking which resulted from mandatory seat belts. In essence, the government increases the safety of careless people — by decreasing the safety of careful people. Even if this policy results in a net saving of lives, it is immoral to kill (indirectly) innocents in order to protect fools from their folly.
With firearms, the consequences of the lulling effect will be much deadlier than with medicine caps or seat belts. If the government claims that a gun is "childproof" (because it has some device which the government mandated), then firearms safety training will be severely undermined.
The National Rifle Association, and every other organization that conducts firearms safety training, teaches the first rule of gun safety: "Treat every gun as if it's loaded." The second rule is: "Always point the gun in a safe direction." And the third rule is: "Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot." People who follow these rules will never cause a gun accident.
If the gun is "childproof," than some parents will violate the firearms safety rules, and they will let their children do the same: they and their children will point the gun in a dangerous direction; they and their children will put a finger on the trigger even when not ready to shoot; they will store the gun loaded even when the gun is used only for sports.
All this behavior might not cause harm, as long as these "childproof" devices work properly. But what happens when these adults and children — conditioned to ignore gun safety rules — come across a gun that does not have one of these devices? Whatever laws are enacted today, there is an existing supply of 80 million handguns in American homes, virtually none of which have built-in locks. It is terrifying to imagine what will happen when people think that guns are "childproof" because the government told them so.