When someone is thinking about purchasing a handgun, the question often is asked: Does that gun have a safety? I only want a gun that has a safety. It becomes immediately apparent that they are familiar with the word safety and know that safety must be a good thing when dealing with potentially deadly weapons. But beyond that, they don't really understand how safeties on firearms relate to the actual safe use of the guns.
The unspoken assumption is that a mechanical safety on a gun will somehow make the gun safer to use, particularly for someone who is not proficient in the use of firearms. Whether a mechanical safety on a particular gun really does make that gun safer to possess or to use depends on a number of factors.
Generally, a gun used strictly for hunting, target shooting or other recreational use may well be safer with a device that can disable it until the user is ready to fire the gun. On a firearm used for self protection, such as those used in law enforcement or by other lawfully armed citizens, things become more complicated. No discussion about firearms safety is complete without acknowledging that the number one safety for any firearm is the brain of the user.
If the person operating the gun does not give their undivided attention to the task at hand, tragedy can strike with any firearm. No amount of mechanical devices on a firearm will change that. They just change the pattern of how the accidents occur. It seems to me, however, that some discussion about safeties on firearms is in order, just to make sure people understand what safeties may, or may not, contribute to the overall safe operation of a handgun.
There are a number of different types of safeties available and I like to break them down into three categories. First there are the safeties that are a part of a gun's basic design and contribute to the inherent safety of the gun, without the user having to do anything to either activate or deactivate them. These are internal components that are not directly contacted by the shooter's hand. Firing pin safeties that prevent inertial discharges when a pistol is dropped would be one example. A hammer block on a double action revolver would be another. These are often referred to as passive safeties, meaning that the user doesn't have to do anything in particular to cause them to do what they are designed to do.
A second type, similar to the first, are those that provide some safety function for a gun at rest, but are physically deactivated through the basic shooting grip and the point-gun-pull-trigger operation of the firearm. These include grip safeties and trigger safeties. Most people are familiar with grip safeties from the venerable 1911 Government Model style pistols and the newer Springfield XD series of pistols. So-called trigger safeties became common with the introduction of the Glock pistols. Others, such as Springfield, Ruger and Smith & Wesson also follow the same concept on at least some models of their guns. Magazine disconnect safeties could also be in this category. Another version of such a safety would be the heavy trigger pull of traditional double action auto pistols and revolvers. All one has to do to deactivate these safeties is to load the gun, take a proper firing grip and pull the trigger.
The third type is what many call active safeties. The most common of these are either frame or slide mounted levers, usually designed to be manipulated with the thumb of the shooting hand. Another example would be a built in lock that requires a key to operate. There are others, but for the sake of discussion about firearms likely to be found in law enforcement service, these should suffice for now. I will discuss these various types in more detail later, but we need to consider some basic concepts first.