Looking at the recent tragedies in New York, the murder of the firefighters, and Newtown, the murder of children and teachers, there is a common thread. That common thread expands beyond mass murder to the gun violence arenas of accidental shootings and criminal use of firearms. The common thread is that the weapons in New York and Connecticut were not legally purchased by the end user. The New York shooter was a convicted felon who could not have legally purchased a firearm. At Sandy Hook Elementary the shooter used guns purchased legally by a relative, his now dead mother, but not legally purchased by him.
Transfer of possession of firearms is one of the great loopholes in the background check system. No matter how many criminals and/or violently mental ill persons one prevents from making a legal initial purchase, subsequent transfer of possession is largely uncontrolled. These subsequent transfers include, probably not naming them all, gifting guns to friends and family, access to guns by other household members (Lanza), selling guns to third parties, including stranger to stranger as informally as yard or garage sales, having guns stolen in burglaries and personal robberies and losing a firearm only to have it found by a stranger.
Years ago a very specific problem arose that continues to this day. It came to the attention of the authorities that many shootings of police officers happened when criminals, during a struggle or by guile, managed to gain possession of an officer’s weapon and shot him/her with his/her own weapon. It is estimated today that 40% of NYPD officers who are shot are the victims of bullets fired from their own guns.
More than two decades ago, technology began to explore solutions to the law officer problem by beginning to develop “smart guns”. These are guns that can only be fired by recognized persons. The technology was encouraged during the 1990’s, but funding dried up after the Clinton administration. Today, researchers into this technology are working without sufficient funding and often with computer chips as much as ten years old. The research and development does continue to some extent outside the United States.
Technologies include at least the following that have existing working prototypes. Fingerprint identification requires thumbprint recognition to activate a firearm. Magnetic ring technology, trade name Magna Trigger, requires the user to wear a magnetic ring to fire the weapon. This is available as an after-market retrofit but is not available through any manufacturer of firearms. RFID technology uses radio frequency identification through radio chips that send and receive radio signals to activate a firearm. One trade name associated with RFID is Trigger Smart of Ireland. After-market is available for this technology, but again no manufacturer offers it on their firearms. RFID after-market kits cost about $50 to produce and are complicated to retrofit. If added to original manufacture the cost and complexity would both be significantly reduced. Dynamic grip recognition uses biometrics to recognize the unique grip of an authorized user. Development of this technology is currently stalled due to lack of funding.
Why is this safer gun technology not being pursued? Largely because of resistance from the NRA and gun manufacturers. To paraphrase the author of an article on the subject for Computerworld online , there is no interest on the part of manufacturers. Or, to quote Joe Dowling, General Manager of Georgia Tech Ireland, developer of Trigger Smart,
“There’s quite a bit of resistance from the gun industry in the U.S. to the technology.”
Lucas Mearian, the author of the Computerworld piece summed it up this way,
“One problem, proponents say, is perspective. Gun enthusiasts and organizations such as the National Rifle Association may view smart gun technology as gun control instead of gun safety.”
So far, smart gun technology has been largely limited to authorized user shooting, but it can be even more effective. First, it should not be simply “authorized users.” It should be restricted to lawful purchasers. That makes background checks truly useful. Friends, family members and strangers, any of whom might not pass a background check, would be prevented from using such a firearm. Upon private sale, the guns would have to be recalibrated to a new authorized user. This likely would be done by a licensed technician requiring a background check as part of a private firearms transaction.
Remember that piece I did last week where I talked about nine ideas for gun control ? One was repealing the gun manufacturer liability shield law. If manufacturers faced liability, might they not be more interested in R & D for safe gun technology? I think so.
But, we need not stop at user recognition technology. Here are some other technologies to consider.
Technology could easily create a mechanism to return a gun’s safety to the locked position after a set amount of time, say 30 seconds. Any deer will be long gone after 30 seconds. Such an auto-safety engaging mechanism will help prevent accidental gun death and injury, but will also restrict how long a would be mass killer can use one gun.
Another idea might be a firing delay that restricts firing to say two rounds per second. Folks could still have semi-automatic weapons that fired without manual cocking, but the frequency of firing would be restricted by technological advances in gun safety.
There would, of course, be resistance. There was resistance to wearing seatbelts. There was a time when construction workers didn’t wear hard hats. That there would be resistance is not an excuse for inaction. Nor is it an excuse that it would take a generation to have new safer guns become the majority of guns owned. This happened with cars too. Only over time did safer cars replace unsafe cars as the unsafe cars found their way to junk yards. That this is a longer range view or that it will face resistance should not stop us from at least considering the possibilities that technology offers in combination with other solutions to gun violence.
Contributor, aka tidbits. Attorney in complex litigation, death penalty defense and constitutional law. Former Nat’l Board Chair: Alzheimer’s Association. Served on multiple political campaigns, including two for U.S. Senator Mark O. Hatfield (R-OR). Contributing author to three legal books and multiple legal publications.