Gun violence is one of our nation’s most significant and vexing public health problems. Wherever one stands on the political spectrum of the gun debate, all are saddened and sickened that almost 34,000 Americans die from firearms annually.
In the current political climate, the most promising way to save lives is by accelerating the adoption of safer firearms. And the best way to do that is by harnessing the purchasing power of police departments.
There are typically three paths to address a public health issue like drunk driving, smoking or gun violence: legislation, education and technology or some combination of the three.
The chance of meaningful gun legislation either nationally or in more than a handful of states is remote for the foreseeable future. Nor can anyone expect a national public health campaign comparable to the “Friends Don’t Let Friends, Drive Drunk” government effort that played a key role in reducing drunk driving deaths by 50% over the past 30 years.
That leaves technology as the one possible path to making the country significantly safer from gun violence.
Technology has recently played a key role in reducing drunk driving deaths. The advent of active rollover protection systems in cars, for instance, has helped to significantly reduce the number of fatalities from rollover accidents for those driving while intoxicated. Rollovers represent only 2% of all car accidents, but historically as many as a third of all auto fatalities.
The most promising technology for firearms are so-called smart guns, which can only be fired by the authorized user. Smart guns have been a theoretical option for almost 20 years, but a combination of missteps have prevented their broad-scale adoption.
In 2003, New Jersey passed a law mandating that all guns sold in the state be smart guns. But gun rights activists took exception, and instead of accelerating smart gun adoption, the law had the opposite effect.
Along with New Jersey’s legislative effort, that state also invested millions in grants to the New Jersey Institute of Technology to successfully develop a biometric smart gun. But biometric smart guns, such as those that recognize one’s thumbprint, proved to be insufficiently reliable — particularly for members of law enforcement, who frequently wear gloves or whose hands are often sweaty, muddy or even bloody.
Today, when someone hears about smart guns, they typically associate the technology with that more glamorous but finicky biometric version.
There’s a better way: radio frequency identification, or RFID technology — which involves a “digital handshake” between a computer chip on a ring or wrist band on one hand, and one embedded in the gun itself. It’s been around for decades and proven itself infinitely reliable.
A well-known gun designer, Ernst Mauch, the former head of gun manufacturer Heckler and Koch, has proved the workability of an RFID smart gun with rigorous field testing in the extreme cold of Northern Alaska, the humidity of the Panama jungle and the dry heat and sand of the Arizona desert.
There is now reason to believe that an RFID smart gun can soon be on the market. Fittingly, the key to speeding its adoption rests with police departments. If they buy these guns in large numbers and demonstrate their viability to the broader market, everything could change.
No less an authority than Richard Beary, former President of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, has gone on the record to say that many police departments would have interest in a smart gun.
Smart guns would seem to be a good fit for law enforcement given that a major concern for many officers is a “gun grab,’ where a criminal takes a policeman’s gun away while being apprehended. Over the past decade, over 50 members of law enforcement have been killed by gun grabs.
Many other officers are also believed to have been killed by the 250,000 guns estimated to be stolen annually by criminals, firearms that would henceforth be inoperable if they were smart guns. Lastly, over 10,000 police guns have been lost or stolen over the past five years, and in some situations with tragic outcomes for loved ones.
A new study of almost 4,000 households by John Hopkins suggests strong consumer demand for smart guns. Some 43% of current gun owners would consider buying one, with particularly strong interest in families with children. That’s not surprising, given that research shows that almost 2 million children live in homes with unlocked and loaded guns.
Neither the NRA nor the National Shooting Sports Foundation is on record as being against smart guns. They simply demand to know they’re reliable — a concern that would go away if major law enforcement agencies across the country step up and adopt smart guns as standard gear.
– Ralph Fascitelli is board president of Washington Ceasefire, a 34-year-old gun safety group in
Editors note: This was originally published by New York Daily News on February 26, 2017. But the author submitted it to LET as well, and we thought it was worthy information for our readers.