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A Locked Case     By Karen MacNutt

Joe had reached his "golden years." He had never married, he was worried about living alone in his big old farm house. Between Roy, his hunting dog, and his shotgun, Joe was not afraid of people. He was afraid of getting sick or falling and not being able to call for help. Still, he wanted to live out his life in his home.

Joe had known the Smiths for a long while. They were nice people but they were struggling. Joe thought he had the perfect answer to everyone's problems. The Smiths should come live with him. It was a big house. They could each have their own private areas and share the kitchen and living room. Things worked well until the day Billy, Jr. came home looking to stay with his parents for a while.

Joe didn't trust Billy, Jr., the kid never seemed to hold a job very long, but the Smiths were such good people, Joe could not say no. Joe's shotgun and some other rifles were in a locked glass case in the living room. It might be better, Joe thought, if those guns were not so visible to Billy. Joe put the guns in his bedroom closet along with his coin collection and other valuables. For good measure, he put a lot of other things on top of the guns so that someone looking in the closet would not see them. Then he locked the door with the doorknob lock.

Joe's fears were not off the mark. Shortly after Billy, Jr. arrived, Joe found two of his best shotguns were missing. Joe didn't know how he could tell Mrs. Smith about his suspicions. Mrs. Smith, however, knew exactly what to do. She called the police and had her son, Billy, Jr. arrested. He confessed and then "ratted" on the friend who had the stolen property.

Everything was recovered. The police did not charge Billy, Jr. or his friend. They charged Joe for improper storage of guns. The officer told Joe, "Those guns should have had trigger locks or been in a 1ocked like a gun-securing cabinet or a secure room." The officer pointed out that the simple doorknob lock on Joe's door could be opened with a screwdriver.

The state law said that it was unlawful to store or keep a gun unless "such weapon is secured in a locked container or equipped with a tamper-resistant mechanical lock or other safety device, properly engaged so as to render such weapon inoperable by any person other than the owner or other lawfully authorized user."

Although the law did not specifically mention minors, it was passed at a time when those people who always want more gun laws were focusing on accidents involving children. A number of states passed similar laws. Some specifically mentioned children. A regulation, promulgated by the state's attorney general, called for a "safety device" sufficient to deter the average five-year-old. Most people interpreted "tamper-resistant mechanical device" to mean a trigger lock or cable lock.

During the public hearings leading up to the passage of the law, the proponents talked about "smart guns." Everyone should be required to have a "smart gun." A "smart gun" would have some kind of electronic contraption so that the gun could only be fired by the owner. They claimed that "smart guns" were about [Q enter the market and make all other guns obsolete. That, of course, did not happen. Such guns are not desirable. They are inherently unreliable. Anything electronic can be jammed or defeated. A good example of this was when the City of Boston replaced all of its mechanical parking meters with electronic meters. The manufacturer claimed they were tamper proof. It took the MIT students less than 60 days to figure a way of placing time on the meters without paying.

The next gun proposal was that all guns should have trigger locks. Lever action guns or spur triggered guns cannot be fitted with a trigger lock. Thus, the language about mechanical devices or locked containers came about. At the public hearing, it was shown how easy it was to defeat trigger locks and, in one case, a gentleman presented a wooden cigar box with a small lock to show how vague the standard was. Those opposed to the storage law took the position that safety training was more effective and that the "safe storage" laws were vague, created a false sense of security, and made it difficult to keep a gun fat self-defense. It was feared such laws would deflect attention from thieves to gun owners. The law passed.

Almost everyone who looked at the law came to the same conclusion. Any trigger or cable lock or locked container met the standard. Any container, wood, glass, soft or hard sided, and any lock, regardless of quality, met the standard.

Padlock, drawer lock, display case lock, or luggage lock, it made no difference. Other courts have considered the term "case" or "container." One Massachusetts court held that a "case," as referred to in a law requiring rifles carried on a public "ay be "cased," did not require the "case" be designed for a gun. It held hat a cardboard box could be a "case" sufficient for that law. (Com. Lee). An Iowa law required the gun be transported in a "closed, fastened container." The court found hat the container simply had to be 00 large to be concealed on the lerson and a zipper could "fasten" he containet. (State v .jones). Genrally, courts that considered the ;sue have not required "cases" or containers" be specifically coneructed for guns. TSA (the federal ir security people) require that uns be locked in a "hard sided" )ntainer for travel by air. They ac~Pt a hard sided suitcase with suit- 15e type locks. The concern is pilTing. Crates with locks are also commonly accepted. After 9-11, TSA requited all bags be unlocked. That, of course, conflicted with the law requiring all gun boxes be locked. TSA now requires the gun boxes be locked but that keys or combinations be provided to the screener who will check the box and return the key. Crates, locked or unlocked, can be opened with pinch bars. Anyone who has traveled extensively knows what a fork lift or baggage truck can do to a suitcase. These containers can be broken by careless baggage handling. Cases containing guns are seldom treated differently than other luggage. They are thrown on the baggage carousel for anyone to pick up.

