Trigger Locks: Gore's Solution to the Wrong Problem

"We really have to have mandatory child safety trigger locks, and photo license IDs for the purchase of new handguns," Gore told the crowd, sounding a frequent Clinton administration theme. The president and first lady were also at the fund-raiser. [CBS News, April 24, 2000, quoting Gore's solution to the shootings at the National Zoo in Washington, DC.]

Who is Al Gore kidding? The District of Columbia already has much more serious gun control laws than "photo license IDs for the purchase of new handguns." You can't buy new handguns in DC; you can't even bring one into the District if you move there. If you live in DC, you can't legally buy a handgun anywhere else; it's a violation of federal law to buy a handgun except in the state where you currently live.

All other firearms must be registered, and either stored disassembled, or locked up and therefore inaccessible for home defense. High-capacity magazines are already illegal in DC, as are "assault weapons." DC already has gun control laws far more severe than any that the Democrats could ever hope to pass at a national level. If the answer is gun control, this crime in the District of Columbia isn't a persuasive argument.

Al Gore thinks this incident is an argument for "mandatory child safety trigger locks." If there is an argument for "mandatory child safety trigger locks," it would be that they prevent a child from finding a loaded gun, playing with it, and unintentionally killing himself or another child. But oddly enough, there aren't as many such accidents as you think. For that reason, Al Gore and friends don't dare argue for trigger locks based on accidental handgun deaths -- instead, they focus on an entirely different problem.

In 1997, the National Center for Health Statistics reported a total of 21 accidental handgun deaths for children up through age 14. No, that's not a typo: 21 deaths. Even the 15-19 year olds only add another 34 handgun accidental deaths in the entire United States. (Don't believe me? Check it out yourself at Look under ICD 922.0 for handgun accidental deaths.)

What about the supposed 12 children a day that are killed by gunfire in the United States? That includes "children" who are 19 years old, suicides, murders, hunting accidents, gang members killing other gang members, and both police and civilians shooting "children" who are engaged in rape, armed robbery, and attempted murder. There is a real problem with violence in the U.S. (and not just gun violence), but almost all of it is intentional misuse of a gun. The "mandatory child safety trigger locks" aren't going to make much of a difference for intentional misuses.

Can trigger locks reduce handgun suicides by kids? Well, it's certainly possible, especially if there are no electric drills in the house, or if the children are very, very small. But like handgun accidental deaths, child handgun suicide is a problem larger in the popular conception than in the United States. The National Center for Health Statistics reports 32 suicides by handgun for children 0-14 in 1997 -- yes, just 32 for the whole country. Throw in the 15-19 year olds, and you get 179 more. (That's ICD 955.0 for handgun suicides, if you want to check my figures.)

These are still tragedies, but only the most hopeless optimist believes that trigger locks are going to make much of a dent in those suicides, especially as long as drills are in the same house with the children, and high bridges, rope, and automobile exhaust remain readily available to depressed kids.

I try hard to believe that the gun control advocates are honestly mistaken. But when I see Al Gore claim that trigger locks and photo ID gun licenses will make a difference in an incident like this -- I can't see anything but Gore doing cynical game-playing for political advantage. Trigger locks are completely irrelevant to the incident at the National Zoo -- and for Al Gore to claim that they are is either dishonesty or astonishing stupidity. What I see is a politician dancing in the blood of innocents, trying to distract attention from the very serious problem of teen violence.
Ages 0-14
Year accidental handgun deaths handgun suicides
1979 55 10
1980 55 10
1981 35 15
1982 31 19
1983 35 23
1984 41 18
1985 38 18
1986 36 27
1987 40 22
1988 30 23
1989 46 19
1990 55 30
1991 44 34
1992 36 40
1993 38 38
1994 32 35
1995 42 34
1996 29 27
1997 21 32
source: National Center for Health Statistics,

Clayton E. Cramer's fifth book, Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform was published by Praeger Press last year.