Making Guns Safer

The technology now exists to make guns that only authorized users can operate. These safer guns could cut gun-related deaths and injuries.

Children are killing children by gunfire. These deaths are occurring in homes, on the streets, and in schools. When possible solutions to this problem are discussed, conversation most often focuses on the troubled youth. Interventions involving conflict resolution programs, values teaching, reducing violence on television, and making available after-school activities and positive role models are proposed. Although each of these interventions may provide benefits, they are, even in combination, inadequate to eliminate childhood shootings. Behavior-modification programs cannot possibly reach and successfully treat every troubled youth capable of creating mayhem if he or she finds an operable firearm within arm’s reach.

But behavior modification isn’t the only possible solution. Another intervention is now being developed: the personalized gun, a weapon that will operate only for the authorized user. Personalized guns could reduce the likelihood of many gun-related injuries to children as well as adults. They could be especially effective in preventing youth suicides and unintentional shootings by young children. Personalized guns could also reduce gun violence by making the many firearms that are stolen and later used in crime useless to criminals. Law enforcement officers, who are at risk of having their handgun taken from them and being shot by it, would be safer with a personalized gun.

About 36,000 individuals died from gunshot wounds in 1995; of these, more than 5,000 were 19 years of age or younger. Suicide is among the leading causes of death for children and young adults. In 1995, more than 2,200 people between 10 and 19 years of age committed suicide in the United States, and 65 percent of these used a gun.

Adolescence is often a turbulent stage of development. Young people are prone to impulsive behavior, and studies show that thoughts of suicide occur among at least one-third of adolescents. Because firearms are among the most lethal methods of suicide, access to an operable firearm can often mean the difference between life and death for a troubled teenager. Studies have shown a strong association between adolescent suicide risk and home gun ownership. Although the causes of suicide are complex, personalizing guns to their adult owners should significantly reduce the risk of suicide among adolescents.

Personalized guns could be especially effective in preventing teenage suicides and unintentional deaths and injuries of children.

The number of unintentional deaths caused by firearms has ranged between 1,225 and 2,000 per year since 1979. Many of the victims are young children. In 1995, the most recent year for which final statistics are available, 440 people age 19 and younger, including 181 that were under 15, were unintentionally killed with guns.

Some have argued that the best way to reduce these unintentional firearm deaths is to “gun proof” children rather than to child-proof guns. It is imprudent, however, to depend on adults’ efforts to keep guns away from children and children’s efforts to avoid guns. Firearms are available in almost 40 percent of U.S. homes, and not all parents can be relied upon to store guns safely. Surveys have documented unsafe storage practices, even among those trained in gun safety.

Stolen guns contribute to the number of gun-related deaths. Experts estimate that about 500,000 guns are stolen each year. Surveys of adult and juvenile criminals indicate that thefts are a significant source of guns used in crime. Roughly one-third of the guns used by armed felons are obtained directly through theft. Many guns illegally sold to criminals on the street have been stolen from homes. Research on the guns used in crime demonstrates that many are no more than a few years old. Requiring all guns to be personalized could, therefore, limit the availability of usable guns to adult and juvenile criminals in the illegal gun market.

Advancing technology

The idea of making a gun that some people cannot operate is not new. Beginning in the late 1880s, Smith & Wesson made a handgun with a grip safety and stated in its marketing materials that “…no ordinary child under eight can possibly discharge it.” More recently, some gun manufacturers have provided trigger-locking devices with their new guns. But trigger locks require the gun owner’s diligence in re-locking the gun each time it has been unlocked. Also, handguns are frequently purchased because the buyer believes he needs and will achieve a form of immediate self-protection. These gun owners may perceive devices such as trigger locks as a hindrance when they want the gun to be immediately available. Also, some trigger locks currently on the market are so shoddy that they can easily be removed by anyone.

Today, a number of technologies are available to personalize guns. For example, magnetic encoding has long been available for the personalization of guns. Magna-TriggerTM markets a ring that contains a magnet, which, when properly aligned with a magnet installed in the grip of the gun, physically moves a lever in the grip of the firearm, allowing the gun to fire. However, the Magna-TriggerTM system is not currently built into guns as original equipment; it must be added later. Because the gun owner must take this additional step and because the magnetic force is not coded to the gun owner, this technology is not optimal.

Another technology-touch memory-was used in 1992 by Johns Hopkins University undergraduate engineering students to develop a non-firing prototype of a personalized gun. Touch memory relies on direct contact between a semiconductor chip and a reader on the grip of the gun. A code is stored on the chip, which is placed on a ring worn by the user. The gun will fire only if the reader recognizes the proper code on the chip.

