Note thumb safety on Smith & Wesson Military & Police .45.

Gun manufacturers – and users – still face a flood of lawsuits, many of them unmeritorious. That fact is reflected in modern gun design…and there are lessons that end-users can learn from this. Eight actual cases illustrate the points under discussion.

As I write this, a new Administration is in place, one that is distinctly unfriendly to gun owners and gun manufacturers, and also seen by some as friendly to “plaintiff’s bar.” This administration will be making some appointments to the Supreme Court, and a great many appointments to less important but still very influential benches on the Federal appellate courts. It is a time in which to be particularly careful of issues that could involve allegations of negligence in regard to firearms.

I’ve just returned from the SHOT Show. The Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation is the largest firearms industry trade show in the world. It is the premier venue for introduction of new firearms products. Not surprisingly, an awareness of civil liability potential was apparent to anyone looking at the design features manufacturers were installing in some of their new products.

How Court Accusations Impact Design
Have you noticed the trend toward double action only (DAO) designs, in both revolvers and auto pistols, in recent years? Forty years ago, about the only double action revolver you get was the Smith & Wesson Centennial series, and that was so unpopular that S&W discontinued it in the early 1970s.

However, as time went on, negligence lawsuits against both gun-makers and gun-users began to increase exponentially. By the end of the 1980s, police departments from Los Angeles to Miami to New York City were converting their service revolvers to double action only. This was done for two reasons. One was that there were cases of fatal accidental discharges due to the “hair trigger effect” of cocked revolvers. The other was that the potential for the gun being cocked allowed false allegations of such negligence.

In Case One, an armed citizen with a carry permit drew a Colt revolver and cocked it as a junkie with a club came toward him. He accidentally discharged the lightened trigger under stress, killing his assailant. The judge at his trial allowed no discussion of justifiability, on the principle that the shot had been fired accidentally and there was no such thing as a justifiable accident. The jury convicted him of Depraved Murder. After learning what had been kept from them, some of those jurors later circulated a petition to get him a new trial, but it was too late. An appeals court reduced the conviction to Manslaughter, but the citizen in question still served hard time.

sdl_01Note thumb safety on Springfield Armory XD45.

In Case Two, a police officer used his issue Smith & Wesson service revolver to shoot and kill a man who was trying to pull a gun on him and his partner. The shooting triggered a race riot, and a prosecutor looking to appease the mob charged the officer with Manslaughter, presenting the theory that he had cocked the gun and set the stage for a negligent, fatal discharge. Fourteen months later, after the defense team proved he had fired deliberately, double action, in justifiable defense of himself and his partner, the jury acquitted him of all charges. Nonetheless, the city ordered all its revolvers converted to double action only in the interim. Today, following the double action only rule, that city issues Glock pistols, which have long since been defined as double action only by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. That city police department’s Glocks, last I knew, were all issued with extra-heavy eight pound trigger systems.

By 1990, S&W had seen the handwriting on the wall, and – largely at the urging of Harris’ own Wiley Clapp – reintroduced the DAO Centennial revolver. It is today their single bestseller in their broad line of handguns. The company’s current best-selling police pistol is the Military & Police: a “double action only,” striker-fired semiautomatic.

Colt had been aware of the problem, too. The following appears in a 1994 Colt owner’s manual for their double action revolvers: “NEVER LEAVE REVOLVER COCKED READY TO FIRE as this condition is extremely dangerous, and revolver could easily be accidentally discharged, causing injury, death, or damage to property.” The words, and the emphasis in caps, are Colt’s. Even if the revolver in a given case was produced by a different manufacturer, that firm warning from what was once the world’s largest manufacturer of revolvers is damn sure going to have some weight in a court of law.

sdl_03Keyway for integral lock on current production Smith & Wesson Model 64 .38 Special revolver is visible just above cylinder release latch.

In January 2009, a walk through the displays of the major manufacturers showed how much the double action only mantra has taken hold. Revolvers? The major makers ALL offer double action only models. Ruger’s hit of the show was the LCR (Lightweight Compact Revolver). An ingenious blend of steel cylinder and barrel liner, aluminum frame, and composite action housing, this gun presents a snag-free “hammerless” profile and is most assuredly double action only.

Much the same is true with modern auto pistols. With a traditional double action (TDA) auto, the gun cocks itself to a lighter pull after the first shot, and remains cocked until manually de-cocked. There have been instances such as Case Three in the South, where an officer who had deliberately and justifiably fired one shot with his TDA was accused of accidentally firing another while the gun was still cocked. After going through a legal hell in civil court, the department involved simply switched to the Glock, which of course is seen as double action only. I’m told they have had no problems of that kind since.

In another department in the same state came Case Four, in which the unintended discharge of a different brand of TDA pistol led to the fatal shooting of a man who was struggling with the officer who held the gun. Attempting to get a Manslaughter conviction on the officer, the District Attorney falsely alleged that the cop had negligently cocked the hammer. The officer was finally acquitted, but the manufacturer decided to offer the pistol in question in a double action only (DAO) version. With one of those, a politically-motivated prosecutor can’t falsely allege that you negligently cocked the gun, for the simple reason that the gun can’t be cocked!

Let’s look at the most popular guns in law enforcement today. The best-selling brand of police pistol by far is the Glock, which as noted above is officially a double action only handgun. The second place police sales slot is occupied by SIG-SAUER, whose single best-selling variation is the DAK line, which is double action only. Close behind are Smith & Wesson with their Military & Police line (seen as DAO), Heckler and Koch with their double action only LEM series (Law Enforcement Module), and Beretta, whose police department sales leaders seem to be their double action only variants.
Integral locking device is visible in lower portion of the composite fire control module on Ruger’s new LCR .38 Special.

sdl_061Integral locking device is visible in lower portion of the composite fire control module on Ruger’s LCR .38 Special.

One of the hottest trends in defensive handguns right now is the micro-size .380 auto. The Ruger LCP, the sales hit of the 2008 SHOT Show with some 87,000 units ordered on the spot by dealers and distributors there, was double action only. So were the Seecamp .380, the Kel-Tec P-3AT, and the North American Arms Guardian .380 which preceded it.

Let’s observe the introduction of the Kahr Arms P380, another micro-size, wafer-thin .380 with super-light polymer frame. It’s double action only, like all Kahr models. Israeli Military Industries has introduced a very compact all-metal .380 weighing under a pound: it’s double action only.

Do we spot a trend developing here?
The perennially popular 1911 design is a classic single action pistol. One of the leading producers of 1911s is Para-Ordnance. At the SHOT Show, a Para-Ordnance spokesperson told me that roughly half the company’s sales of 1911s are in their proprietary double action only series, the LDA.

There are lessons that law-abiding armed citizens can learn from these trends. The citizens arm themselves to ward off the very same criminals the police arm themselves against. After the gun has been needed, cop and citizen alike may face unscrupulous attorneys who use the very same bogus arguments to attack people who legitimately defended themselves. When facing similar attacks by similar enemies, it is only common sense to use the same proven defense strategies.

Be sure to return for Part 2: Internal locks, manual safeties and paranoia versus reality.

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