Will the Smart Gun Save Lives?

Firearms makers already have the technology to make guns safer. Why won't Congress pull the trigger?

Credit: Mike Kemp

FROM JONESBORO, ARKANSAS, TO SPRINGFIELD, OREGON, the serial carnage in American schoolyards has generated the predictable outrage aimed at rap music and devil teenagers. Why are kids shooting each other, their parents and teachers? Americans always enjoy a lusty discussion of what's wrong with the younger generation. Plus, it lets everyone avoid the politically explosive question of what's wrong with the guns.

While talk shows and right-wing preachers obsess about the moral depravity of youth culture, the usual political adversaries are lining up for yet another long-running congressional struggle over various gun-control measures. The National Rifle Association knows that people are upset by the spectacle of gun-toting students and hopes to soften its image with Charlton Heston as its new president.

Meanwhile, Handgun Control Inc., the leading advocacy group of reformers, unveils a new grab bag of modest legislative ideas for reducing the bloodshed, such as mandatory trigger locks for handguns and criminal liability for careless parents who let their weapons turn small children into accidental killers.

HCI's various proposals sound reasonable enough (and might do some good on the margins), but the problem is, they are too reasonable. What's promised is another long and tedious slog through Washington's political labyrinth in search of very limited objectives. We did that already — with the "Brady Bill," which instituted a mandatory waiting period for the purchase of handguns, along with other incremental measures — while the random gun violence continues to proliferate new forms of pointless tragedy.

This time around, though Washington doesn't seem to get it yet, the outcome can be dramatically different. Public attitudes on the need for real action have shifted significantly, including among gun owners, and genuine progress is within reach. A new reform dynamic is under way on many different fronts, from public-health advocates to handgun manufacturers and the trial lawyers who are suing the companies on behalf of victims. For instance, Cease Fire Inc. (a national educational campaign launched by Jann S. Wenner, editor and publisher of Rolling Stone) broadcasts hardhitting public-service announcements on television that warn parents that a handgun in their homes can be fatal to their children and their friends.

Together, these energies are going to refocus the debate on the nature of the guns themselves rather than on the behavior of people, whether kids or gun owners. What's required is serious safety regulation of this very dangerous product — the crucial first step toward drastically reducing its numbers.

What makes this breakthrough possible is a newly designed handgun that won't shoot if it's being held in the wrong hands — whether the shooter is a small child, or a depressed teenager attempting suicide, or even a felon who stole the weapon from someone's home. The technology exists. Working prototypes have already been developed. People should be able to buy them in the next couple of years.

This innovation won't eliminate the gun problem by a long shot — an estimated 65 million pistols and revolvers are in the hands of American civilians. But it changes everything in the political debate and opens the way for real reform.

Colt's Manufacturing Co., the venerable firearms manufacturer in Connecticut, calls its new version the Smart Gun. The company has been financially troubled in recent years but now hopes to steal the lead on competitors while avoiding potential lawsuits and the rising public outrage aimed at firearms.

Gun-control advocates prefer to call the new technology the "personalized" or "childproof" gun. They do not think this promising development should wait solely on the marketplace.

A reform organization called Ceasefire New Jersey is already pushing a bipartisan bill in the legislature to require that all new handguns sold in the state be equipped with the owner-control technology. Bryan Miller, a former businessman who heads the group, predicts that once New Jersey acts, other states will swiftly follow. His brother Michael, an FBI agent, was killed in a crazed incident of random shooting back in 1994.

"Why am I so upbeat? That's just the way I am," Miller says. "But I also think our bill in New Jersey is going to happen, and we're going to save some lives and have measurable impact — a decline in accidental child deaths and a decline in teenage suicides. And that's going to make it easier to do the next thing.

"I believe this country is at the start of a major sea change in its attitudes about guns that will lead to gun-safety measures and will dramatically cut down gun deaths and injuries. It's going to take time, but it's going to happen. My opinion: Ten years from now, you won't be able to buy a handgun in this country that's not childproof. And we're going to lead the way in New Jersey."

After all the recent tragedies, does this sound too optimistic? I don't think so. The firearms industry is looking at the same confluence of political forces that Miller sees, and it is taking them very seriously. Gun makers also observe what happened to another industry that stonewalled public concern — tobacco. They are anxious to avoid a similar fate for guns.

THE OUTLINE FOR A CHILDPROOF GUN is actually 100 years old. Smith & Wesson used to manufacture a handgun with a safety lever on the grip that young children couldn't operate while simultaneously pulling the trigger.

In this age of semiconductor chips and electronic locking codes, it ought to be easy enough to produce a more sophisticated version — a gun that fires only if the owner is personally pulling the trigger. That's what Professor Stephen P. Teret, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, believes. Teret is a former trial lawyer who has spent nearly twenty years in public-health research — a scholar who studies public-safety questions with a supple sense of how reforms can be achieved on many fronts. The professor is motivated partly by the memory of friends whose twenty-two-month-old son, while in a caretaker's home, was shot in his crib by a four-year-old who happened to find a handgun in the night table.

