If you missed Part 1 of this article you can find it here.

Internal Locks

The industry movement toward internal locks has festered in the gun owners’ community much like helmet laws among motorcyclists. There is a natural American resistance to being told what to do in such matters. Many of us take it as an insult to our intelligence and our responsibility.

The locks come from state legislation in certain jurisdictions that demands them, and to some degree from a long chain of litigation that we can call collectively Case Five in which municipal governments have broadly sued the firearms industry with specious claims that their guns are not safe enough. The infamous agreement between Smith & Wesson’s old regime, and the Clinton Administration, is often cited as a case in point. Of course, that agreement became moot two Presidential terms ago, and the company that made it no longer owns S&W, and the executive who signed the agreement is long gone from the industry.

However, while such lawsuits have been thrown out of court right and left, some are still in progress and together they have cost the industry countless millions of dollars. This explains the trend toward internal locks in new firearms designs.

The day before the SHOT Show opened, we in the firearms media had the chance to test-fire the new Ruger LCR, mentioned above. Its ingenious new design incorporates an internal lock. Designer Joe Zaik of Ruger went out of his way to assure us that it is physically impossible for this particular design to engage itself without the shooter’s intent.

This is important, because there is an ongoing controversy among gun enthusiasts about the internal lock incorporated in Smith & Wesson revolvers. Not only does it subtly change the look of the gun in a way traditional S&W fans find offensive, but there have been a relatively small number of cases reported in which the guns have locked by themselves while shooting. I’ve personally documented a small number of these that occurred at the Manchester Indoor Firing Line in Manchester, NH, and at the Sand Burr Gun Ranch in Rochester, IN. In all cases, it involved very powerful ammunition being fired in very lightweight guns. I haven’t personally documented a case of it happening with an aluminum or steel frame Smith & Wesson revolver.

I’ve discussed this at length with Smith & Wesson personnel. Bear in mind that the current owner of S&W is a company that made its initial reputation manufacturing safety devices for handguns. Bear in mind too that to be cost-effective, a manufacturing organization can’t build to one standard of construction for a few states, and another standard for the rest of the US market. Recognizing that, we can understand why Executive A told me recently that there was very strong sentiment within the Smith & Wesson company to abandon the internal lock…and why Executive B told me at the SHOT Show that it just wasn’t going to happen in the foreseeable future. (Since both of those executives want to keep their jobs, I won’t name them here.)

Thus, S&W models  such as the iconic Model 58 fixed sight .41 Magnum re-produced for the first time in something like 30 years, comes with the controversial lock. However, for those adamantly opposed to internal locks on their S&Ws, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

S&W recently produced a short run of Centennial Airweight revolvers with no such lock They sold out immediately. However, they were put together because S&W had a stock of the old style frames remaining, or so I’m told. It’s unlikely that many more are available.

Still, the somewhat recent and successful introduction of the Model 40-1 Classic, the old steel-frame Centennial complete with “lemon-squeezer” grip safety. They were superbly made revolvers (I bought one myself), and because they came with the additional safety lever on the backstrap, S&W felt comfortable producing them without the internal lock. They are still in the catalog, and for 2009, S&W has added the Model 42-1, which is the same “lemon-squeezer hammerless” .38 Special in aluminum frame Airweight configuration.

It is significant that S&W only felt comfortable doing away with the internal revolver lock in models that had an additional safety device…and were double action only designs.

The internal lock is also an option with the Military & Police series of S&W semiautomatics, and has been so virtually since the M&P auto’s introduction. I for one think that this is all to the good. The consumer can simply order the gun without the internal lock, or look on the dealer’s shelves to find a specimen so configured.

In a similar vein, consider the safety device known as a magazine disconnector, which prevents the pistol from discharging the round in its firing chamber if the magazine is not in the gun. These devices have been around since the early 20th Century, and they have been the focus of numerous lawsuits.

In Case Six, I was consulted by a plaintiff’s lawyer who wanted me to be an expert witness for him in a lawsuit against an individual police officer, his department, and Smith & Wesson. The department had ordered their TDA Smith & Wessons without that series’ usual magazine disconnector safety. The officer in question had been at home, attempting to take his service pistol apart for cleaning, when an unintentional discharge occurred. The bullet went through the ceiling and up through the floor of an upstairs apartment, striking and tragically killing the occupant, whose survivors had hired the attorney in question to file the lawsuit(s). The magazine had been out of the gun at the time of the discharge, hence the attorney’s theory of negligence against S&W for making the gun without the magazine disconnector safety, and against the department for ordering it that way.

I told him I couldn’t take the case, explaining that a great many law enforcement agencies (including the FBI) and all the military services expressly required the absence of the disconnector safety in any service pistol they would consider for adoption. However, I have no doubt that the lawsuit continued and he found another expert witness to testify otherwise. You can see why gun manufacturers get a little nervous about this sort of thing.

