Bill Kitzes Product Safety Management

Kitzes on Safety

BB Guns - Safety or Sales

Originally published in the CCH Consumer Product Safety Guide, 2003.

When I was a young boy you could buy a BB gun on the back of your favorite comic book. I recall periodicals like Boys Life, the official scout magazine, full of BB gun fun.

These guns were fairly low powered, with a muzzle velocity below
350 feet per second. They were unable to inflict catastrophic injury, although certainly capable of significant damage to an eye.

In 1966, (when I was no longer a young boy), one major BB gun manufacturer published a marketing brochure called “A Boy is a Boy”, a story intended to reassure mothers that BB guns are really just toys, and that their sons should be taught to shoot with such toys, not with a real gun. The secrets of success, the article said, was to “keep the speed between 280 & 340 feet per second, mechanically impossible to go haywire with awesome velocity” and that it “isn’t designed to be lethal to anything.” Just for comparison, a 300 ft/sec muzzle velocity is the equivalent of a BB that could shoot across a football field in one second, at least when it leaves the gun. As long as the low power promise was kept, life threatening injuries from BB guns were virtually non-existent. But in 1971 that all began to change, as a major retail chain clamored for more power and a major manufacturer provided it. All of a sudden the old “toy” BB guns were replaced with weapons producing muzzle velocities up to 650 ft/sec, capable of penetrating a young skull. The marketers found that power sells.

Weapons for Kids

These guns were labeled for children 16 and over, but industry research showed that the median age of a BB gun buyer or principal user was 12 years old. There are about 20,000 hospital emergency room treatments and 4 deaths every year associated with gas, spring, and air guns, mainly BBs and pellets. With velocities over 600 ft/sec, the danger is now lethal. Marketing high powered guns to young children is a sure fire route to catastrophic injury and death. It is not dissimilar to advertising “R” rated movies during 8 o’clock family sitcoms.

Many BB gun injuries occur when a child intends to shoot the gun. Some years ago in a small midwestern town, an 11 year old boy took his BB gun out of the house, against his father’s wishes. He and his friend went into the barn where he shot at a bat in the rafters. The BB ricocheted off the wooden support (something they might not expect from wood as opposed to metal) and lodged in his friend’s eye, causing a complete loss of vision.

Are 12-16 year olds sufficiently responsible to handle these high velocity guns that can inflict such harm? Some may be, but in general, these kids do not have the judgment or maturity to handle a deadly weapon safely each and every time they pick it up.

I Didn't Know It Was Loaded

One of the more invidious defects that can occur in a BB gun concerns the “hidden BB” and dry fire. As early as 1974, American Rifleman Magazine stated that “magazine feeding of BBs was not reliable.” Too often BBs get caught in the internal small spaces of the gun that are used to store the BBs prior to firing. To the user the gun appears empty, with no sound of rattling BBs and no BBs expelled when the trigger is pulled. The kids then tend to play at dry fire, firing air at each other believing that the gun is empty. The manufacturers are all too familiar with these foreseeable behaviors. Yet it too often results in catastrophic injury as the BB that’s stuck in the mechanism becomes loose, migrates to the firing pin and fires, sometimes after a dozen or more times when the BB gun fires just air. Such defects are totally unknown to the children or their parents.

Doubling the gun’s power can even defeat the intended function of the BB gun. According to the instructions, the only purpose of the BB gun is target practice. But when the power is increased above 350 ft/sec, the guns can actually become less accurate and according to one industry engineer, the BBs get a little “screwy”. By marketing the BB guns through high performance features, the manufacturers actually make them less likely to hit the target.

Power sells. Accuracy doesn’t. BB gun manufacturers are apparently willing to trade. The consumer gets a lethal weapon that is less likely to shoot straight. Is this any way to protect our kids?

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