Novick: 'Smart guns' could be smart way to limit gun violence
Like many people, I support banning semi-automatic weapons (as Australia has done), a limit on the size of magazines, and more comprehensive background checks. But there is another, less-explored and possibly less controversial step elected officials could take to prevent gun violence — a step toward a policy that would not have prevented the Parkland massacre, but might have prevented the Sandy Hook massacre, and could certainly prevent thousands of teen suicides.
The technology exists to build "smart guns" — guns that use fingerprint recognition or other technology to ensure that only the legal, original buyer of the gun can physically fire it. If all guns were smart guns, it would eliminate the black market in guns. It would render both stolen and borrowed guns useless, and could prevent young people like the Sandy Hook shooter — or the toddler who grabbed a gun and accidentally killed his mother in a Walmart parking lot — from using their parents' guns.
Studies show that a move to smart guns would significantly reduce gun deaths in a variety of ways. A study of teen gun suicides, using data from the National Violent Injury Statistics System, showed that "82 percent used a firearm belonging to a family member, usually a parent." Another study, published in the Injury Prevention journal, showed that 10 percent of police officers shot dead on the job were killed by their own guns. A University of Chicago Crime Lab review of 99 people in jail for gun crimes showed that only two of the guns were purchased from dealers. That study stated that "60 percent of the guns involved in violent crimes were either bought or traded underground; the remainder were shared, borrowed, or being held for others."
But when any gun manufacturer has started to manufacture smart guns, the National Rifle Association has threatened to call for a boycott of that manufacturer (of all of its guns, not just the smart ones). The manufacturers have been cowed, even though surveys indicate a market for such guns. Mother Jones magazine reported a 2015 poll showing that "54 percent of gun owners under the age of 45 are willing to consider swapping out their conventional pistols for smart guns. And 83 percent of gun owners, it found, want gun dealers to be able to sell the weapons."
My suggestion is that cities, counties and states should band together and announce that as of a date certain in the not too distant future — say, as of 2020 — they plan to buy only smart guns for law enforcement officers, and will buy from whoever first makes them commercially available. Having a guaranteed market, as opposed to a hypothetical market, might lead at least one manufacturer to overcome its fear of the NRA.
Once smart guns are available, there's another step governments can take. New Jersey has long had a law on the books saying that as soon as smart guns are commercially available, only smart guns can be legally sold in New Jersey. The NRA boycott has prevented that law from becoming effective. But it is still a great idea that should be followed.
Again, this would not stop all gun violence. But it could have a major impact.
I hope you will join me in urging your local elected officials to start a movement toward smart guns.
Steve Novick is a lawyer and policy consultant, former Portland city commissioner, and former Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. He lives in Portland.
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