Why don't most guns have loaded chamber indicators?
September 3, 2012 2:21 PM   Subscribe

When listening to the Open Yale Courses class The Psychology, Biology, and Politics of Food I learned about another public-health issue: Firearm safety. The way the guest lecturer describes it, there's no good reason why firearms shouldn't have a loaded chamber indicator, but most don't. Ever since listening to this lecture a few years ago, I've periodicallyGoogled "child accidentally shot" and every time, I've found fresh news stories of children getting shot when somebody didn't realize there was a bullet in a gun's chamber. So why don't they have these loaded chamber indicators?

The lecturer says it would add about a dollar to the cost of manufacturing the gun. The lecture was recorded in 2008; has anything changed since then?

Is there any sort of movement to require guns to have loaded chamber indicators? Is it a current issue and I'm just not aware of it? It doesn't seem to be on the public radar.

I've had a hard time finding much discussion of loaded chamber indicators. Am I just not looking in the right places?

The Wikipedia entry on "loaded chamber indicator" is the first result when you Google that phrase, and it has only had about 50 edits since it was created in 2007.

The second result is somebody's blog post about how loaded chamber indicators are a stupid idea since if you just assume that the gun is always loaded like you're supposed to, you'll never need a loaded chamber indicator. The blogger also says that they might cause mechanical problems.

Is he right? What sort of mechanical problems could they cause? What are the best arguments against loaded chamber indicators? They seem like a pretty good idea, like seat belts or air bags. Why don't most guns have them? Where are the discussions?
posted by Sleeper to Law & Government (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The blogger is certainly correct about mechanical problems. Adding any extra complexity to a mechanical system introduces additional opportunities for faults. And loaded chamber indicators (LCIs) can, and do fail. How often they fail, and what happens when they fail, is highly contingent on factors such as a particular firearm's design, usage, maintenance history, etc.

In my opinion, the best case against LCIs is the fact that they would support a potentially dangerous sense of complacency among some gun owners. Given that the devices are mechanical, they can, and will eventually fail in some instances. If a person comes to rely on the LCI, rather than consistent and judicious firearm safety practices, inevitably, someone (or something) will be shot when the LCI fails to indicate that a round is in a firearm's chamber. It's fairly easy to envision a world where those that aren't inclined to abide by proper firearm safety practices in the first place come to depend on the LCI, and don't think twice about whether or not the LCI is actually functioning properly.

Of course, I suspect that some manufacturers avoid adding LCIs because aside from increasing development and manufacturing costs, doing so might expose the company to additional risk of getting mired in litigation whenever an LCI inevitably fails, and someone or something gets shot as a result.
posted by BrandonW at 2:44 PM on September 3, 2012 [7 favorites]

If someone is stupid enough to be waving a loaded gun around or leaving a loaded gun sitting around where someone can get it, I don't think a 'loaded gun' indicator is going to stop them. You'll just have news stories about how a child was shot by someone who didn't check the loaded gun indicator, or who misread it somehow. A child who doesn't know that all guns should be treated as loaded probably isn't going to look at a 'loaded gun' indicator and say "oh, this one should be set down and treated like it's loaded" - if you're teaching a child that much, you should already be teaching them that the way to handle a gun sitting out is to not touch it and go get an adult (which is the safe way for a child to interact with a gun, and there have been studies shown that kids who actually get that training are less likely to do stupid things with a gun they find).

That said, some guns do have a way to check that there is a round chambered - one of my pistols has a little opening into the chamber so you can see if there's a bullet casing or not to visually verify that

I would never trust a loaded chamber indicator more complicated than being able to visually spot the bullet somehow. I'd be afraid that it would be malfunctioning in one direction or the other, so I'd be afraid to rely on it. It's not that difficult to clear a weapon and they're all made to sit around in that state (revolvers with their revolving chamber swung out from the frame, shotguns with the action open, pistols with the slide locked back).

There are absolutely things that will help reduce gun violence, but the problem is not the technology, its the human factor.
posted by rmd1023 at 2:45 PM on September 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am not a gun owner or enthusiast, but I'd be in the 'dumb idea' camp because I assume that anyone who points a gun at someone else lacks even the most basic education in gun safety, and if they haven't been taught Rule Number One then they surely haven't been taught what a loaded chamber indicator looks like or means.

Air bags do not rely on operator knowledge to function.
posted by jon1270 at 2:47 PM on September 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

A loaded chamber indicator is not going to prevent children from accidentally shooting themselves or others. There is a fundamental irresponsibility attached to the very idea of children handling firearms without direct and close supervision. Children shouldn't be playing with firearms. Adding a red marker to show the gun is loaded won't help, because the fact that the child is already playing with a deadly weapon means that the child is not mature enough to understand the meaning of such an indicator. I mean, really. Imagine the education process. "Billy, don't play with my gun, but if this here red thing is up, really don't play with my gun." If Billy is at the point that he's playing with a firearm, the safety ship has sailed.