"That's just obscene," Teret says. "It's even more obscene because it didn't have to happen. There's no reason in the world why anyone should want to have a handgun that's operable by a four-year-old."

In 1992, Teret decided to stage a cheap experiment. The Injury Prevention Center at Johns Hopkins' School of Public Health, where he teaches, gave $2,000 and a revolver to three undergraduate engineering students. Their senior project, Teret told them, was to reconfigure this handgun, using existing technologies, so that only its authorized user could make it shoot.

"And they did it," the professor exclaims. "They used 'touch memory' technology — a chip in a ring the gun owner wears that connects with the gun and matches the authorized code. That's when I knew this was going to happen: If engineering students could do it, I had no doubt the industry can do it."

As the professor searched for ways to promote the concept, his cause was advanced by an accidental encounter. On a long flight home from Los Angeles, Teret's seatmate happened to be Andrea Camp, spokeswoman for Rep. Pat Schroeder of Colorado, herself a social reformer on many fronts. For five hours, Teret elaborated to his captive audience the life-saving potential of new gun technologies.

Back in Washington, Camp briefed her boss. And Schroeder (who retired from Congress last year) began pushing various federal agencies, from the Pentagon to the Justice Department, to put down some real money toward exploring the idea.

In 1994, the National Institute of Justice responded to her nudging and gave $650,000 to Sandia National Laboratories to research the technology. Then it awarded a $500,000 grant to Colt to refine its working prototype.

Colt's Smart Gun uses a transponder, a tiny transmitter that the authorized user would wear on a wristband, which sends a matching code to a receiver in the handgun's grip and enables the weapon to function. This concept is not so different, really, from the electronic keys that tenants use to operate an apartment elevator or that homeowners use to open an overhead garage door or unlock their cars.

The original objective of the Justice Department grants was to protect police. One of every six law-enforcement officers who gets fatally shot is killed by his own gun or his partner's, typically when an assailant seizes the weapon and turns it on the officer. If the officer's weapon could not be fired by a stranger, lives would be saved, for sure.

Technology is never foolproof, of course, and so the government says it will sponsor extensive field testing by police before the safety device is cleared for distribution. But this is a big leap forward. Reformers like Teret know that what works for police officers can work for others — a safety device far more certain than other options.

Trigger locks, which Handgun Control hopes to require in its legislation proposal, are already available to gun owners as add-ons, but they require a diligent owner, and the quality of the locks can be poor. Parental-liability laws, likewise, already exist in fifteen states, but whether they have had much impact is in dispute. In many instances when kids are killed accidentally by a parent's handgun, prosecutors are reluctant to add to the tragedy by prosecuting the owner as a felon.

"I'm very excited about personalized handguns," says Teret. "I think this is a solution to debates that have been grid-locked for the last several decades. People scream at each other about what's the meaning of the Second Amendment or whether we need guns to defend ourselves in dangerous situations. This provides a safe haven in the traditional storm over gun policy. It will save lives. It won't take anyone's gun away."

Indeed, once they are available, Colt's Smart Guns or other versions should open a vast new market for gun sales based on greater safety, just as air bags became a new feature for selling automobiles. Since gun sales have been flat in recent years, the industry has an obvious stake in developing new market potential.

But in other ways, this new brand of gun points threateningly at the firearms industry itself. It will have to dodge the bullet.

AS A POLITICAL STRATEGY, THE LEADING gun makers have decided they are no longer going to wear the "black hat" in the gun debate and stand shoulder to shoulder with the NRA against gun-control legislation. "We have allowed ourselves to sit back and ignore the problem, thus becoming part of it," Colt's CEO and president, Ron Stewart, wrote in the trade magazine American Firearms Industry. "Silence is acceptance. Our responses to the anti-gun lobby are ill-postured, defensive and pathetically inadequate."

The American Shooting Sports Council, a trade group for firearms makers, began the peacemaking offensive last year with an appearance in the White House's Rose Garden with President Clinton and a promise of a voluntary program to provide child-safety locks with all its handguns. The NRA was not amused to see its old ally making nice with the political leader it loathes.

"We made a decision a couple of years ago that the firearms industry was going to take a different tack from the tobacco industry," explains Bob Ricker, the council's director of government affairs. "We all saw those tobacco executives appear before congressional committees and make ridiculous assertions. We understand firearms are dangerous tools, and the general public understands that, too. We think the industry can bring a lot to this safety debate, whether it's accidental discharge or criminal misuse."

Colt's chief executive has proposed what is blasphemy to the NRA. Stewart calls for "a comprehensive federal firearms law, including the creation of federal gun permits" in order to pre-empt contradictory requirements from a proliferation of state laws. The gun lobby, as we have known it, is splitting up. An NRA spokesman says it has no objection to marketing the safer handguns — the NRA is always for safety — just so long as it doesn't become a legislative requirement.

