In April 2021, social media users enthusiastically shared a tweet that made a startling claim about firearms regulation in the United States. On April 19, journalist Judd Legum tweeted “FACT: In the United States there are more consumer safety regulations on TEDDY BEARS than GUNS.”
What Legum appears to have been referencing was the fact that the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal agency that regulates consumer products (including teddy bears) and implements safety standards and recalls, does not have jurisdiction over firearms.
That’s a component of the U.S. regulatory landscape that is perhaps little known to the wider public, but it is frequently highlighted by gun control advocates. In 2017, a pro-gun control nonprofit called the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence used it as the basis of a provocative publicity campaign called “Teddy Gun,” as shown below:
In 2013, children’s rights advocate Marian Wright Edelman also highlighted the regulatory inconsistency, using the teddy bear as a striking example, in a Huffington Post column.
In comparison with the purchase and sale of teddy bears and other relatively innocuous toys and consumer products, the purchase, sale, licensing, and registration of firearms are strictly regulated in the United States. Details on those laws, regulations and requirements can be found here and here.
However, Legum’s widely-shared tweet specifically focused on consumer safety regulations — that is, legally-binding requirements and standards for the design and manufacture of products made available for sale to the public. On that score, his claim is accurate. A small number of individual states have established legally-binding safety standards for firearms, but that loose patchwork of regulations does not apply in most of the United States, and is in any case outweighed by the consumer safety regulations to which stuffed toys and other similar products are subject. With those factors in mind, we are issuing a rating of “True.”
Federal Consumer Safety Regulations and the Firearms Loophole
In the United States, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) monitors and regulates, on the federal level, the safety of most products available for purchase by the public, with some important exceptions, including: food, medicines and cosmetics (the Food and Drug Administration); automobiles (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration); aircraft (Federal Aviation Administration), and so on.
By contrast, no federal agency implements and monitors legally-binding safety standards for the design and manufacture of firearms produced within the U.S.. This regulatory gap was not the result of negligence or forgetfulness on the part of legislators, but rather an explicit exception written into the law that set up the CPSC, the Consumer Product Safety Act of 1972.
That act contained a section which explicitly stated that the following category of product is not deemed a “consumer product” subject to regulation by the CPSC: “Any article which, if sold by the manufacturer, producer or importer, would be subject to the tax imposed by Section 4181 of Title 26…”
A quick check of Title 26, Section 4181 of the U.S. Code reveals that the products in question are: “pistols, revolvers, firearms (other than pistols and revolvers), shells, and cartridges.” Therefore, the CPSC was indeed deliberately and explicitly precluded from regulating the safety of firearms, from the outset.
In 1976, Congress amended the legislation to insert a further stipulation barring the CPSC from regulating the safety of firearms, as follows (page 30): “The Consumer Product Safety Commission shall make no ruling or order that restricts the manufacture or sale of firearms, firearms ammunition, or components of firearms ammunition, including black powder or gunpowder for firearms.”
By contrast, many otherwise harmless consumer products, including toys such as teddy bears, are subject to a raft of legally-binding federal regulations which cover product testing, hazardous substances, the use of lead and lead paint, sharp objects, and so on.
The federal government does monitor the safety of firearms in one, relatively narrow respect — guns that are imported into the U.S. must qualify as being for “sporting purposes,” and some of the factors taken into account in making that determination are the presence of safety features such as loaded chamber indicators, as well as grip and magazine safety features.
State-by-State Safety Regulations and Voluntary Standards
The regulatory landscape described above does not mean that no gun sold in the United States is subject to legally-binding safety requirements, and Legum’s tweet did not claim as much, rather he pointed out, accurately, that “there are more consumer safety regulations on teddy bears than guns [emphasis is added].”
In light of the glaring, gun-shaped gap in federal consumer safety regulations, a small number of individual states have stepped in and implemented their own legally-binding requirements.
As outlined in detail by the Giffords Law Center, a gun control advocacy group, California, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Hawaii and the District of Columbia have all introduced various testing and safety requirements for firearms manufactured and/or sold in their respective states. Clearly, however, such restrictions do not apply in most of the country.
Some firearms and ammunition manufacturers sign up for voluntary industry safety standards, and submit their products to various tests, overseen by the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute. However, as the name suggests, those standards are not legally binding in the way that state or federal statues and regulations are.
It should also be remembered that even if manufacturers are not legally required to ensure the safety of their products in the first place, they are not necessarily free from serious consequences for such failures. Gun owners, as well as victims of defective firearms or their loved ones, have successfully sued manufacturers for harmful flaws in the design or production of their products.
Far-thinking manufacturers, even those motivated only by enlightened self-interest, might take it upon themselves to impose proper safety testing of their own products, in order to avoid the potential reputational damage and financial costs associated with class-action lawsuits.
However, that dynamic differs significantly from robust safety regulations and standards, which seek to ensure proper design and manufacturing, and prevent death and injuries from occurring in the first place.