© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: Smart guns could slash firearm death rate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 11, 2013 - Even if Newtown had not been dominating the headlines, few would have noticed the Dec. 19 article about a South Dakota High School sophomore who murdered his friend with the family shotgun as they argued about a paintball game; or the news about a 4-year old Houston boy who shot himself in the face with his father’s handgun. Similar anonymity routinely accompanies more than 350 weekly firearm suicides, accomplished mostly with the family weapon.

While such events create local anguish, they barely penetrate the national consciousness because they are routine parts of the fabric of life. They are no more surprising than an auto accident downtown or the latest flu outbreak news. But if we are to understand the potential effect on gun violence of various gun control options, we must have a firm understanding of who the victims are.

Every year in the United States, more than 30,000 people are killed by firearms, nearly four times the number that succumbs to AIDS. In 2010, National Vital Statistics Reports indicate that there were 19,392 firearm suicides representing 61 percent of gun deaths. About 2 percent were accidents.

Among the 35 percent that were non-justifiable homicides, a majority were acquaintance homicides, as in South Dakota’s paintball game tragedy. A tiny and devastating sliver reflects mass shootings like Newtown. Perhaps 15 percent are the stranger homicides that motivate the pursuit of armed self defense. Many of the approximately 25,000 suicides and acquaintance homicides are impulsive acts of passion carried out because personal stress and human frailty coexist with a gun in the desk drawer.

So what are the gun control implications of these data?

The first is that as important as they may be, banning semi automatic weapons and high capacity magazines can only influence events like Newtown and some gang violence. The vast majority of gun deaths are suicides and acquaintance homicides that do not involve such weapons and that will be unaffected by banning them.

Universal background checks that restrict access to individuals with documented mental illness would prevent some gun deaths among the 85 percent that are not stranger homicides. But having government databases that identify mentally ill individuals raise civil liberties and doctor-patient relationship concerns. Credible arguments posit that concerns about becoming part of a national database would deter some mentally ill individuals from seeking treatment, thereby increasing their potential for violence.

And since the overwhelming majority of people with mental illness never commit violent acts while only about 5 percent of violent acts are committed by the mentally ill, the potential benefits of background checks are limited.

The upshot is that whether you support or oppose the widely discussed gun-control options, you must acknowledge that they can have little impact on the suicides and acquaintance homicides that are the vehicle of most gun deaths. You must look elsewhere for solutions.

One promising possibility is found in a 2002 New Jersey law that requires, once reliable technologies are commercially available, that all new handguns contain a mechanism that allows only the owner to fire them.

The intriguing potential of these so-called “smart guns” is that they provide an escape from the straightjacket of laws that can only impact a small and defined subset of the carnage that accompanies our gun culture.

If all guns incorporated such technologies, Adam Lanza could not have used his mother’s firearms to murder Newtown’s children. The South Dakota High School sophomore could not have killed his friend and the 4-year-old in Houston could not have shot himself.

Firearm theft and mass gun purchases for gang usage would not be a concern, and it would be pointless for felons who feared background checks to ask their friends to purchase guns for them. And most of the nearly 1,000 annual underage firearm suicides would not take place.

Small federal grants have been supporting research on the relatively simple smart gun technologies for two decades, and a vigorous well-funded program would render them reliably operational within a few years. Proposed gun control measures should include money for a comprehensive smart gun research effort.

The country should follow New Jersey’s lead and require that, once the technologies are perfected, all newly purchased hand guns must incorporate them. We should consider extending this requirement to broader gun categories and should provide federal support for the free replacement of existing firearms with smart guns.

Smart gun mandates would not be a panacea, since many gun deaths are caused by an authorized owner and since many owners would not trade their existing firearms for smart alternatives. But technology offers an intriguing out-of-the-box opportunity to reduce the burden of suicides and acquaintance homicides that would not be affected by more traditional gun control measures. Smart gun mandates should be vigorously considered as gun control options are debated.