Joe was found guilty of improper gun storage, and stripped of his right to own a gun. That is, the crime was considered a felony. The court agreed, for argument sake, that the closet was a "container" but said the "container must not merely be locked but securely locked" and concluded that guns had to "be maintained in locked containers in a way that will deter all but the most persistent from gaining access. ... Because the lock was easily defeated ... it did not prevent ready access by anyone other than the owner.

The case is a Massachusetts case which is still pending. "Joe" is a fictitious name and some of the facts have been altered, but not the essence of the case. The State Supreme Court has been asked to take further review, but it only takes a very few cases that the judges think involve issues of public interest. The principle error of the lower court was its belief that safe storage laws were intended to prevent theft as opposed to unauthorized handling. Trigger and cable locks, will not deter theft. A thief would simply pick up the gun and run. Bolt cutters or saws-all would take care of the lock at a later time. For gun owners, Joe's case is chilling. How do you define "persistent"? or "most persistent"? By focusing on the lock, the court opens the obvious question, "Of what use is the most secure lock in the world if it is attached to a glass case?" It is a short step.

Researching locks turned up some interesting information. Early in 200 1 The Washington Post reported that the Consumer Product Safety Commission had tested 32 trigger locks in an unpublished report (this was when there was a big push for mandatory trigger locks). The CPSC found that some trigger locks could be opened by just striking them hard. All but one of the 32 locks could be opened without the key. This was followed by a flurry of trigger lock recalls by some very reputable manufactures. One company recalled 752,000 locks of six different models sold by outlets such as Wal-Mart, Kmart, Gander Mountain and Sports Authority because the two halves of the lock could be separated without a key. Smith & Wesson recalled locks they had distributed. Ruger recalled 1.2 million padlocks because they could be opened with keys other than those supplied. It also recalled 800,000 cable locks that could be opened by striking the lock. A number of police departments or public service groups found themselves recalling locks for the same reason. The problem is-there is no way of knowing if the ultimate purchaser of the lock ever received the notices. As the recalls were voluntary, there is no way of knowing if there are less reputable companies that did not initiate recalls.

Locks work by requiring a number of pins to be lined up in a certain order to release the catch. There are not an infinite number of combinations. The better locks have more pins. Still, in a market where millions of locks are being sold, the key provided with your lock is not unique. Chances are there are other locks made by the same manufacturer that your key will open. One trigger lock give away project was embarrassed to find that, after they had distributed thousands of locks, the same key would open all the locks.

If you had the best lock in the world, and you attached it to a plastic gun box, or glass paneled case, it would only deter the really stupid thief. Why pick a lock when you can smash and grab? Any portable case can be carried off by a thief as well as an owner. Well-locked businesses have metal grates to cover their display windows after hours.

"OK" the gun owner says "I'll take that closer and place three of the best dead bolt locks I can find on it." Good move. But we are now back to smart v. stupid thieves. Attracted by the dead bolts, the first thing the thief does is to look at the hinges. Are they inside or outside? If they are outside, then the pins can be knocked out and the lock defeated. The next questions is what is the lock attached to? The best lock in the world attached to one inch wooden molding is not of much use. The standard hollow core doors which are found in most houses today can be kicked in fairly easily.

Surfing through the web I found the perfect "high security door kit." It was a "GSA Class 5" approved vault door for use in government facilities for high security. It met all specs. It weighted 1,050 lbs. With a little shoring up, your house might be able to manage that. It will withstand 20 man hours against radiological attack, 40 man hours against manipulation of the lock, and 10 minutes against forced entry. From there I slid over to the really big vault doors, like the ones to the safety deposit room at the First National Bank. You know the type. The shiny steel doors with the large bolts that lock into the doorframe. "Of course," the company wrote in its disclaimer, "we only guarantee the door itself, nor the security of the vault ... The main purpose of the door is to discourage theft by its impressive size." Several pages over was an ad for a "Bolt Saw" which could adapt your Dewlap Chop Saw in to a device that can cut through the security bolts in less than 30 minutes.

So, you buy the 1,000+ pound door and secure it to your closet. What are your walls made of? Sheet rock? Any city landlord, or parent, knows sheet rock spontaneously develops holes. Okay. So you have built your house of good sturdy wood, made from trees cut down by chain saws. Hmmm! If the chain saw can cut down the entire tree, it will go through your wall. Like the three little pigs we are down to, not hollow cement block that can be punched out by any moderately sized truck, but poured concrete with rebar and a 1,000 pound door that can withstand a forced entry attack for 10 to 30 minutes. Now the questions is, would the most persistent thief invest more that 10 minutes to steal something?

The truth is that locks are designed to prevent basically honest people from being tempted to do dishonest things. No lock or fortification exists that cannot be breached or destroyed.

The court's definition of "locked container" in Joe's case in incapable of being measured. That is bad. What is worse, however, is society's propensity to blame the victim rather than address the criminal.


This article was reprinted from Women&Guns Mar-Apr, 2006, Copyright © 2006, Karen MacNutt