Barack Obama can save lives with push for 'smart guns'

Among President Obama’s actions this week on guns, the most far-reaching may be the brief memorandum he sent to the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General and the Secretary of Homeland Security. These are the three largest gun-purchasing agencies in the U.S. government. Each has a substantial research budget. The President’s memo directs them to research “smart guns” and other gun-safety technologies, and to purchase these technologies as appropriate.

Finally the President has moved beyond the bully pulpit and begun to use the bully budget — the spending power of the federal government — to curb gun deaths in America.

That’s vitally important for two reasons. First, it will outfit U.S. soldiers and law enforcement personnel with state-of-the-art safety technologies that can reduce the incidence of accidental discharges and stolen weapons. (That would be useful in Syria, not just on the South Side of Chicago.)

More broadly, with proper follow-through, the President’s actions can create a wave of life-saving innovation in the gun industry.

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“Life-saving innovation” and “gun industry” are phrases seldom used in the same sentence. While technological innovations in the auto industry have saved a quarter of a million lives since the 1960s, innovation in the gun industry always means one thing: greater killing power. The innovations that could save lives, like smart guns, are fought tooth and nail.

President Obama has finally got it right by seeking research into "smart guns."Carolyn Kaster/AP

President Obama has finally got it right by seeking research into “smart guns.”

A smart gun is made or retrofitted with a user-authenticating device so that it can only be fired by an authorized user.

Think about this. If every gun in America could only be fired by an authorized user, there would be no accidental shootings by children. There would be a much smaller secondary market in stolen guns. One study projects that the number of gun-related deaths and crimes would be cut in half.

Of course, that day will never come. America is saturated with guns — 300 million of them — and the vast majority of those will never be retrofitted with smart locking systems. But why shouldn’t we do everything possible to apply cutting-edge technology to firearms?

The good news is that there is already technology that is proven, reliable and available. The most basic approach to user-authentication in a gun is radiofrequency identification technology — which is how you can push a button and unlock your car and no one else’s. RFID-enabled gun prototypes have been made for more than a decade. The owner has an RFID device embedded in a ring, watch or badge, and the gun won’t fire unless the device is within a specific distance from the gun — say six inches, in the case of a ring. At least one such model has passed rigorous military-grade testing for reliability. The smart part of the gun is at least as reliable as the old, mechanical part. (Guns do misfire, on occasion.)

Viewers of “Skyfall,” the 2012 James Bond movie, will remember a biometric gun — one enabled by Bond’s thumbprint, just like your iPhone. That’s real. Several smart-gun developers have made working prototypes with thumbprint readers. The technology is maturing. Rigorous testing and refinement are needed to reach 99.9% reliability.

HOLD FOR STORYLM Otero/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Many of America’s guns lack the smart locking technology. But that could change if the technology is improved. 

The most ambitious biometric gun involves grip recognition. If the technology embedded in the handle of the gun doesn’t recognize the user’s unique grip signature, it doesn’t shoot. New Jersey Institute of Technology developed a working prototype. It will take several million dollars worth of engineering refinements to get it ready for market.

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Instead of gun buybacks, imagine events where owners bring their guns to a police station or city hall and walk away with a biometric handle or locking system.

What’s the holdup? It’s been 20 years since the federal government recognized the life-saving potential of smart guns and began funding research by smart-gun developers. With technology transforming every other industry at blinding speed, why not guns? Why haven’t the gun manufacturing giants bought out the smart-gun start-ups and brought their products to market?

Why is James Bond’s the only life that’s been saved by a smart gun?

Joe Morris is an organizer with Metro Industrial Areas Foundation.

Joe Morris is an organizer with Metro Industrial Areas Foundation.

The answer lies in the skewed dynamics of the gun marketplace. One small slice of the market — gun-rights fanatics — is highly organized and assertive. It values innovations in killing power: high-capacity magazines, hollow-point bullets and the like. Meanwhile, the largest segment of the gun market — the public sector, which purchases 40% of the nation’s guns and ammunition — remains passive and shrinks from conflict. No one asserts the core interest of this sector: safety. There is no NRA for the public sector, pushing for innovations that will save lives.

Which is why President Obama’s action is so important. By signaling that the U.S. military and law enforcement agencies are in the market for smart guns, the President has sent a powerful signal to manufacturers: Innovate on safety, and you will make money.

In taking this step, the President joins mayors, police chiefs, governors, sheriffs and other officials across the nation organized by our Do Not Stand Idly By coalition to push for safety innovation in the gun industry.

Now the President should go one step farther. Tell the manufacturers: Innovate on safety — or lose your government contracts.

Joe Morris is an organizer with Metro Industrial Areas Foundation.

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barack obama ,
gun control

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