There a lot of buzz going around the GVP community today about several gun deaths that were apparently the result of dropped guns. One of the fatalities was a 16-year old girl in Houston, whose father’s gun may have discharged when he dropped it (the news report isn’t clear) the other was a 12-year old in Mississippi who came back from hunting, a gun was dropped and – BAM!
In 2015, the CDC says that the death toll from unintentional shootings was 489, of which 48 were under the age of 14. These numbers may be off by as much as half, because if someone shoots someone else accidentally, state laws sometimes require that the death be ruled as a homicide even though the shooter isn’t usually charged. But when a gun is dropped and goes off, nobody’s to ‘blame’ but the design of the gun itself. But that’s not really true and the purpose of this column is to explain why.
Pardon me for a slight technical digression, but in order for a gun to go off, there has to be at least one round of live ammunition sitting in the breech. The breech is the part of the gun where the live round sits with the front facing the barrel and the rear facing a firing pin. When the firing pin is pushed into the back of the round, the chemicals in the primer create a spark, the spark ignites the powder and the explosion creates gasses which expand and push the bullet through the barrel and out of the gun. In other words, for any gun to fire, some mechanical action has to occur which pushes the firing pin into the shell. Which is usually done by the hammer which falls on the firing pin after the trigger (which is connected to the hammer) is pulled. Get it?
Now where things get tricky is in lining up the live shell in front of the firing pin. Because if there’s no shell in front of the firing pin, no matter how hard you push the firing pin forward, the gun simply can’t go off. When guns go off because they are dropped, what really happens is that the gun hits the floor with enough force to push the firing pin into the live round without pulling the trigger at all.
America’s oldest gun manufacturer, Colt, became famous for its Single Action Army revolver called the “Peacemaker’ or the gun that ‘won the West.’ It was known as the ‘six-shooter’ but we called it the ‘five-shooter’ because until the company redesigned its firing pin and hammer assembly, if you had the hammer over a live round in the cylinder the gun would go off sometimes just by accidentally touching the hammer as you went to pick up the gun. How many millions of these guns sold before Colt fixed the problem sometime around 1985? Remington finally settled a 20-year class action suit because the bolt in most of its hunting rifles had a funny way of going off even with the safety switch on.
The gun industry has been patting itself on the back of late, claiming that accidental gun deaths have declined to ‘historic lows,’ a result, of course, of the safety programs run by the NRA and the NSSF. I suspect that what’s also behind the decline is the spread of child access prevention (CAP) laws, but those laws penalize the gun owner if an underage person grabs a gun. How many times does the gun owner himself or a friend lose an arm, a leg or a life because – oops! – I dropped the gun?
You can design or redesign the safety mechanism all you want, but a gun is a mechanical device and mechanical devices sometimes don’t work the way they should. I don’t know how many of the 40 million American gun owners pick up one of their guns each day, but the more guns that are picked up, the more that will drop on the floor.