Paper clips. Wire hangers. Drinking straws.
These ordinary household items have one extraordinary thing in common: Security experts recently discovered all three provide a key to opening gun safes.
No fingerprints necessary. No secret codes needed. Just some run-of-the-mill stuff found in most south Texas households.
The problem is kids can open these, says Marc Tobias, a South Dakota-based attorney and founder of Security Labs, a security firm considered one of the nation s leaders in lock analysis.
They can be opened in a variety of methods. And when you re talking about guns, especially to protect kids with access, it s pretty serious.
And it can be deadly
Time froze, lives changed and one ended because of what happened inside the home of a Washington sheriff s detective on Sept. 14, 2010.
He had a pulse. I checked his pulse and I could hear the raspy breathing, Ed Owens recalled in a painfully strained tone.
I just started screaming, Kristie Owens said. My son was lying on the floor in a puddle of blood.
Ryan Owens died that night at the age of three. His father s backup service weapon fired the fatal shot.
It is unclear whether Ryan -- or his 11-year-old stepsister -- accidentally pulled the trigger. The girl was alone with the little boy in the master bedroom, where Ed Owens kept the loaded weapon more than three feet off the ground in a locked safe.
You can t get those images out of your head, Ed Owens said, fighting back tears and losing the battle. There are some things a parent should never have to experience.
Kristie Owens said: Never once did either of us think that maybe the safe wasn t safe. We just assumed it worked and functioned as promised and intended.
Built for safety
The Clark County Sheriff s Department had actually issued the safe to Owens. The department started issuing the safes in 2003 after another child was killed by a deputy's weapon.
We didn t leave it open. No, we didn t share the code with the kids. No, they weren t allowed in the room, Kristie Owens said. It left the logical question on the table. Is the safe broken or defective? How did the kids get into it?
Perhaps it was as simple as lifting the safe.
Ed and Kristie Owens hired Marc Tobias and his team of security experts. With the help of a boy the same age as Ryan Owens, they exposed the weakness of the safe model linked to the boy's death.
The 3-year old merely lifted the safe to breach the container and open the previously locked safe door.
A wider probe followed.
The Tobias-led team tested at least eight additional safes built by three other manufacturers. All the safes were low-priced and readily available at sporting goods retailers and big box chains nationwide.
Security Labs paid extra attention to safes manufactured by Stack-On, an industry sales leader based in Wauconda, Illinois.
Stack-On issued a recall in 2004 coordinated with the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) because some of its safes opened without the use of a combination by jiggling with a door knob. Stack-On also manufactured the safe involved in the death of Ryan Owens.
Too easy access
Here are the facts: For 40 years, Stack-On has provided a diverse line of products to meet the needs of sportsmen, do-it-yourselfers and consumers. During this time, we have sold hundreds of thousands of secure storage solutions without a single confirmed incident of a child breaching our units and accessing a gun, said Stack-On spokesman Tilden Katz. While experts can pick even the most complex locks, there is simply no public benefit in teaching adults and children how to penetrate security systems.
The White House recently took unprecedented interest in the issue of gun safe security. President Obama's 23 executive actions, issued last month to reduce gun violence, directed the CPSC to review and enhance as warranted safety standards for gun locks and gun safes.
Prompted by the White House, the Consumer Product Safety Commission cranked up its investigation last week into the death of Ryan Owens. An investigator conducted a three-hour phone interview with Ed Owens and visited the Owens home the next day for a face-to-face meeting.
CPSC takes it very seriously that we were cited in the Vice President s Task Force report. We are actively researching the current state of guns safes and trigger lock safety, said Scott Wolfson, CPSC communications director.
Like innumerable products sold to consumers, gun safes are not subject to federal regulation. Instead, voluntary standards form a consensus baseline for manufacturers in this industry, along with policies and regulations approved by the California Department of Justice.
Stack-On's firearm storage products are approved by the California Department of Justice as meeting their standards for firearm safety, which involves testing by an independent laboratory. The safety of our systems has been proven through years of actual consumer use and we strongly stand behind our products, added Katz, the Stack-On spokesman.
Tobias, however, argues that the California standards are far too weak to ensure all safes are childproof.
This is a flawed piece of legislation. It s been around for a long time. It set the standard in America, and a lot of states are following it, but even the safes we looked at, they violate California s own standards, Tobias said. Have they (California) done anything about it?
Stack-On is now subject of a class-action lawsuit in northern Illinois. Tobias serves as co-counsel. In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs accuse that Stack-On knowingly made products with defects and which can be opened with such implements as a drinking straw, paper clip, wires, flat pieces of metal strips, shock or vibration.
It will happen again
Sooner or later, another gun is going to go off, Ed Owens said.
He now dedicates much of his life to the legacy of his late son. The family s tragedy prompted lawmakers in Washington to introduce the Eddie Ryan Public Safety Act in 2011. The measure, which was passed in the Senate in 2012 but failed to make it to the House floor, seeks to require enhanced testing of gun locks and gun safes before the equipment is distributed to law enforcement for home use.
We keep going because we don t want another family to go through what we ve gone through, Kristie Owens said as her husband shuffled through old photos of the delightful and very loving child they lost.
He was very giving as a child. He would share his toys without being asked. If he got cookies, his friend got one, Kristie Owens said with a wide but short-lived smile.
I miss my son. Think about him every day. But there are some days that are just harder than others. said Ed Owens, his shoulders slumped and his head bowed. Some days you don t even want to get out of bed. Other days you re so angry. And some days you just want to sit and cry.
The Clark County Sheriff s Department fired Ed Owens after the death of his son. The department determined he had improperly stored his gun. He has since responded by filing a wrongful termination lawsuit against the department in a quest to get his job back.
We pray that another family doesn t have to go through the hell we live with everyday, Ed Owens said. The life-altering hell.