As far as adult operators go, it's worse than useless. Every firearm is always loaded. Always. Rule one. A mechanism that reports the loaded state of a firearm causes operators to neglect rule one. In fact, putting something on the firearm that claims to report condition is a danger, because it can be missed or overlooked. If the operator is trained to rely on that indicator, then the operator can miss it and cause a hazard. If the operator is trained to follow rule one, then the indicator is worthless, relaying information the operator already assumes to be true. It adds to the mechanical complexity of the firearm, decreasing reliability and increasing cost.

The presence of an indicator showing the firearm is loaded is a false safety mechanism. It promotes sloppy firearms handling and causes operators to get lazy. The onus must remain on the operator to maintain safe firearms handling practices. It cannot be delegated to a mechanism. Firearms have had safeties for a very long time, but that hasn't rendered proper handling and operator training moot.
posted by Sternmeyer at 2:48 PM on September 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

For a parallel story in the power tool world see the history of SawStop.
posted by true at 3:24 PM on September 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

The gun is (treated like it is) always loaded, and you don't point it at anything you aren't willing to utterly destroy. For better or worse, it's a dangerous object that should be treated with respect.

What's the saying? "Don't try to fix a behavioral problem with a technological solution"
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 3:34 PM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I cannot think of any practical way to engineer a loaded chamber indicator onto a revolver for any amount of money.

As for semi-automatic weapons, if that indicator malfunctions, the weapon becomes more dangerous.
posted by Ardiril at 3:48 PM on September 3, 2012

I'm not much divergent from the above folks, but I'd phrase it this way:

What's the payoff, and in what circumstance is this advantageous?

You now have an indicator that there's a round in e chamber. Under what circumstance does that information help you? Whether "you" is the person holding the gun or a person in their proximity.

As others have said, the most basic of gun education includes the attitude that the gun is loaded unless you can see, at that second, that it is not. Is someone who has not grasped/learned that likely to have their behavior altered by an indicator? What behavior might they be likely to engage in that they wouldn't if there was a discernible indicator?

Pointing it at someone they didn't intend to shoot? Goofing around? I honestly can't imagine what recklessness would be stopped by an indicator.
posted by phearlez at 3:54 PM on September 3, 2012

Yeah... all guns are loaded, and you only ever point them at someone if you want them to die (and you intend to shoot them right now.)

I was always taught that the first thing you do when encountering a new gun is to check to make sure it's completely unloaded; the way you do that is to open it up and empty it (actually, I was taught to disassemble it completely, but that was ROTC training and I think the Army does things during training the extra-hard way just to make sure you know how to do a bunch of stuff.) Actually, here's a USMC safe handling chapter that's very much like what I remember - "condition 4" is the normal "safe" condition, and that means that the magazine has been removed, the chamber is empty, the bolt is forward, AND the safety is on. I can't quite remember what we had to do to prove to an instructor that a weapon was definitely "unloaded," but it was annoying and you had to do it about a gazillion times because someone always skipped a step and so everyone had to do it again. It's like, rule number 0 of gun safety - the rule that's so important it's infinitely impossible for any other rule to come first.

Anyway, if there was an indicator, we'd teach people to pick up the gun (which today we would all agree is "loaded until proven otherwise,") glance at the side, and then proceed as though they'd already done the physical inspection. Ugh.

An indicator would be a gizmo designed to be relied upon without thinking and without verification - a "see, this thing is safe, don't worry about it" message - which is the very last thing a weapon needs.
posted by SMPA at 4:12 PM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think the real problem is that "I didn't think it was loaded" is irresponsible person code for "I wasn't paying attention".

A "loaded" indicator wouldn't phase them in the least because they aren't paying attention in the first place, and in the second place, they are the kind of morons who leave guns laying around for kids to play with. You can't fix stupid.
posted by gjc at 7:16 PM on September 3, 2012

The H&K USP Tactical .45 has a loaded chamber indicator. I'm am almost certain its purpose is not the safety of those untrained in proper firearm handling. It is there for the potential tactical benefit. If it hindered the reliable operation of the weapon, H&K would not have included it. As previously mentioned, firearms must always be treated as if they are loaded at all times. Always.
posted by fueling depth at 9:53 PM on September 3, 2012

The real answer is of course that the NRA and various other progun organisations will interpret any movement on gun safety as a pretext to take away their 2nd amandament rights and hence anything like this will be opposed regardless of its merit.

And if there's no legal or political requirements gun manufacturers for the most part won't include it of their own accord, both for the reasons given above (ineffective in many scenarios) and because a dollar is a dollar.

