Why not childproof firearms?
For nearly two months, my assistant, Jennifer Mascia, and I have been publishing a daily blog in which we aggregate articles about shootings from the previous day. Of all the stories we link to, the ones I find hardest to read are those about young children who accidentally shoot themselves or another child. They just break my heart. Yet Jennifer and I find new examples almost every day.
Partly, I react by thinking, "How can anyone be so stupid as to leave a loaded gun within reach of a small child?" But I also have another reaction. In 1970, Congress passed a law that resulted in childproofing medicine bottles. The Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates the paint used in children's toys. State laws mandate that young children be required to use car seats.
So why can't we childproof guns? In an age of technological wizardry -- not to mention for a deep sensitivity to the welfare of children -- why can't we come up with a technology that would keep a gun from going off when it is being held by a child? Or, for that matter, by a thief using a stolen gun? Or an angry teenager who is plotting to use his parents' arsenal to wreak havoc in a mall?
It turns out -- why is this not a surprise? -- that such technologies exist. A German company, Armartix, will soon be marketing a pistol that uses radio frequencies that prevent a gun from being used by anyone except its owner. At the New Jersey Institute of Technology, the senior vice president for research and development, Donald Sebastian, has long spearheaded an effort to develop biometrics for "gun personalization," as it's called. Guns employing this technology fire only when they recognize the hand of the owner. There are others who have invented similar technologies.
Why aren't these lifesaving technologies in widespread use? No surprise here, either: The usual irrational opposition from the National Rifle Association and gun absolutists, who claim, absurdly, that a gun that only can be fired by its owner somehow violates the Second Amendment. Pro-gun bloggers were furious when they saw James Bond, in "Skyfall," proudly showing off his new biometrically protected weapon. They were convinced it was a Hollywood plot to undermine their rights.
Yet there is reason for at least some hope that the day when these technologies are in widespread use will soon be here. Recently, there were two important meetings about gun personalization technology. On March 13, in Washington, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. met with several dozen advocates, including Sebastian and Stephen Teret, the co-director of the Center for Law and the Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. The purpose of the meeting was to get Holder up to speed on the technologies so he could make recommendations to President Barack Obama.
The following day, in San Francisco, Sandy Hook Promise, an organization founded by citizens of Newtown, Conn., publicly launched its "innovation initiative" in collaboration with some Silicon Valley venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. One of the leaders in the effort is the venture capitalist Ron Conway, who coincidentally threw a Christmas party on the day of the Newtown massacre. Gabrielle Giffords was among those who attended. Like so many others, Conway decided he had to do something about guns after Newtown.
The innovation initiative, which will make grants, and even award prize money for good ideas, includes an emphasis on gun personalization technology. A member of the group, Alan Boinus, who received a patent on a biometric technology back in 1994, has founded a company, Allied Biometrics, that is devoted to commercializing biometric gun technology. He has already begun a collaboration with Sebastian in New Jersey.
In classic Silicon Valley fashion, Boinus told me that the government has been hopeless and that innovation and the market itself would solve the problem. "The market will prove this out," he said. "People want to be responsible. People want safety."
I agree with him that Congress has been hopeless and then some, unable to even work up the courage to vote on an assault weapons ban for fear of offending gun owners. But I'm not convinced that the market alone can create mass acceptance of this technology. It took years, after all, for Congress to overcome the car industry's resistance to air bags, ultimately requiring a law that made air bags mandatory.
Thousands of lives could be saved each year if gun personalization technology became the law of the land. In mid-April, Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., plans to introduce a House bill requiring that all guns include personalization technology within two years.
Congress once cared enough about the safety of its citizens to pass laws about air bags and childproof bottles. We'll soon find out if it still cares enough about the safety of its constituents to make childproofing guns the law of the land. It should.