Feature Archive

Taking Aim on Faulty Gun Locks

How good are gun locks?

By Ralph Cipriano
WebMD Feature

March 26, 2001 -- Parris Glendening, governor of Maryland, was standing in front of 100 police officers with a Glock semi-automatic pistol in his hand. "This is proof that it works," the governor announced confidently as he slipped a new gun lock onto the firearm.

Then -- with TV cameras rolling and cops snickering -- the governor tried repeatedly to remove the combination Saf T Lok, to show his constituents how easy they were to use. He struggled, clicking the pistol more than 50 times, but still couldn't get it off.

Dee Dee Sarff, spokeswoman for Project HomeSafe, the gun industry's safety initiative, wasn't at the press conference last year when the governor was wrestling with his Glock. But Sarff says she has an idea about what may have gone wrong. "It's not about the gun lock, it's the gun," she says. "The gun lock is easy to use, but you have to be familiar with the firearm."

What can happen in a press conference situation, Sarff continues, is that a VIP like the governor strolls in front of the cameras on "short notice," with "just a few minutes of preparation." And then he discovers he doesn't know what to do.

The Maryland governor isn't the only VIP to botch a gun lock demonstration in front of a crowd. "That's happened in a few cities," Sarff says. But more importantly to consumers, VIPs aren't the only people having trouble with the locks. Police and other gun experts have discovered that many are defective or just don't work. Indeed, in the past two years, hundreds of thousands of gun locks have been recalled.

Last month, Project HomeSafe announced it would voluntarily recall 400,000 gun locks handed out by police departments in 80 cities between September 1999 and October 2000. The Project HomeSafe giveaway was the largest in the country, Sarf says. But problems developed: An officer figured out how to open the lock with simple brute force and called Project HomeSafe to give it the bad news.

Then the Consumer Products Safety Commission tested 32 different gun locks and found that all but two could be opened with "tremendous force," Sarff says.

In a memo last month circulated to police departments that participated in the project, Bill Brassard Jr., Project HomeSafe's national coordinator, said officials discovered that "under certain conditions, these locks can open without the use of a key." The gun locks in question resemble a bicycle cable lock and have a red cable with a black padlock. "Project HomeSafe" and "Made in China" are stamped on the bottom of the locks, supplied by AdStar Inc. of Merrick, N.Y.

The supplier and the sponsor of Project HomeSafe, the National Shooting Sports Foundation of Newtown, Conn., says in a press release that it is "unaware of any instances of unauthorized access by adults or children." The foundation is a trade organization for the firearms and shooting sports industry, with more than 1,800 members including gun manufacturers, distributors, and retailers.

The new replacement gun locks given away by Project HomeSafe will have "an improved locking mechanism and a thicker braided steel cable," according to last month's press release.

Sarff says she is confident the new "upgraded gun lock" will work. Even with all the recalls going on, the gun lock giveaway program has had an overall positive affect, Sarff says. Project HomeSafe has been "a catalyst for educating parents on what to say to their children" about gun safety. "Any gun lock is better than no gun lock at all."

There have been other gun lock recalls, most notably last July, when the CPSC and Master Lock Co. recalled 752,000 gun locks sold in stores such as Wal-Mart, Kmart and the Sports Authority. The gun locks were sold between July 1999 and July 2000 for between $8 and $12.

The recall of the black or blue trigger locks was done by Master Lock to "prevent the possibility of injury," according to a news release. Officials discovered that both halves of some gun locks could be "manually separated without a key, giving children and others unauthorized access to a firearm," the news release said.

When Project HomeSafe announced its gun lock campaign in October 1999, officials in some of the nation's most violent cities eagerly signed up. Police in Houston, New Orleans, Miami, and Philadelphia gave away thousands, hoping to curb accidental shootings.

But last year, a Knoxville, Tenn., police officer was fiddling with a cable gun lock when he discovered that it would spring open if he bounced it against his hand. The Knoxville police department tested some of the 5,000 cable locks they had given away and discovered that the lock was easy to open. The department announced a recall.

"These are not high-security devices," Brassard of Project HomeSafe said at the time. "They are designed to prevent a mischievous child from operating a firearm that's been left out in a home."

So what should consumers do? For one thing, police and ballistics experts say, learn how to use your firearm, and don't leave it in a place that's accessible to children, even with a lock. They might not be as reliable as you think.

Consider: The editors of Gun Tests magazine -- the Consumer Reports of the gun world -- also had problems when they tested several gun locks for the June 1999 issue.

The editors panned Saf T Lok, saying they tried to install one on a Smith & Wesson handgun. But the lock system "collapsed during installing, treating us to a view of a product more complicated than the gun itself: tiny springs, little tumblers, a total mess," the editors wrote. On another gun lock, Saf-T-Hammer, the editors wrote, "Forget it. We couldn't get it to work."

"In retrospect," the Gun Tests editors concluded, "perhaps it is best to be in control and possession of your firearm at all times; thus the best gun lock may be the one between your ears."

Ralph Cipriano is a freelance writer in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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