MEANWHILE, HOWEVER, THE MANUFACTURERS are facing a very serious threat on another front: lawsuits by victims and their families. It took several decades of litigation before tobacco companies were cornered by clearly established legal liability, but guns are now more vulnerable because of the new technology. A potential breakthrough case is pending in Oakland, California, filed against Beretta U.S.A. Corp. by Lynn and Griffin Dix for the shooting of their fifteen-year-old son Kenzo four years ago.

The core argument in the Dix case is that the manufacturer is liable because Beretta failed to apply available safety technology in the gun that killed Kenzo. (Beretta argues that the technology wasn't available yet.) This definition of liability is long-established in product-safety litigation, and the introduction of "personalized" gun locks will raise the hurdle much higher. If some new guns are sold with this safeguard, then all other gun makers will be in the cross hairs, too.

"Whether it turns out to be Oakland or somewhere else," Professor Teret predicts, "eventually the gun manufacturers are going to lose a case for failing to provide the safest possible gun. Once that happens, they won't be able to afford not to have these new devices in their guns."

Teret is confident of the outcome because he played a part in launching the same dynamic that forced the adoption of air bags in cars. For nearly twenty years, the auto companies used their political clout to stymie this safety feature and even refused to offer air bags as an option, though the technology existed. As a former trial lawyer, Teret urged other plaintiffs' lawyers to challenge the industry's stonewalling with damage suits. In 1984, Ford saw that it was losing a lawsuit brought by an eighteen-year-old girl in Birmingham, Alabama, and so it settled for $1.8 million.

"That one settlement caused a tidal wave of litigation against auto manufacturers for failure to provide air bags," Teret explains. The car industry surrendered. Then politics are stalemated, litigation can be a more effective tool for advancing public health.

"It's easier to convince twelve jurors to do something than it is the U.S. Congress," the professor observes. "None of the jurors are seeking to get re-elected."

The gun industry now faces the same threat. As these developments unfold, the companies themselves may jump on the bandwagon, competing with one another over who makes the safest gun, just as car companies now do with their products. Bryan Miller imagines manufacturers luring customers by offering fifty-dollar buyback bonuses for older, more dangerous guns.

One market force unleashed by this innovation may cut in the other direction and shrink the market of potential buyers: the rising price of handguns. At least initially, the "personalized" feature is expected to add $300 or more to the price tag and could double the cost of some of the cheaper handguns. In time the cost impact should fall, just as it did for computers and cell phones.

As the public recognizes the safety potential, the legal regulation and higher safety standards should become more obvious and acceptable, perhaps even in Washington. For instance, the new federal law proposed by Handgun Control Inc. would unshackle the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission and authorize it to study the new technologies for handguns. At present, as reformers like to point out, the commission investigates and regulates the safety of toy guns but is prohibited by law from looking into real guns.

Technology, litigation, market forces, public opinion, regulation — those are the dynamics driving the gun debate in a new direction, interacting with each other and promising real progress. They all pivot on the same point: This is not about rap music or deranged teenagers or careless gun owners — it's about guns.

THERE'S A DOWNSIDE. THIS NEW SAFETY DEVICE, assuming it works, will not by itself solve the gun problem in its full dimensions (no one claims it will). The "childproof" gun does not confront a major source of gun deaths — homicide. Whether it's family, friends or strangers doing the shooting, homicides account for more than forty percent of the 36,000 or so firearms deaths every year (and seventy percent of handgun deaths for those age nineteen and younger).

Accidents should be reduced, but if a gun owner wants to shoot his wife (or vice versa), a Smart Gun isn't going to stop him. On the other hand, the new mechanism should have a significant impact on reducing suicides, especially among people nineteen years old and younger (roughly a fourth of their gun deaths are caused by suicide). Furthermore, a significant number of the guns that felons use in crimes are originally stolen from homes. This new technology will at least shrink the easy access that criminals have to new firepower.

A more sophisticated objection from some reformers goes like this: The real problem is that America is awash in millions of handguns owned by private citizens, and the only real solution is to ban them, except perhaps for limited circumstances.

"Our concern," says Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center,"is that people will view this as a magic bullet — no pun intended." Conceivably, she adds, this new feature will merely allow the firearms industry to turn over the market — selling safer guns to people who already own guns — while the older, less-safe weapons will continue to exist and do harm.

Prohibition may be the ultimate solution (I've written as much myself), but it's not in the cards, not now or for many years. Before anything like that can occur, the nation must undergo deep social change — not just anger but a new understanding that the gun problem can be solved. The Smart Gun turns the political debate in the right direction and begins this essential process of educating and altering popular attitudes. Once safer guns are in general use, people will see that the problem hasn't gone away. That could build the political predicate for a more aggressive campaign of eradication.

If this sounds too wishful, remember what happened to tobacco. The deep shift in public attitudes on smoking took many years of education and agitation by reformers, as well as new scientific evidence and litigation. Gun reform is not going to take anywhere near that long. The companies can see what lies ahead for them. And Americans can see the victims right now.