20/20: Kids and Dangerous BB Guns

Nov. 24, 2000 -- Every day Becky Mahoney of New Hope, Pa., leaves her home to spend 12 hours with her 17-year-old son Tucker.

It’s been two years since Tucker — a child Becky and her husband Jay describe as a parent’s dream — was injured in an accident involving a BB gun.

Tucker got the BB gun as a 16th birthday present from his parents. He had asked them for a Daisy BB gun so he could shoot at tin cans in the back yard. Two days later, as Tucker and a friend played with the gun thinking, they have said, that it was empty, it went off. The BB hit Tucker in the head with enough force to blow through his skull and penetrate his brain, an injury that has left him unable to walk, talk or even swallow on his own.

“No one could believe that a BB had caused the damage that it did,” says Becky.

Years of TraditionSince the 1970s the Daisy company has turned out millions of high-powered BB guns that have injured tens of thousands of children and killed at least 16. Daisy is the same company that also has produced the Daisy Red Ryder for 50 years, an airgun portrayed in movies and magazines as a part of growing up for generations of American boys.

Some of the Daisy BB guns in the market today, however, are much more powerful than the guns sold in the past. In a demonstration for 20/20, gun expert Dave Townshend — who has testified against Daisy in court — first fired the .38 Special revolver he carried as a Michigan state trooper. The revolver had a muzzle velocity of 752 feet per second. Then he pumped the Daisy Powerline 856 — the same gun that injured Tucker Mahoney — 20 times, which is twice the recommended maximum. The muzzle velocity for the Powerline was 780 fps, greater than the state police revolvers.

With the exception of New Jersey, these high-powered BB guns are for sale, without the need for a license, at about $45 each.

Daisy recommends its Powerline guns be sold to those 16 or over. But included in the Daisy box, 20/20 found gun safety brochures produced by the National Rifle Association with children that appear to be much younger than 16.

Dr. Kathy Christoffel of Childrens’ Memorial Hospital in Chicago has spent the last two decades trying to get the government to stop the sale of these kinds of weapons. She says the guns are almost certain to be misused by adolescents, as has been the case in many accidents. “Most of the victims are boys who are five to 14 years old,” she says.

Design Flaw AllegedTownshend says that in addition to being extremely powerful, until recently some of the Daisy BB guns were seriously flawed. He says the guns had a defect which made them look like they were empty when in fact a BB was still inside, stuck inside the nooks and crannies.

The results of the alleged flaw have been devastating. In Michigan, an 8-year-old wasaccidentally shot by his older brother, who said he thought his Daisy BB gun was empty. The company settled the case for $5 million.

In Little Rock, Ark., then-13-year-old Jordan Smith was also shot by a friend who said he thought the BB gun was empty. Daisy also settled that case, as it has many others, without ever admitting anything was wrong.

Nevertheless, Ron Joyce, who helped design the Powerline guns, admitted during pre-trial testimony for a lawsuit filed by the Mahoney family that a BB could get stuck inside the guns that were sold as late as mid-1999, although he said it wasn’t a safety problem because the BB still had to travel to the firing chambers.

The Mahoneys’ lawyers, Shanin Specter and Andy Youman, say that when Joyce did a spot check at the Daisy assembly line, he found that between one-third and one-half of their guns had the same defect.

Defective Guns Sold?According to internal Daisy documents, last year the company changed the design of its BB guns for safety, reliability and other reasons. But Daisy did not issue a recall and continued to sell the guns that had not been fixed.

“There are millions of these defective guns that can cause someone to be seriously injured or killed in households in this country,” says Specter.

The Mahoneys allege it was one of those older, defective guns — still on the shelf months after Daisy’s engineers had ordered the guns changed — that Jay purchased as Tucker’s birthday present.

In testimony in the case, Daisy’s chairman, Marvin Griffin, refused to admit the guns were flawed and argued the change was not done for safety reasons.

No one at Daisy would agree to appear on 20/20 for this report, citing the Mahoney’s lawsuit. In a statement to 20/20, Daisy said the sole cause of the accident was the irresponsible and irrational conduct of Tucker’s friend, and that Daisy will present evidence at trial that the friend should have known the gun was loaded.

Meanwhile, Becky and Jay Mahoney spend days with Tucker at the rehabilitation center that has become his home. He has grown two inches since the accident, and his parents can’t help but think what could have been.

With a lot of help, Tucker is beginning to spell out words, his name. Asked recently how he was feeling, he wrote: SAD.