Another type of personalized gun employs radio frequency technology, for which the user wears a transponder imbedded in a ring, a watch, or pin attached to the user’s clothing. A device within the firearm transmits low power radio signals to the transponder, which in turn “notifies” the firearm of its presence. If the transponder code is one that has previously been entered into the firearm, the firearm “recognizes” it and is enabled. Without the receipt of that coded message, however, a movable piece within the gun remains in a position that mechanically blocks the gun from firing. One major gun manufacturer has developed prototypes of personalized handguns using radio frequency technology and expects to market these guns soon.

The personalization method of the near future appears to be fingerprint reading technology. A gun would be programmed to recognize one or more fingerprints by use of a tiny reader. This eliminates the need for the authorized user to wear a ring or bracelet. Regardless of the technology that is ultimately chosen by most gun manufacturers, several gun magazines have advised their readers to expect personalized handguns to be readily available within the next few years.

Prices for personalized handguns will be higher than for ordinary handguns. The Magna-TriggerTM device can be fitted to some handguns at a cost of about $250, plus $40 for the ring. One gun manufacturer originally estimated that personalizing a handgun would increase the cost of the gun by about 50 percent; however, with the decreasing cost of electronics and with economies of scale, the cost of personalization should substantially decrease. Polling data show that the gun-buying public is willing to pay an increased cost for a personalized handgun.

Regulating gun safety

Most gun manufacturers have not yet indicated that they will redesign their products for safety. When the manufacturers of other products involved with injuries were slow to employ injury prevention technologies, the federal government forced them to do so. But the federal government does not mandate safety mechanisms for handguns. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal agency established by Congress to oversee the safety of most consumer products, is prohibited from exercising jurisdiction over firearms. However, bills have been introduced in several states that would require new handguns to be personalized. Regulation and litigation against firearms manufacturers may also add to the pressure to personalize guns.

Important legislative and regulatory efforts have already taken place in Massachusetts. The state’s attorney general recently promulgated the nation’s first consumer protection regulations regarding handguns. The regulations require that all handguns manufactured or sold in Massachusetts be made child-resistant. If newly manufactured handguns are not personalized, then stringent warnings about the product’s danger must accompany handgun sales. Bills affecting gun manufacturers’ liability have also been introduced in the state legislature. The proposed legislation imposes strict liability on manufacturers and distributors of firearms for the deaths and injuries their products cause. Strict liability would not be imposed, however, if a firearm employs a mechanism or device designed to prevent anyone except the registered owner from discharging it.

A bill recently introduced in California would require that concealable handguns employ a device designed to prevent use by unauthorized users or be accompanied by a warning that explains the danger of a gun that does not employ a “single-user device.” A bill introduced in the Rhode Island legislature would require all handguns sold in the state to be child-resistant or personalized.

To aid legislative efforts that would require personalized guns, the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research has developed a model law entitled “A Model Handgun Safety Standard Act.” Legislation patterned after the model law has been introduced in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey.

One objection to legislation requiring handguns to be personalized is that the technology has not yet been adequately developed. But in interpreting the validity of safety legislation, courts traditionally have held that standards need not be based upon existing devices. For example, in a 1983 case involving a passive-restraint standard promulgated pursuant to the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, the Supreme Court ruled that “…the Act was necessary because the industry was not sufficiently responsive to safety concerns. The Act intended that safety standards not depend on current technology and could be `technology-forcing’ in the sense of inducing the development of superior safety design.”

The model handgun safety legislation mandates the development of a performance standard and provides an extended time for compliance-two features the courts have said contribute to the determination that a standard is technologically feasible. A performance standard does not dictate the design or technology that a manufacturer must employ to comply with the law. The model law calls for adoption of a standard within 18 months of passage of the law, with compliance beginning four years after the standard is adopted.

Legislative efforts to promote the use of personalized guns can be complemented by litigation. For some time, injury-prevention professionals have recognized that product liability litigation fosters injury prevention by creating a financial incentive to design safer products. One lawsuit is already being litigated in California against a gun manufacturer in a case involving a 15-year-old boy who was shot unintentionally by a friend playing with a handgun. The suit alleges that, among other theories of liability, the handgun was defective because its design did not utilize personalization technology. Additional cases against gun manufacturers for failure to personalize their products can be expected.

Firearm manufacturers need to realize the benefits of personalized guns. The threat of legislation, regulation, or litigation may be enough to convince some manufacturers to integrate available personalization technologies into their products. When personalized guns replace present day guns that are operable by anyone, the unauthorized use of guns by children and adolescents will decrease, as will the incidence of gun-related morbidity and mortality.

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Cite this Article

Teret, Stephen P., Susan Defrancesco, Stephen W. Hargarten, and Krista D. Robinson. “Making Guns Safer.” Issues in Science and Technology 14, no. 4 (Summer 1998).

Vol. XIV, No. 4, Summer 1998