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.