When a Michigan first-grader shot and killed a classmate last week, President Clinton offered the latest testament to Americans' persistent belief in the ability of technology to solve any problem.
"If we had passed the child trigger-lock provision and we applied it to all new guns, then at least those guns would not be used by six-year-olds," the president said. "I've asked [Congress] to fund some more research into smart gun technology, which would enable us to have guns that could only be fired by the adults who own them." Chastising the Republican presidential candidates for their opposition to traditional gun control measures, he noted their support for so-called "smart guns," saying "nobody could be against technology."
Nobody? Even if that technology would sell more guns and so, almost certainly, increase the likelihood of death and injury? The potential of high-tech "personalized" handguns--which supposedly would use fingerprint identification or special radio transmitters to prevent the misuse or theft of firearms--offers the last, best opportunity for the firearms industry to sell handguns to non-gun owners. Behind the president's words is the paradoxical belief that you can sell more guns--and save lives.
Not surprisingly, handgun manufacturers--looking for ways to expand beyond their saturated market of white men--endorse this view and welcome the thought of $10 million in taxpayer subsidies for smart gun research. Some gun control proponents unwittingly offer the industry cover by painting these weapons as the apex of gun safety. Most recently, Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening (D) has made smart guns the centerpiece of his gun control agenda.
But America's gun violence problem can't be solved by "gun safety" solutions. Take the killing of Kayla Rolland last week in Michigan. According to police, the 6-year-old shooter found a .32-caliber pistol in the crack house where his mother had left him. The president's response to this shooting was to lament the lack of a trigger lock. Considering the people who went in and out of that house, his expectation would strike most people as absurd on its face.
And if smart guns--which are nothing more than high-tech trigger locks with owner loyalty--ever moved out of the laboratory and into the real world, what could they actually accomplish? Looking beyond their Buck Rogers appeal and focusing on the true nature of gun violence in America, the answer is: not much.
Consider what's already out there. Americans now own more than 190 million non-personalized firearms, including 65 million handguns. No matter what new technology is invented, all of these guns will remain in American hands.
Now consider how guns kill people. Suicide is the leading cause of death by firearms in America: The Centers for Disease Control counted 17,566 such deaths in 1997, the latest year for which complete figures are available. (Total deaths by firearms that year were 32,436.) Gun owners can, of course, kill themselves using their own weapons--personalized or not. So smart gun advocates focus on suicide by people ages 19 or under (1,262 in 1997), operating under the false assumption that teenagers can only kill themselves with other people's guns. But a 1998 New York Times poll of 13- to 17-year-olds found that 15 percent owned their own firearms. These teenagers are "authorized" gun users, as are those granted access to their parents' guns.
Homicide is the second-leading cause of firearms death in America: 10,729 in 1997, according to the FBI. Most homicides are perpetrated by people who know their victims, and are typically the result of an argument. Once again, nearly all the shooters would be "authorized" users of the guns they fired. Any crime now committed with a licensed and registered handgun would also be unaffected.
Unintentional shootings claimed 981 American lives in 1997. This is where the smart gun advocates make their most powerful, emotional appeal, promising that new technology could halt almost all such fatalities. They particularly focus on the deaths of children; 142 of the 981 killed were under the age of 15. But many of those shootings could have been prevented with existing technology such as magazine disconnect devices or heavier trigger pulls. Smart gun advocates also overlook the most common scenario for unintentional shooting deaths--a gun owner cleaning his weapon.
The argument that smart guns would eliminate the incentive for gun theft ignores the manufacturers' promise that guns could be programmed for multiple users. As a result, the technology would do nothing to stop "straw purchases" of guns--sales to a front man who then transfers the weapon to a criminal. And it's not clear how easy it would be for a thief to subvert a smart gun to his own use.
Not only would smart guns fail to save many lives, they would increase gun death and injury if non-gun owners decide to purchase such weapons--a marketing angle some manufacturers are betting their future on. A March 1997 survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center and the Johns Hopkins Center on Gun Policy and Research found that, of respondents who were "unlikely to buy a gun in the future," 35 percent would "consider buying a handgun that would only fire for the owner of the gun." Gun manufacturer Colt has estimated that 60 million non-gun owners would consider buying smart guns.
Using smart gun advocates' own claims, these new weapons could at best only affect a small fraction of gun deaths and injuries. Even if America's existing handguns were all smart guns and they stopped all of the youth suicides and unintentional injuries that helped comprise 1997's estimated handgun death toll of 21,259, that would still leave more than 19,000 dead. Just imagine what that number would be if we added 60 million new handguns to our nation's arsenal.
President Clinton has declared smart guns to be "common sense" gun control. But is it common sense for gun control supporters to advocate policies that will promote handgun sales? A "common sense" approach to gun violence in America would be to ban handguns. It may not have the gee-whiz appeal of smart guns, but it might just work.
Josh Sugarmann is executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a national nonprofit foundation that conducts research on gun death and injury.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company