Smart Guns: An Answer to America's Gun Violence Problem?

How smart technology can offer new solutions to gun violence

"Armatix iP1 is a smart gun pistol" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

Six years ago, I lost a loved one to suicide. My niece had always been happy and easygoing, but her moods fluctuated as she adjusted to adolescence and middle school. And on a cold, rainy February night, she died. She was 12 years old. 

None of us believe that she planned to die that day. So why did she die? In a moment of anguish, she had easy access to a loaded and unlocked gun, and that changed everything.

As a result of this unexpected, tragic loss, I have been working to change not just the gun laws in our state but also our culture so that fewer children have such ready access to firearms. We could, for example, mandate that firearms be safely stored in a locking device, as has been proposed by state legislators in House Bill 1747 and Senate Bill 5789 . We can also begin conversations with other parents about safe storage, which includes storing firearms separately from ammunition. These policy and culture changes would reduce the chances that our children will find themselves somewhere where guns are stored loaded and unlocked.

Technology that saves

One topic that is rarely discussed, however, is the potential of technology to reduce gun violence and save lives. Can we modify guns themselves to make them safer? We know that product-oriented solutions have worked with other public health problems. For example, the use of seat belts and airbags have made our cars safer and reduced highway fatalities.

These product modifications complemented other policy interventions, such as speed limits and drunk driving laws, which focus on changing behavior and social norms. Surely it is time to consider taking a similar, multifaceted approach to reducing gun violence.

On January 28, 2015, the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) and Washington CeaseFire convened what was perhaps the first international symposium on “smart gun” technology. A smart gun is broadly defined as a gun that can only be operated by an authorized user.

For this reason, they are also referred to as “user-authorized” guns, “personalized” guns, and even “childproof” guns. The technologies that limit the gun’s operation to an authorized user include biometrics, such as fingerprint matching or handgrip recognition, and proximity sensors, such as a radiofrequency identification (RFID) chip located in a bracelet or ring that the user would need to wear to fire the weapon. It is easy to see how these technologies would prevent children from intentionally or unintentionally firing an adult’s gun.

Smart guns also have the potential to reduce criminal firearm use. A stolen smart gun would be essentially useless. A home intruder would not be able to fire a smart gun he found in the house. If the police were using smart guns, a criminal who grabs a cop’s gun during a confrontation would not be able to fire it. For all of these reasons, smart gun proponents believe that the technology could reduce suicides, unintentional deaths and injuries, as well as criminal firearm use and homicides.

I long for the day that a teenager who attempts suicide with a handgun survives, gets the help she needs, and lives a long, productive life because her family owned a personalized gun that she couldn’t operate.

Despite their promise, smart guns are not yet available in the United States. An RFID-based smart gun is sold in Europe by the German manufacturer Armatix, and this product is cleared for sale in the U.S. by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, but dealers are not yet selling it, primarily for political reasons.

One of the major barriers has been the existence of a paradoxical law passed in New Jersey in 2002. During the smart gun symposium, New Jersey State Senator Loretta Weinberg explained that the New Jersey Institute of Technology has been working on smart gun technology for many years. She and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, believing that smart guns would have broad appeal and be the “guns of the future,” passed a law mandating that once a smart gun is sold in the state, then three years later, all new handguns sold in New Jersey would have to be smart guns.

That mandate, however, has been met with skepticism and even anger within the gun-rights community. Firearms dealers in California and Maryland who considered selling the Armatix smart gun in 2014 were pressured by gun-rights groups and individual gun owners to change course because of concerns that their actions would trigger the New Jersey law’s time clock.  Senator Weinberg has publicly stated that she will work to repeal the New Jersey law if, in exchange, the National Rifle Association (NRA) will tell its members not to interfere with the sale of smart guns in this country, but the NRA has not responded to her request.

Assuming that the political impasse ends, there are other concerns about smart guns that must be addressed. Some potential customers are concerned about their speed and reliability. If the authentication process takes too long or were to fail when the owner was attempting to pull the trigger during a defensive gun use, the consequences could be fatal. The manufacturers represented at the symposium stated their commitment to developing safe and reliable products, and they are conducting safety tests with their prototypes. Perhaps by the time these guns are ready for the market, fewer potential customers will still have concerns about reliability.

I am glad that the WTIA and Washington Ceasefire have started this important conversation about how technology could be used to reduce gun violence. More than 31,000 people in this country die each year due to gun violence, many of them suicides. Another 70,000 people are treated in hospital emergency departments for non-fatal gunshot wounds.

We need a diverse set of solutions if we are to make real, measurable, and sustainable progress in reducing gun violence. Smart guns should be part of the solution. I long for the day that instead of hearing on the news about yet another toddler shooting a friend or sibling, we instead hear how the gun didn’t fire because it was childproof. I long for the day that a teenager who attempts suicide with a handgun survives, gets the help she needs, and lives a long, productive life because her family owned a personalized gun that she couldn’t operate.

We have the tools, in the policy arena, in the social arena and the technology arena to make a difference. It’s past time that we act.

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