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Designing safer handguns could prevent many unintentional shooting

Two studies in the January 2003 Annals of Emergency Medicine explore the causes of unintentional shootings in the United States and the preventive measures that may help end the deaths and disabilities they cause each year, particularly among children.

A study of 216 cases of unintentional firearm injury found that 74 percent resulted from mishandling, 32 percent resulted from potential deficiencies in firearm design, and 14 percent from child access. Most victims were between the ages of 15 and 34 years, and one-fourth (54) of the shootings involved victims younger than 18 years. (Unintended Shootings in a Large Metropolitan Area: An Incident-Based Analysis, p. 10)

Researchers from the Center of Injury Control at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta found that many of these unintentional shootings may have been prevented by promoting safe storage of guns in the home, promoting safe handling of firearms, and requiring that new handguns incorporate basic safety features. "Some of these mechanical safety features have been around for more than a century," notes Dr. Arthur Kellermann, a study coauthor. "This isn't a matter of gun control--it's a matter of applying good old American know-how."

Another article in the January 2003 Annals reported that the United States has a higher safety standard for guns imported into the country than for guns manufactured domestically. In an effort to deter the importation of inexpensive, easily concealed handguns that are more likely to be used in crimes, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) in the late 1960s, developed a set of "factoring criteria," which imported handguns must meet. This has created an incentive for foreign pistol manufacturers to more frequently incorporate additional safety features into their models, as compared to domestic manufacturers. (Effect of Current Regulations on Handgun Safety Features, p.1)

Federal legislation has been proposed that would extend the ATF's factoring criteria to all handguns sold in the U.S., whether manufactured domestically or internationally. The study indicates that universal application of the factoring criteria might lead to an increased prevalence of handgun safety devices, but the effect would be modest.

Researchers looked at imported and domestic handgun models produced in 1996 to determine the prevalence of four passively acting safety devices in pistols and one passive safety device in revolvers. They found that although the ATF's factoring criteria has been applied to imported handguns for more than 30 years, most imported pistols still do not contain more than one passive safety device, such as a loaded chamber indicator, grip safety, magazine safety, or drop safety.

"Handgun safety devices, particularly built-in, passively acting devices such as the ones we studied, have the potential to reduce unintended firearm injuries," said John S. Milne, MD, of Michigan State University in Kalamazoo, and lead author of the study. "However, the factoring criteria have not resulted in the universal inclusion of these types of safety devices on imported pistols and as such the effect of extending the factoring criteria to domestic models would likely be modest.

"Automobiles and virtually every consumer product other than firearms are required to meet minimum federal and state standards for safety," said Dr. Milne. "But little attention has been given to designing safer handguns, even though firearm injuries are a major cause of premature death and disability in the United States."


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