Friday, June 7, 2013

Manual Safeties and Children: Should You Have One Without The Other

I was twelve years old when I walked in on a friend of mine who had found my brother's handgun underneath of the bed and was trying to pull the trigger. She couldn't accomplish this task because the firearm was equipped with a manual thumb safety on the side of the firearm that she didn't know how to disengage. I stopped her, helped her unload the pistol and showed her how to use it. I loaded it back up, put it back under my brother's bed and no one was the wiser. I didn't think of that day again until I went to buy my first handgun.

That experience left a huge impression upon me and I insisted on buying and carrying a firearm that had a manual safety.

"Who knows what would have happened had that gun not had a safety," I used to tell people. "I could have lost my best friend."

Because of that singular experience I carried a 1911-style pistol for years, operating under illusion that it and its two manual safeties made me safer and that it would somehow protect against negligence. I also was under the impression that it was necessary in order for me to be safe.

"I just feel better having it," I would say.

As my training progressed and my comfort with all types of firearms expanded I started to learn some valuable lessons regarding what makes a firearm safe and unsafe. My husband and I also started talking about wanting children and suddenly I was faced with a question: Should I own and carry a firearm around my children that does not have a manual safety? Does not having a manual safety make me irresponsible?

I also had to come to terms with what had happened in my brother's bedroom over a decade ago and what that meant for me and for parents everywhere.

Firearms Are Only As Dangerous As We Make Them
A firearm has the potential to be dangerous but I do not believe them to be inherently dangerous. Unloaded they are no more than intricately-working paper weights. Even loaded they don't spontaneously fire. They don't orient themselves to a target and they do not operate of their own accord. It is the action of their handlers that make them a potential danger.

What made the situation in my brother's room so dangerous was not the firearm. It was the access to it. There should never have been a fully-loaded .45 under a bed with easy access to it. Especially with children in the house who did not know how to safely operate it. That action (or inaction, depending on how you want to look at it) is what made the dangerous situation.

That being said, the safety on that firearm only delayed her ability to make that firearm fire. I have no doubt that given enough time and enough button pushing she would have figured out that the safety lever could be disengaged and that a hole could be put through my brother's dresser.

What ultimately ended that situation was not the presence of a safety, it was the presence of a twelve-year-old girl who knew how to safely handle that firearm and had a healthy respect for it. 

I took it from her. I unloaded it. I told her not to point it at anything she didn't want to shoot. I told her to keep her finger off the trigger. I showed her the features of the firearm. I then safely reloaded it, reengaged the safety and put it back where she'd found it. Knowledge and proficiency did far more to neutralize that situation than a safety could have ever done.

Had I been an ignorant child who was just as curious as to the workings of the firearms as she was who knows what kind of an ending I would be writing about today, or if I would even be here to write about it. Which makes me believe that far more than any safety feature on any gun should be a drive to teach your children in your home how to safely handle every firearm you own.

Safeties As A Crutch
It doesn't happen all the time but every now and then I get someone who will use the safety feature on their firearm as a crutch to do something negligent with said firearm.

I was in a pistol class not to long ago where a man thought his firearm's safety was engaged. I told him it was not. He did not believe me. To attempt to prove me wrong he pointed the firearm at the ground and pulled the trigger. The whole class jumped about two feet in the air when there was a rather large, "BANG!"

The instructor screamed, "WHAT WAS THAT!?!"

The man sheepishly mumbled, "I thought it was on safe."

He learned some valuable lessons that day. 1) Never use a safety as an excuse to break the rules of safe gun handling and 2) don't let your ego get the best of you.
At least no one was hurt.

That event should never have happened. But situations like it happen every day. And they happen in homes with children. People leave their firearms unattended where children can access them and think it's okay because the firearm has a safety. They put their finger on the trigger or point it at things they aren't willing to destroy or generally act a fool because, "Hey, man, what's the big deal. It's on safe!"

The rules of safe gun handling are universal, safety feature or not and if you treat every firearm as though it has no safety at all you are going to save yourself at least the embarrassment of putting a round in something you didn't intend to shoot or, at most, a life.

A safety feature is not a replacement for good gun handling. Period!

The Benefits of a Safety
All of that being said, there is a benefit to having a safety feature. It does delay the firing of a handgun.

Notice I said "delay," not "prevent."

Children who have the time and inclination to figure out how to make a firearm work will eventually try to flip that little lever down (or up.. or in.. or over, depending on the firearm) and when they do there will be no stopping them unless there is someone there with a little more knowledge and proficiency to stop them or guide them in what they are doing. 

The  Drawbacks of a Safety
Other than a safety being used as justification for poor gun handling, a safety can also be a road block to winning a gun fight. Just like a safety delays a gun being fired when you don't want it to be fired it can also delay someone firing a gun when they want to shoot it.

