As the debate over access to guns in America rages in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, we aren’t loudly discussing one thing we really should be, despite a presidential push to do so: smart guns. They may not stop a committed killer, but they could save a child’s life.
With programmable smart guns, ballistic science has provided an option that could sharply reduce gun deaths — especially those suffered by children who live in homes with unlocked guns — while still allowing wide weapon ownership. A smart gun is inoperable without the owner’s personalized code, or fingerprint recognition or other distinguishing information. It may add a few seconds before you can fire, but for the life of your child is that an offer too good to refuse or an intolerable restriction?
In late April, President Barack Obama reprised his plaintive appeal for boosting so-called “smart gun” technology as part of his series of executive actions for “common sense” gun reforms. “As long as we’ve got the technology to prevent a criminal from stealing and using your smartphone, then we should be able to prevent the wrong person from pulling a trigger on a gun,” the president wrote in a Facebook post at the time.
Law enforcement is expected to take the lead in creating a market for the guns, and President Obama’s administration is developing a set of requirements that manufacturers would have to meet to satisfy police; the rules are due in October. “These common-sense steps are not going to prevent every tragedy, but what if they prevented even one?” the president’s Facebook post read.
Despite their potential to save lives, smart guns have never sold in the United States. Why? It’s largely New Jersey’s fault. The state’s Childproof Handgun Law of 2002 says that once “personalized handguns” are available anywhere in the country, all handguns sold in New Jersey must be smart guns within 30 months. So whichever manufacturer is the first to launch smart gun sales knows it will also trigger a ban on other kinds of guns in New Jersey, undoubtedly upsetting thousands of people. And so far, no gun maker has been willing to do that.
When retailers have tried to sell the technology-enabled firearms, they were flooded with angry calls and messages from people who considered the replacement requirement of the New Jersey law an infringement of the Second Amendment. A store owner offering to sell smart guns says he received multiple death threats and other retailers offering to sell them quickly backed down on their plans.
Grim firearm fatality data from The CDC attest to the eye-popping depth of the U.S. problem: About 100,000 people get shot every year in the U.S., about 30,000 fatally. Among children under 18, the corresponding annual numbers are roughly 10,000 shootings and 3,000 deaths. These are, by far, the highest rates of gun violence in the world.
Our great gun control debate is an intense, hearts-and-minds struggle that has long riven the country. Opposing President Obama and other reformers is the NRA, founded in 1871, formidable and unyielding. Few if any lobbies have ever employed more power. And with such unequivocal success. Fueling that influence is the economic impact of the U.S. firearms industry, estimated at $32 billion per year.
Largely overlooked by gun proponents is the extent to which gun violence afflicts our most vulnerable population. Underlying the president’s proposal is a long-standing and profound concern for the safety of children. Inattention — or worse, indifference — to the particularly horrendous dangers that guns present to children perpetuates a volatile and often lethal environment for them.
One-third of all U.S. households with children younger than 18 have a gun, and more than 46 percent of gun-owning households with children store their guns unlocked. Studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that these conditions significantly intensify the risk of suicide or unintentional injury among youths.
Predictable results follow.
The furious and petulant reaction of the gun lobby and its many supporters to the president’s smart gun proposal and recent efforts to limit assault weapons speaks volumes about the profound ties of many in America to their guns. It’s a bond that’s apparently stronger even, in too many instances, than that between parent and child.
Frank Strier is professor emeritus at California State University and the author of “Guns & Kids: Can We Survive the Carnage?” (Social Policy Press, December 2015); his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.