State's chance for safer guns

March 15, 2000|By Jon S. Vernick

WHEN A 6-year-old child is able to fire a handgun and shoot his classmate, as happened recently in Michigan, Americans everywhere should be asking themselves not just "why did this happen?" but also "what can we do to reduce the chance that this ever happens again?" In Maryland, at least, there is a ready answer.

Hearings are scheduled today in the state Senate on a bill that would require new handguns sold in Maryland after June 1, 2003, to be designed so that unauthorized users, like young children, can't operate them. In addition to preventing accidental shootings, these so-called "smart," or personalized, guns can also prevent some teen suicides, and even some shootings where a criminal steals the gun of a homeowner or police officer.

Like safety caps

Personalized guns fit the long and successful tradition of preventing deaths and injuries by making dangerous products safer. Many lives have been saved by making aspirin bottles and cigarette lighters child-proof, by installing airbags in cars and by changing the manufacture of paint and gasoline to remove harmful lead. But virtually alone among consumer products, the handgun's design has been left in the hands of manufacturers, with tragic though predictable consequences.

It doesn't have to be this way, and even most gun owners know it. Both nationally and in Maryland, recent polls show that a majority of gun owners support mandating safer gun designs.

Unfortunately, opposition to mandating personalized guns is sometimes ill-informed. Critics argue that personalizing guns -- and driving up the price -- will cost lives by preventing some people from buying weapons for protection. This assertion, however, is based on flawed research that has been repudiated by leading researchers around the country.

Firearms are only rarely used for protection compared with the societal harm they cause. In fact, the best scientific evidence suggests that, on average, homes with guns are more (not less) likely to experience a homicide or suicide than those without guns.

But even if some people insist on having a gun in their home, the proposed legislation will not take anyone's gun away, it will simply make new guns safer.

Others claim that the new technology is not yet available, so the law will essentially ban handguns. This is not so. Many technologies to personalize guns, such as fingerprint readers and other security devices, already exist. They simply have to be applied to guns. Major handgun manufacturers like Colt and Smith & Wesson are developing personalized guns. Others, like SigArms and Taurus, have introduced guns that already incorporate safer designs.

A little push

The bill's requirement would only be triggered when the technology is deemed "commercially available." In the past, manufacturers have sometimes needed a little push to make their products safer. This bill can provide that stimulus.

However, the bill is not a quick fix. Non-personalized guns will remain in circulation for many years. But if your house is flooding with water, just as the United States is awash in unsafe guns, your first instinct (correctly) is to turn off the tap, even if it will take some time before the house dries out. Over time, the current pool of guns will be replaced by safer designs.

No perfect answers

Of course, personalized guns will not prevent all gun deaths; no intervention ever does. For example, although seat belts in cars have saved many thousands of children's lives, they can't prevent all car crash deaths. But not many parents would really want their kids (or themselves) to ride without seat belts. Perhaps we should ask the parents of children killed by gunfire if handguns should be any different.

Jon S. Vernick is an , JD, MPH assistant professor and the associate director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

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