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'Smart' Guns Are a Dumb Idea

Firearms: High-tech personalized guns won't be much safer because owners are usually the perpetrators.

September 04, 1998|SUSAN GLICK | Susan Glick is health policy analyst for the Violence Policy Center, a Washington-based public policy institute devoted to reducing gun violence

Suddenly, everyone from gun control advocates to big-city mayors to the manufacturer of Colt firearms is talking about using futuristic new 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 special ring worn by the user.

Proponents argue that such technology, also known as a "smart gun," would stop the misuse of firearms by children and render stolen weapons useless. It certainly sounds promising. Upon closer examination, however, it becomes clear that smart guns are a dumb idea.

Smart guns 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 still shoot themselves with their personalized guns. The vast majority of homicides, the second-leading cause of gun deaths in the U.S., 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 who are wielding their own guns. So, even if the technology worked perfectly, this space-age gun would only live up to its name in a small fraction of instances.

Statistics on firearm ownership reveal another shortcoming to the smart gun panacea. A Police Foundation study published last year found that while only one-quarter of American adults owns a gun, 74% of these owners have two or more guns. Furthermore, 68% 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 actually do replace their current stockpile of handguns with personalized weapons, in many cases they would simply be exchanging one problem for another. The Police Foundation survey found that more than 77% of handguns now possessed by private individuals hold less than 10 rounds of ammunition, reflecting the fact that most of these handguns are revolvers. Since 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.

This potential for customers to "trade up" caught the eye of Ronald Stewart, the president of Colt's Manufacturing Inc., the famous firearm producer. Stewart has broken ranks with the rest of the gun industry to pursue this new technology. Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department has awarded his company $500,000 to develop a smart gun prototype.

Stewart came to Colt in 1996 after 22 years at Chrysler. This month, he will be replaced by Steven Sliwa, a former software executive and president of Embry-Riddle University in Florida. Both men are business professionals, not pro-gun zealots. With their fresh perspectives, they understand what their more narrow-minded firearms industry colleagues missed: Smart guns are smart business.

According to a 1997 survey sponsored by the Johns Hopkins Center on Gun Policy and Research, 35% of those who said they were unlikely to buy a gun in the future 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 now. 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 may not sound as glamorous or as easy as building James Bond weapons, but it would certainly save more lives.

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