Last Updated: Sunday, 10 September, 2000 11:55

Taking On Gun Control

Trigger Locks - A False Solution?


To understand the why there is a debate about the use of trigger locks and the political movement to mandate their use, you have to look at the actual operation of guns and the usage of these locking devices. Note that I said that this is a political movement instead of a "safety" movement. That's because the people and politicians advocating the use of trigger locks have little understanding of the safe handling of firearms.

A trigger lock is not designed to secure a gun capable of firing
-- only a gun that's already harmless.

First off, let's talk about gun storage and gun safety. If your house contains children and/or visitors who may have access to areas where your gun is stored, then you should ensure that the firearm is safely stored. This may mean a safe, a lock box or some kind of lock on the firearm itself, depending on your needs. For self-defense use when responsible people are home the gun can be unlocked or removed from its storage place. In homes without children or roaming visitors, your primary concern is theft from burglary. In this case, a safe, box or cabinet that locks is the best protection.

Quick Facts:1
  • Fact: In 1996, even though there were around 80 million people owning guns, there were only 44 accidental gun deaths for children under age 10, or about 0.0001%.1

  • Fact: California has a trigger lock law and saw a 12% increase in fatal firearm accidents in 1994. Texas doesn't have one and experienced a 28% decrease.2 "Trigger-locks" do, however, render guns inaccessible for self-defense.

  • Fact: Children as young as seven (7) years old have demonstrated that they can pick or break trigger locks, or operate a gun with a trigger lock in place.3 Over half of non-criminal firearm deaths for children over age seven are suicides, so trigger locks are unlikely to reduce these deaths.
1 Prof. John Lott, CBS News web site, March 20, 2000
2 National Center for Health Statistics
3 General Accounting Office, "Accidental Shootings: many deaths and injuries caused by firearms could be prevented," United States General Accounting Office, March 1991.

Assuming that you own a handgun for protection and want to secure it so children can't use it you'd think that a trigger lock would be a quick, easy solution, right? You'd be wrong. A trigger lock is not designed to secure a gun capable of firing-- only a gun that's already harmless. Trigger lock manufacturers warn that the gun to be locked should be unloaded before attaching the lock. Remove a lock from its packaging and you'll find that many have instructions molded into the side that say: "DO NOT INSTALL THIS LOCK ON A LOADED GUN.". Thus, the gun is already just a lump of steel when you put the lock on it. This is kind of like buying a club-like lock for your car that the manufacturer says to use only on cars with empty fuel tanks.

Trigger locks require the gun to be unloaded.

This is the biggest objection most gun owners have against trigger locks. Because they cannot be safely used on a loaded firearm, then not only is your defensive gun unloaded, but it is also rendered temporarily inoperable by a locking mechanism. This makes quickly deploying a firearm in a crisis situation nearly impossible, such as when a woman is awakened with a rapist at the foot of her bed.

Attempts to use on a loaded gun may result in an
accidental discharge. A loaded gun must always be
regarded as dangerous. If the lock becomes damaged in
any way do not attempt to use on your firearm - refer to
guarantee information for replacement.

Before attempting to use, carefully read all of the following
instructions along with the firearms safety tips.

IMPORTANT: We do not guarantee that this product will
lock all firearms. It will block access to many guns when
properly attached. Some lever action rifles, firearms
without trigger guard surrounding the triggers, guns with
extra light or extra wide triggers or guns with trigger
shoes or extensions may not be able to be effectively
locked with this gun lock. NO GUN LOCK CAN OFFER
Keep guns unloaded and out of children's
reach. Master Lock Company is not responsible for
incidental or consequential damages.

Exerpt from Master Padlock Instructions
Courtesy Master Lock Company, used without permission

So why do these locks carry such a message? Simple safety. Safe handling procedures dictate that you never put anything inside the trigger guard until you are ready to shoot. The lock violates that rule by fitting around and through the trigger guard.

So now we have revealed the problem. Trigger locks require the gun to be unloaded. If the gun is unloaded it's nothing more than an expensive metal club. If you unloaded the gun when it was stored and a child plays with the unloaded gun, he is in relatively little danger. So you can save your money and just unload the gun, placing the ammunition in a separate, safe place.

At least one "gun control" advocate told me that one can always load the gun after the trigger lock is in place because it doesn't negate loading the gun. Of course the problem with that is that it violates the rules of safe handling because something is near the trigger. Worse yet is that some of these locks are "one size fits all", which means they can wiggle about, possibly inviting tragedy by depressing the trigger. Tests with a few brands of locks and an empty gun showed that many locks still allow the trigger to be actuated with the lock in place.

Trigger Locks don't prevent loading and cocking of the gun.

Wait - If you can load the gun after the lock is installed, what else can you do with a trigger-locked gun? Did you realize that a trigger lock on an unloaded gun won't hamper a child in the least from loading and cocking that gun? A semi-auto pistol's magazine can be inserted and the slide operated to chamber a round. Now the gun is not only loaded but also cocked! A primary rule of safe gun handling is to never rely 100% on a "safety" mechanism, yet a loaded, cocked gun with a trigger lock in place (especially one that can move around) is a disaster waiting to happen. Whoever removes the lock from the gun had best have steady nerves!