People are right to point out that any gun should always be treated a loaded and never pointed at things you don't want to shoot, but of course not everybody is familiar with guns or smart enough to do so and I could see a loaded chamber indicator might be handy in such an event, but in any case there are far too many guns without them already in circulation, so chances are this really isn't that good a solution anyway. More training and education on the other hand, works for all kinds of guns.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:13 AM on September 4, 2012

For competition shoots and at displays like gun shows there are little plastic inserts that go in the chamber (where the ammunition normally goes) that prevents anything else going in the chamber and also prevents the gun from 'closing' or going into battery-the technical term. The almost always also have a big plastic paddle or flag that extends out from the gun indicate this is in use. This is the only kind of (un)loaded chamber indicator I trust.

Usually when I am handling a firearm I prefer to have the gun 'unlocked' meaning the bolt is physically open and the gun CANNOT fire in this condition. Chamber indicators (when used) are small and usually hard to see and will not be noticeable to anyone unfamiliar with guns in general and in some cases just not familiar with that particular model.

Not every technical firearm issue is some big NRA demonizing opportunity. These indicators can, and do fail, are hard to see at best, and allow another pathway for dirt and crud to get into the firearm and also present a weak point in the chamber that can allow high pressure gas and debris to escape the firearm in the case of a malfunction (usually called a 'kaboom' in gunny circles for obvious reasons). I was raised in a home with firearms within easy access and i was taught to respect them and what they could do from an early (like learning to walk early) age. They were also never forbidden or treated as a magical talisman to me so they never had the forbidden fruit allure to me. As far as I was concerned as a young child they had about as much allure to me as shovel or pair or hedge trimmers. More a symbol of hard work and adult responsiblity than any kind of fun toy, and by the time i was old enough to enjoy them for fun I was old enough to respect them as the dangerous tool they are. Training and familiarity is the key, not some kind of technical fix.
posted by bartonlong at 10:15 AM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I suppose another problem might be liability. What if someone accidently shot themselves because the indicated appeared to show that the gun wasn't loaded? Would the manufacturer be held responsible?
posted by Laura_J at 2:03 PM on September 4, 2012

I recently acquired a pistol with a loaded chamber indicator, and while I haven't even had time to take the gun to the range yet, I don't think I like it. It's one more moving part, one more thing to needs cleaning and could malfunction, and it makes the visual design that much more cluttered and ugly. Mostly I just don't see how it makes anything any safer -- an orange loaded indicator isn't going to stop a dumb kid from pointing it at his friend and pulling the trigger, you know?

Who knows, I may turn out to really like it in practice, but definitely my first reaction is that it is kind of hokey, honestly. I can see why there has been push-back from gun owners and manufacturers, and I would hope there is compelling evidence of the safety benefits if this is being pushed from a regulatory direction.
posted by Forktine at 5:00 PM on September 7, 2012

In the firearm training courses I've taken, we were told to completely disregard any LCI. Because every gun is always loaded, always.

But when we practiced low-light home defense scenarios, where we might have just been woken up from sleep, we were taught to check if there was a round in the chamber by slightly pulling back the slide and poking the tip of a finger into the chamber to feel for a round.

So the only time I was taught to check if there was one in the chamber is at a time when you wouldn't be able to see an LCI anyway.
posted by MonsieurBon at 10:10 AM on September 8, 2012

Eh, I have a Walther P38, made in about 1943, that has an LCI, in the form of a long, spring loaded pin that goes through the slide, just above the hammer, and I can't imagine how it might malfunction (except for breakage or spring breakage), in terms of indicating a loaded chamber, and in about 5,000 rounds of range and hunting fire, it never has.

The LCIs on my Gen 4 Glocks are even simpler - literally, a .035" raised tit on the extractor, which you can check, in the dark, with the same index finger that becomes your trigger finger, if you are right handed. No added parts at all, over what the pistols need to function. Admittedly, if you are shooting left handed, some minor additional gymnastics are required to check this indicator, like using your right hand index finger to feel the slide, just above the trigger. IOW, if your Gen 4 Glock can feed and fire a round, and you are a right handed shooter, you should be able to feel that LCI tit on the extractor, which will only be above the slide surface if there is a round in battery, before you put your finger on the trigger (and begin to release the 3 safeties on the weapon, by pressing the trigger).

The LCI on my S&W 638-3 and other S&W revolvers is my thumbnail, with which, in the dark, I can check for the presence of a round in firing position by pushing my nail in between the cylinder and frame of the pistol, thus feeling the presence or absence of a shell, prior to first trigger pull. After that, my "LCI" is shot count.

This ain't rocket science, all you brain surgeons.
posted by paulsc at 6:37 PM on January 31, 2013

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