The majority of Americans are in favor of making safety-enhancing design changes to firearms, according to a new study released by the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. The findings, which are consistent with other recent survey results, reflect the growing national interest in using technology to reduce the toll of gun violence, a public health epidemic that kills more than 33,000 Americans annually.
In a nationally representative survey, 59 percent of people said if they purchased a new firearm, they would be interested in buying a personalized or childproof gun that is only operable in the hands of an authorized user. Support was high across the political spectrum, with a majority of self-identified liberals and conservatives expressing interest in purchasing a gun with safety-enhancing technology. Perhaps most importantly, 43 percent of current gun owners said they’d be interested in buying one, while just 24 percent said they would not consider it.
The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, debunks claims by the gun lobby that there is no market for the tech-infused weapons known as ‘smart guns’.
“The results of this study show that there is potentially a large commercial market for smart gun technology,” said lead author Julia A. Wolfson, MPP, a Lerner Fellow with the Bloomberg School’s Center for a Livable Future and a PhD candidate in the Department of Health Policy and Management. “This has been one of the biggest arguments against smart guns, that people just don’t want them. This research shows otherwise.”
Smart guns, also called personalized guns, are equipped with user-authentication features like biometrics (typically fingerprint detection) and radio frequency recognition, which are used to ensure that the weapon can only be fired by its owner. While the technology won’t solve America’s gun violence epidemic, public health and safety experts say personalized guns could be an important step towards reducing the burden of gun deaths and injuries, particularly among children.
Equipping more guns with smart technology could substantially reduce accidental use and misuse of firearms by young people, which make up the majority of the 500+ unintentional shooting deaths that occur each year in the United States. With personalized guns, toddlers would not be able to fire a gun found in the home and curious kids could not unlock a firearm they discovered at a friend’s house. According to one study of accidental shootings involving people of all ages, at least 37 percent of such incidents could have been prevented if the guns involved were personalized.
Smart guns could also help to reduce firearm suicides, which are the leading cause of gun-related fatalities nationwide. Currently, among young people who commit suicide with a gun, at least half obtain the weapon from their own home, usually from a parent. Smart technology could prevent many of these tragedies, even without any new restrictions on personal gun ownership.
Additionally, personalized guns have the potential to stop many school shootings, which are often carried out with guns taken from home. A 2003 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed firearms used by students in 323 school-related shootings, finding that 37 percent of the guns came from the shooter’s home and 23 percent from a friend or relative. A similar study by the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education found that over two-thirds (68%) of the attackers in targeted school shooting incidents acquired the gun(s) from their own home or that of a relative. If these guns had been personalized, they could not have been used in such a manner.
Moreover, smart guns could stop criminals from using a firearm against its owner if the gun is stolen or taken away — a particular concern for law enforcement officers. And guns stolen in home burglaries, if personalized, would have no value in the illicit market that fuels gun violence. Given that a large proportion of firearm homicides are carried out with stolen guns, smart technology also has the potential to save the lives of some of the 11,000+ Americans who are murdered with guns each year.
As the Johns Hopkins researchers point out, the technology to make guns smart is already being used in other products. Some iPhones can be unlocked by the user’s unique thumbprint, much like fingerprint verification would prevent a gun from being unlocked by anyone but the rightful owner. Additionally, many cars use radio frequency identification to allow for keyless entry and keyless ignitions. With smart guns, a chip can be embedded in a watch or a ring worn by the authorized user (or even under the skin, if that’s what the gun owner wants); the gun would then verify the identity of the person holding it as an authorized user and could fire.
“By simply using technology that already exists and bringing it to the marketplace, the public health benefits could be enormous, allowing us to take a standard injury prevention approach to preventing gun violence,” study co-author Dr. Stephen Teret, a professor in the Bloomberg School’s department of health policy and management, and founding director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research, said in a news release.
“Countless lives that would otherwise have been lost to suicide, accidental shootings and guns getting into the wrong hands could be saved,” Dr. Teret said.
Yet, despite the promise of smart gun technology and the widespread consumer interest it has attracted — one recent survey from a pro-gun group found that 40 percent of gun owners would be willing to swap their current weapon for a smart gun — personalized firearms are not available for purchase anywhere in the U.S., thanks to the efforts of overzealous pro-gun groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Though the NRA claims that it’s not opposed to these safer guns at face value, the organization has engaged in a massive smear campaign against smart guns, launching boycotts against companies that manufacture or sell personalized guns, and spreading myths and conspiracy theories on its popular social media accounts in an attempt to sway public opinion. The most prominent myths about smart guns include the idea that they can be remotely disabled by the government, or that they would be used as a way to surveil gun owners.
The NRA also has a history of opposing smart gun technology: after Smith and Wesson partnered with the Clinton administration in 2000 to develop a personalized gun, the NRA led a boycott of the company that nearly devastated it. At the time, then-NRA-president Charlton Heston even went so far as to claim that Smith & Wesson’s British owners were trying to take away the rights that Americans won in 1776.
Fourteen years later, that episode still has a chilling effect on firearms dealers and manufacturers. Only a few gun dealers in the country have even tried to enter the smart gun market; in response, they’ve been threatened with boycotts and violence.
In May 2014, almost immediately after the Washington Post reported that Engage Armament, a Maryland gun shop, would soon start selling the Armatix iP1 smart gun, store owner Andy Raymond received phone calls and online messages threatening to kill him and burn his shop to the ground. Fearing for his life and livelihood, Raymond reversed course and announced that he would not be selling personalized guns. A nearly identical scenario played out just months earlier at the Oak Tree Gun Club in California, prompting the gun store to drop their plans to become the nation’s first seller of the Armitix iP1.
Despite these extreme efforts to block personalized guns from hitting the market, the results of this latest study indicate that the NRA’s smear campaign has not succeeded in turning public opinion against the safer guns. As the authors concluded, “[O]ur findings suggest that there is, in fact, a high level of public interest in smart guns and widespread willingness to consider purchasing such guns.”
Given these results, “policymakers and manufacturers should re-examine the potential for smart guns to not only produce a profit, but also to lessen the toll of gun deaths in the United States,” Dr. Teret said.
“No one can tell you with any level of certainty how many of the 33,000-plus [annual] gun deaths will be avoided by personalized guns,” Dr. Teret acknowledged in an interview with NPR. “But I certainly have absolute confidence that it will be enough deaths that will be avoided that makes this worth it.”
The survey comes on the heels of President Barack Obama’s suite of executive actions, which directed the Departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security to research smart gun technology, and explore its use in government agencies. At a town hall on January 7, the president compared smart guns to safety improvements in cars, toys, pharmaceuticals, and other consumer products, saying, “The notion that we would not apply the same basic principles to gun ownership as we do to everything else that we own contradicts what we do to try to create a better life for Americans.”