Removing a Trigger Lock

Claims that trigger locks "can be rapidly disengaged" for self-defense purposes misrepresent the issue. Home-protection guns are kept loaded for the same reason that fire extinguishers are kept charged. When you need it, you desperately need it right now! There are two basic types of locks, the key-lock and the combination lock. Each requires some kind of manipulation to remove the lock (on an unloaded gun remember). Once removed, you have to load the gun to make it ready for use. Each of these locks has a problem, however.

  • Key Locks require the use of a key. The key must be readily available and easily used. That means it's not one of several similar keys on a key-ring. You must be able to identify it, in the dark. Then it has to be inserted right-side-up to unlock the gun. In unlocking the gun, many locks become two halves. In a hurry, one is bound to end up on the floor, perhaps under your bare feet. Worse yet, you may have several guns locked, each with its own special key. Fumbling with several keys to find the right one takes precious time.

  • Combination Locks use a three or four digit lock system. In an emergency, you have to manipulate the lock to the right combination. In the dark. Probably without your glasses. The numerals "6" and "8" look nearly the same to me without glasses. One company makes an battery powered electronic lock that lights up when you hit any button (see example at right). But these locks typically "wait" two or three seconds if you enter the wrong combination before letting you try again. Worse is that some of them beep, chirp or make noises when unlocking or pressing buttons, which can alert an intruder to your activities.

No one should be able to tell you, with a straight face, that a trigger lock can be "rapidly disengaged" in the dark, without your glasses and while under the terrible stress of a dangerous situation. Even if you think you can do it, what about your spouse? Will they be calm and confident or frightened and nervously clumsy? And are you willing to bet your life on them being able to get the lock off in time to defend you and your family?

Trigger locks offer zero theft deterrent. Absolutely zero.

What about the theft protection benefits? Forget it. Most of the trigger locks don't allow you to secure the gun to something solid. Trigger locks offer zero theft deterrent. Absolutely zero. Since the gun can be taken to another location and worked on at the thief's leisure, there is no deterrence against taking the gun. As a test, I tried my hand at removing two types of locks, a standard trigger lock and a "cable" lock. Neither of them presented much of a challenge. Not being a professional lock-breaker (or wanting to damage the sample handgun) I examined the trigger lock and after fumbling for a few minutes I managed to remove the lock using a simple automotive tool. Total time was about five and a half minutes. The cable lock presented less of a challenge. Secured down the barrel and through the frame the gun was inoperative (and unloaded). But this left a bit of exposed cable which failed to stand up to 12" bolt cutters (a common tool). Worse was that the nationally known lock brand was also subjected to three hammer blows which dislodged the cable from the lock. My conclusion? These locks are not designed to thwart a determined person from gaining access.

Common sense once dictated that the Earth was flat, blacks were an inferior race and the ancient Egyptian libraries were heretic writings.

Why the "big push" for trigger locks?

To be sure, trigger locks offer a minor amount of security. They will prevent a child from easily using a firearm but they are not entirely safe and secure. As we've discussed, most don't prevent loading the firearm and may actually allow the trigger to be pulled. The second biggest objection most gun owners have is the false sense of security that these devices can give. A novice gun owner might feel that a trigger locked pistol will be safe with the lock installed, even if a loaded magazine is in the weapon. Or that a revolver is "safe" with the lock. And removing a lock from a firearm that's loaded may put the owner in danger as well.

The gun control advocates who claim trigger locks are "common-sense devices that will keep our children safe" are doing nothing more than relying on their untrained intuition as a substitute for actual knowledge. And I am reminded that "common sense" once dictated that the earth was flat, that blacks were an inferior race, and the ancient Egyptian libraries were heretic writings.

As an example of the "fuzzy feel-good thinking" of these advocates, one proposal included trigger locks on guns being shipped to the manufacturer for repair. But doing so would require that the key be shipped along with the gun and lock, negating any benefit. Likewise the idea that guns stored in thousand dollar fire-resistant, blast-proof safes aren't "secure enough" unless outfitted with a $10 trigger lock.

Is there a better way?

So what do firearms experts recommend to keep children safe? Different options exist to fit different personal situations. Simplex-lock and electronic lockboxes provide both keyless childproof security and quick access to loaded guns, plus they can be bolted down for theft prevention. For a recreational gun, a cable lock through the barrel or a common padlock around a revolver's top strap (the bar above the cylinder) can keep it from being loaded or fired. Safes and security cabinets are available at many price points for those with multiple guns.

The best preventative is educating our children...

In the overall scheme of things, however, education is key. We educate our children on the dangers of crossing the street, about germs and hygiene, about electricity and power tools but somehow some people believe ignorance is bliss when it comes to guns. The best preventative is educating our children about the hazards around them, including guns. Discuss guns with your children, just as you discuss other dangers, such as bicycling in the street and what to do when a gun is present. Tell your kids that if they see a gun, they should "stop -- don't touch -- leave the area -- and tell an adult." Consult the child safety page at the State Firearms Association of Massachusetts page. Get a copy of Massad Ayoob's Gun-Proof Your Children, and learn how to defuse the "forbidden fruit" syndrome. They are your children. Ask yourself if you want them ignorant and curious at a friend's house, or do you want them to know the safety rules and what to do? It's your decision.


1: Gun Facts, by Guy Smith, version 2.1, copyright 2000 by Guy Smith.

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