In Case Seven, an irresponsible young boy got hold of his father’s Beretta pistol. He removed the magazine from the loaded pistol and, thinking it was empty, pulled the trigger. The live round still in the chamber discharged and struck his playmate, with tragic results. The family of the boy that was shot sued Beretta, alleging negligent design because the gun had no disconnector safety. In Case Eight, an irresponsible baby-sitter was in an employer’s home with her equally irresponsible (and expressly unauthorized) boyfriend, when the latter went looking through the family’s things and found the head of the household’s Sterling .380 pistol, which was kept fully loaded. Seeing him remove the magazine, the eight-year-old boy who was being babysat said, “That’s my daddy’s gun.” The baby-sitter’s boyfriend said, “It’s unloaded – see?” He pointed the gun at the child and pulled the trigger. A .380 bullet struck the child in the neck, rendering him quadriplegic for life. The family sued Sterling Arms for negligent manufacture, and the costs of the lawsuit and the settlement helped to drive the company out of business.

The firearms industry is well aware of this sort of thing.

The industry is also well aware that many civilian end-users don’t care for disconnector safeties, just as many military and police organizations don’t. Therefore, Smith & Wesson has taken a policy with its Military & Police series that reflects the assumption that the end-user will be a responsible person: you can order the gun either way. I think this gives the buyer the best of both worlds.

Smith & Wesson has done something else with the M&P line, which leads us to the next topic.

Manual Safeties

More than a year ago, Springfield Armory and Smith & Wesson both brought out polymer frame .45 ACP pistols with frame-mounted ambidextrous thumb safeties. Apparently configured for a military contract that has since been put on hold, both found their way into the marketplace and both have been reasonably popular there. Springfield still makes the thumb safety optional for only the .45 ACP chambering in their super-popular XD pistol series, but this year, S&W went one step beyond.

On January 19, 2009, S&W issued a press release that said, “Smith & Wesson Corp., the legendary 157-year-old firearms maker, announced that it has begun shipping both full-size and compact M&P pistols, in all calibers, with an optional frame-mounted thumb safety. Originally available only on the M&P45, the optional frame-mounted thumb safety is now being offered on M&P pistols chambered in 9mm, .40 S&W and .357 SIG. ‘Soon after the introduction of the full-size and compact M&P45 pistols, we began receiving requests from law enforcement professionals and recreational shooters asking for a frame mounted thumb safety on other M&P calibers,’ said Leland Nichols, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Smith & Wesson. ‘The optional external safety provides an even broader range of choices to the M&P line, adding flexibility in order to meet the needs of our customers.’”

The autumn 2007 introduction of Ruger’s entry into the striker-fired service pistol market, the SR9, brought a pistol that then and now has an ambidextrous frame-mounted thumb safety on every available variation. When SIG put an entry into the small .380 market for 2009 (their established P232 is a bit large for the caliber by today’s market tastes), they chose a miniature 1911 format, designed to be carried cocked and locked…with, of course, a manual safety.

Contrary to the thinking of some, the manual safety is not a thing of the past. We are seeing it on these new introductions…and safety concerns arising from very real civil liability issues are one reason why.

Paranoia Versus Reality

We gun people, by and large, tend to be a conservative crowd. Personal responsibility is one of our core values, and from seat belts to motorcycle helmets to integral gun locks, we resent other people making our safety decisions for us. We have a profound contempt for violent criminals, and for dishonest attorneys who bring unmeritorious lawsuits.

I hear a lot of folks saying, “I won’t own a gun with an internal lock or a manual safety! My decisions won’t be made for me by greedy lawyers!” I can sympathize with their feelings. I understand their feelings.

It’s kind of like when Brady Bunch types say, “I won’t let criminals run my life! I’m not going to carry a gun!” I can respect their feelings (that far, anyway). But the fact is, in not protecting themselves, they’ve left themselves helpless before those very criminals they say they’re not worried about.

Something similar is at play when a gun enthusiast says, “I won’t let lawyers rule my life! I’ll go without using a safety device, or carry a pistol with a hair trigger if I want to!” Well, there’s no law against it, but history shows that this attitude leaves you vulnerable to the very people you’re trying to ignore.

Violent criminals are not mythical. They exist in large enough numbers that the firearms industry provides many fine guns for us, and the police, and private security to use to protect ourselves and our families from them.

Rapacious lawyers who make false claims, both criminally and civilly, are not mythical, either. They exist in large enough numbers that the firearms industry, which has met them up close and personal in real life and “real court,” has seen fit to introduce such concepts as double action only, manual safeties, magazine disconnector safeties, integral gun locks, and so forth.

We end-users may choose to go with any of those concepts…or not. But our decision must at the very least be an informed decision. And any informed decision in these matters has to take into account industry design trends as they apply to defensive firearms.

Up Next

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If you missed Part 1 of this article you can find it here. Internal…