Most advocates of manual safeties say this is a training issue. It can be. Lots of people do not train with their firearms enough whether they have a manual safety or not. But those who have manual safeties need to put in a few extra hours of practice to make sure they disengage it consistently on the draw. Even then, it's not always guaranteed.

Anyone who's been shooting with a manual safety long enough and regularly enough will admit to missing the safety at least once. Even if they didn't forget it there's always that time that your finger slipped off the safety while you were trying to disengage it and you had to try again. Could that mean the difference between life and death? Perhaps.

Or, you could have my bad fortune and have your manual safety break.

Many moons ago, while I was still carrying a 1911, said 1911 fell out of my shoulder holster I hadn't secured like I thought and impacted on the back side of the grip. The force of the fall actually racked the slide beneath the manual safety about a quarter of an inch and bent the safety out of the frame. It basically pinned the slide out of battery and the safety on. I did not notice it until I got it home to check it over after such a hard fall. It took almost my whole body weight to disengage the safety from the slide and allow the firearm to return to battery. Had I needed that firearm between the time it fell and the time I got home I would have been in for a very rude awakening when I went to thumb off that safety and it never budged.

Lastly, the safety can be a giveaway.

Even with all of the drawbacks I listed above and my broken safety, I continued to carry a firearm with a manual safety on it. I did not even begin to question my decision until I read the first hand account of a man who was caught up in a gun fight with his 1911.

He was in a meeting and carrying a 1911. The perpetrator came in and ordered everyone onto the floor. The man drew his gun from his holster and laid on top of it anticipating having to use it. But when he flicked off the safety the perpetrator heard the noise and came to investigate. A gunfight ensued and thankfully the goodguy won even though he did end up getting shot a few times.

A one-in-a-million happenstance? Absolutely! But it happened non-the-less.

That was the beginning of the end for me and my personal obsession with manual safeties.

I finally realized that manual safeties don't actually make a firearm more safe. They gave an illusion of safety, which, in the end, could prove to be more dangerous.

I came to the conclusion that there was no real advantage to requiring a safety on my carry firearms and I was only limiting myself, my shooting experiences and training. Was I ever going to be faced with a true drawback of having a safety? Probably not. But why limit myself? Getting rid of the safety crutch freed me to embrace and carry many more firearms I've greatly enjoyed getting to know.

I also realized that I did not need a manual safety to be a safe handler.

The manual safety continues to prevail in many agencies and in many homes.

Do I think that manual safeties have their place in the gun industry? Absolutely! And I will never criticize anyone who demands their firearm have a safety feature.

I think it's important, however, to realize what a manual safety is and what it isn't, how to use it, and to use it appropriately. And to never use a safety as an excuse to be negligent or in the place of common sense.

For the last several years I've carried firearms without a manual safety. Glocks, M&Ps, revolvers, the list goes on and I've continued to have the safe handling and accident free record I had before I lifted my ban on non-manual-safetied firearms.

When it comes to carry, the most important aspect is the holster and ensuring the trigger guard is completely enclosed in a well fitting holster. When it comes to storage the most important aspect is being attentive of the firearm, where and how it is stored and securing it in a way that children cannot access it. Better yet is teaching children to handle a firearm so that if they do come across it they do not handle it negligently. 

You Are The Safety! Be safe. Make your gun safe with or without a manual safety. 


  1. Excellent analysis... I came to that conclusion back in the 1980s... with a similar thought process...

    I don't like safeties on guns... I don't use safeties on guns... You are the safety...

    Once, after being issued new semi-auto S&W sidearms in the late 1980s... I responded to a hold-up alarm at a bank with two other officers... after entering and clearing the bank... I looked at a fellow officer who was still pointing his gun with the safety engaged... that delay you speak of could have gotten someone killed that day if the situation had gone down the toilet... haven't used a mechanical safety since...

    Dann in Ohio

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  3. Bringing up the child topic, I would add clueless adults. There could be instances someone has a partner, friend, family member, etc. move in with them or be at their house and that person is someone I would put on the same level as a child in regards to gun handling and safety (correction they are all ignorant if not properly shown gun safety and handling).

    I lived almost a year with my twin sister, hiding my guns, putting notes in the cases stating they were loaded and not to handle. I was avoiding telling her the truth about owning my own guns because she had adamantly said she didn't want guns in the house. I had them from the day we moved in (we are both equal owners of the house and both should have a say/compromise in the situation). Fortunately circumstances came about where I was able to convince to learn and understand safely handling a gun, etc. I feel so much more relieved one that she understands and two that I don't have to worry any more about accidental mishaps.

    So after such a long diatribe there, I'm glad you make the point that education and lack of ignorance is a great safety aspect as well. Like your childhood story states, that had one of the two of you not known how to handle that gun, it might have been a different outcome.

    In my opinion, it should be a required course in school on gun safety but we don't live in a world like that.