Smart guns, dumb idea Flashy concept distracts from need to hold firearms to tough safety standards

October 04, 1998|By Susan Glick

SUDDENLY, everyone from gun control advocates to big-city mayors is talking about using futuristic technology to make guns safer. Their idea is to encourage the design and sale of "personalized handguns" that can be fired only by their owners. Ideas for such guns include a computerized chip that recognizes the handgun owner's fingerprints and a radio transponder that would detect a ring worn by the user.

Proponents argue that this "smart gun" technology would stop the misuse of firearms by children and render stolen weapons useless. It sounds promising. Upon closer examination, however, it becomes clear that smart guns are a dumb idea. They would have no impact on the majority of gun deaths and injuries in America.

Suicide is the nation's leading cause of firearm-related death, but people can shoot themselves with their personalized guns. The vast majority of homicides, the second-leading cause of U.S. gun deaths, take place between people who know each other. Again, personalization of weapons would have a limited impact. Even in unintentional shootings, the category in which the proponents of personalization see the greatest benefit, many cases involve victims wielding their own guns. So, even if the technology worked perfectly, this space-age gun would live up to its name only in a small fraction of instances.

Statistics on firearm ownership reveal another shortcoming. A Police Foundation study published last year found that while only 25 percent of American adults own guns, 74 percent of these owners have two or more guns. Furthermore, 68 percent of handgun owners also own at least one rifle. Therefore, smart guns would be effective only if owners disposed of all other firearms.

Finally, even if gun owners replace their handguns with personalized weapons, in many cases they would be exchanging one problem for another. The Police Foundation survey found that more than 77 percent of handguns possessed by private individuals hold fewer than 10 rounds of ammunition. Because most guns produced today are larger-caliber pistols with 10-round magazines, gun owners who switch to personalized guns would generally obtain a pistol of greater firepower and capacity. Widespread purchase of smart guns might, therefore, greatly increase the lethality of the nation's private gun stock.

According to a 1997 survey sponsored by the Johns Hopkins Center on Gun Policy and Research, 35 percent of the people who said they were unlikely to buy a gun also said they would consider buying a handgun if it were personalized. Packaged with a slick sales pitch, new technology will create a false sense of security among consumers and boost stagnant handgun sales.

Instead of distracting ourselves with gee-whiz technology that is years away from fruition, we should address the real issue. Guns are exempt from every federal health, safety and consumer-protection law. If handguns were held to the same standards as every other consumer product in America, they would likely be banned, not "personalized." Enforcing such tough safety standards might not sound as glamorous or as easy as building James Bond-style weapons, but it would save more lives.

Susan Glick is a health policy analyst for the Violence Policy Center, a Washington-based public policy institute for reducing gun violence. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 10/04/98

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