The Failure of the Trigger Lock "Deal" Between the Gun Industry and the White House
The Assessment: A Failed DealWhen a reporter at the White House briefing asked McCurry whether the new deal meant that the White House saw no need for legislation, he responded:
[I]t's our view that the industry's step forward today made a commitment to do this....[W]e, of course, will expect full implementation of that and don't have any reason to think that it won't happen.
In anticipation of the one-year anniversary of the agreement, the Violence Policy Center (VPC) set out to determine whether the White House's high expectations for the agreement's success have been fulfilled.
The VPC, working with the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence (ICHV) and the Pacific Center for Violence Prevention (PCVP), conducted a nationwide survey to ascertain whether handgun manufacturers are supplying child safety devices to distributors and dealers, and whether gun dealers are in turn providing the devices to consumers who purchase handguns. The survey consisted of three components:
Telephone survey of wholesale gun distributors. The Violence Policy Center surveyed six major firearm distributors to ascertain which firearm manufacturers were complying with the agreement. The VPC holds a Federal Firearms License (FFL); many distributors require an FFL before they will discuss their products.
This research found that 16 of the 20 handgun manufacturers that promised to include safety devices with their guns have apparently not done so. Of the four remaining companies, three were already supplying safety devices before the White House agreement was finished. In addition, several of these companies had spotty compliance, and some offered low-quality safety devices that are inadequate to fulfill their intended purpose.
The survey also found that although most gun dealers and distributors were aware of the agreement, there was widespread confusion regarding its implementation—and often contradictory responses about which companies were supplying safety devices with their weapons and which were not.
The most common response was that virtually no firearms came with safety devices. And although several respondents said that "all guns" came with safety devices, further research reveals that such statements could not possibly be true.
Like other products, firearms make their way to consumers through a wholesale distribution chain. The VPC began its survey by focusing on regional and national firearm distributors.
The VPC used its FFL to contact nine major firearm distributors by telephone for information about their products during the month of August 1998. Of these, six responded to the VPC's inquiries. Distributors were asked about price and availability of six specific models of new handguns chosen from company catalogs:
Distributors were then asked if each of the models came with a "trigger lock." Two of the four distributors that carry the Taurus indicated that this handgun comes with an integrated hammer lock. None of the distributors replied that the Sturm, Ruger & Company handgun came with a "trigger lock," although the company's handguns are sold in a plastic box with a key lock. None of the distributors answered that any of the remaining four companies' models came with a trigger lock. Summaries of statements by distributor representatives are recounted below:
Badger Shooters Supply (Owen, WI): Sturm, Ruger & Company and Glock are sold without locks. Badger does not stock any Davis, Lorcin, Taurus, or Beretta products.
Dealer Phone Survey
The VPC, working with the ICHV and the PCVP, telephoned gun stores and other retail outlets that sell firearms in different geographic areas of the United States. There were 45 stores where an employee participated in the survey; only one employee was surveyed in each store. Employees were asked to participate in a brief five-question survey (see Appendix B for copy of survey). The questions were intended to discover both the degree to which retail gun dealers were providing the devices promised in the agreement, and the extent of retail sales personnel's knowledge about the agreement and the availability of safety devices.
The Violence Policy Center contacted and conducted telephone survey interviews with stores in:
The Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence contacted and conducted telephone survey interviews with stores in:
The Pacific Center for Violence Prevention contacted and conducted telephone survey interviews with stores in:
Awareness of the safety device agreement's existence was very high. Of the 45 employees surveyed, only three said they did not know about the deal.
However, more specific questions asking for information about which particular companies supplied safety devices with their handguns uncovered widespread confusion and misinformation. Employees were asked, "Do any of the handguns,rifles, or shotguns you sell come with trigger locking devices supplied by the manufacturers?" If the response was "yes," the employees were then asked, "Could you tell me the name of the manufacturer(s) and the type of trigger locking device it comes with?"
Four employees responded that "most" or "all" companies provided safety devices but did not name specific manufacturers. The table below lists the number of times each handgun manufacturer participating in the agreement was cited by each of the 41 remaining respondents.
Manufacturers Cited as Providing Safety Devices, According to Responses of 41 Gun Dealers in Survey
Finally, the VPC and the ICHV also conducted on-site visits to retail gun outlets in their local regions. The VPC visited three stores in Virginia and one in Pennsylvania. The ICHV visited three stores in Illinois. The only handguns sold with safety devices at these stores were those manufactured by Smith & Wesson, Taurus, and Sturm, Ruger & Company.
An interaction with a store clerk in Virginia illustrates the confusion surrounding the voluntary agreement—and sheds light on the four respondents to the telephone survey who claimed that "most" or "all" firearm manufacturers provide safety devices with their handguns. When asked during the on-site visit which handguns came with trigger locks, the clerk responded that all handguns carried by the store came with trigger locks provided by the manufacturer. When asked by VPC staff to show the types of trigger locks that came packaged with the various handguns, however, he soon realized that only Smith & Wesson came with an actual trigger lock; Taurus and Sturm, Ruger & Company provided other safety devices. The salesman was unable to identify any other firearm in his stock which included manufacturer-provided locking devices. Other handguns in stock at the store included Glock and SIGARMS.
All the store visits, and the overwhelming majority of telephone surveys of distributors and dealers, conformed to the same result. The distributors who sell guns to dealers, and the dealers who sell guns to ordinary consumers, only cited four manufacturers with any consistency as supplying safety devices with handguns: Smith & Wesson, Taurus, Mossberg, and Sturm, Ruger & Company. The other 16 handgun manufacturers that promised to supply safety devices were rarely or never cited.
Of these four companies, three were already providing safety devices before the agreement was announced. In addition, each provides a different type of safety device, and it is unclear whether these unproven devices will function as intended.
Smith & Wesson: Smith & Wesson was cited by 33 of the dealers surveyed as selling its handguns with safety devices. Smith & Wesson's safety device is a trigger lock. Smith & Wesson had already included locks with its handguns before the White house agreement was completed.
Furthermore, when discussing handguns sold by these four companies, the professional sales representatives at gun distributors and dealers offered jumbled responses. Three of the four companies were named by fewer than half of the retail dealers surveyed. Such pervasive confusion and conflicting information among the people who actually sell these handguns further undermines the effectiveness of the agreement.
By any measure, the agreement between the White House and the gun industry has failed. It has certainly fallen short of President Clinton's confident pronouncement at the Rose Garden ceremony: "This will affect eight of 10 handguns made in America, and it will save many young lives."