News & Politics

Why Aren’t We Using This Gun Technology That Could Save Hundreds of Children’s Lives?

Every year in the U.S., more than 7,000 children and teenagers are involved in shooting accidents. 3,000 of them die.

Every year in the United States, over 7,000 children and teenagers are sent to the ER because of shooting accidents. Another 3,000 die before they even make it to a hospital. These numbers—taken from a recent study by the journal Pediatrics—are horrific, but they’re unlikely to change any time soon. Children have access to guns in their own homes, in the homes of their friends and families, and even, in some states, at shooting ranges. More than one third of all U.S. households have guns, and a study published in the Journal of Trauma found that “children 5-14 years old were more likely to die from unintentional firearm injuries, suicides and homicides if they lived in states with more rather than fewer guns.” Put simply: access and exposure to firearms increases the chances that a kid or teen will be involved in an unintentional shooting incident. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this is one of the leading causes of accidental death for children between the ages of 1-14.

As I started writing this post, a news item scrolled across the top of my Facebook feed: ELMO, MISSOURI: ‘5-Year-Old Boy Kills Infant Brother With Revolver, Police Say.” Alone in a bedroom with his baby brother, the 5-year-old found a loaded .22 caliber revolver lying on the bed and shot him once, boring a hole through his brother’s skull above the right ear. Thanks to social media and a 24-hour news cycle that needs to be fed, these tragic, everyday stories that would once have been confined to local papers now end up on the national radar. There was the toddler who shot and killed his mother at an Idaho Walmart on New Year’s Eve day. The 9-year-old girl who accidentally killed her shooting instructor with an Uzi at a gun range in Arizona. The mom in Tulsa who was killed by her 3-year-old while changing her baby’s diaper. So what we can do besides watch these headlines pile up?

Keeping guns in the hands of their owners is one crucial tactic, according to gun control advocates. In his column this week, New York Times columnist Nick Kristof profiles Kai Kloepfer, a Colorado teen who developed a “smart gun” that can only be fired by an authorized user. The model relies on biomestric user authentication, meaning it only fires when it recognizes the finger holding the trigger. If a child stumbled upon a parents’ firearm, he or she would not be able to use it. According to Kristof, “over 1,000 fingerprints can be authorized per gun, and Kloepfer says the sensor is 99.999 percent accurate.”

Kloepfer’s design, which he made for a science fair project, is impressively sophisticated. But smart gun technology has existed for decades. Some models rely on proximity sensors, some on magnets, and others, like Kloepfer’s, on biometrics. In one version, the iP1, the gun owner wears a radio-frequency identification watch that communicates with the pistol. An internal tracking device prevents the gun from firing if it is away from the owner. Smart guns have been praised by New York congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy and Attorney General Eric Holder for “decreasing the misuse of weapons.” The executive director of the American Association of Suicidology has also voiced support for the technology, saying that it would lower the rate of shooting suicides, especially among male teens. So why haven’t smart guns caught on?

The principal reason—as is so often the case when it comes to gun safety measures—is the virulent opposition of the gun lobby. The National Rifle Association has spoken out against smart guns, claiming that they rely on expensive, unreliable features and are prone to failure. The organization, like other gun rights advocates, fears that the technology could become mandatory. As USA Today reported, gun-store owners are similarly suspicious, insisting that there is no market among their customers for these sorts of firearms. But coercive measures have been used to keep them off the market entirely.

As of now, no gun dealer in the U.S. sells smart guns. Last year, Armatrix, the German company that developed the iP1, convinced two American gun dealerships to offer its model. Second Amendment advocates promptly launched a media attack on the gun-shop owners, and one of the owners, Andy Raymond, received phone calls from people threatening to burn his store down if he sold the iP1. Ultimately, both owners reversed course and decided against selling the gun.

There are some legitimate concerns about smart guns, which are still a developing product, but they have been blown wildly out of proportion by gun rights proponents. They say it’s a mistake to rely on a battery-powered device in the case of emergency, but designs like Kai Kloepfer’s only require a battery charge once a year. They fear that the technology is vulnerable to hacking, but we rely on user authentication software on our smart phones, which contain our most private information, and the odds of someone hacking into the handgun a family owns for self-defense seem remarkably slim. In an interview with Tech Crunch, Kloepfer said that in his model, all user data is kept right on the gun and no information is uploaded elsewhere, rendering it quite difficult to hack.

The real problem with smart guns speaks to our real problem with guns in general. Many Americans own firearms in order to protect themselves and their loved ones in the case of a home invasion. This is where Stand Your Ground laws come from—the idea that the family home is a sacred space that is to be defended by any means necessary. But it is a paranoid, unfounded fear. Harold Pollack, Co-Director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, explains why in the Nation, “Having guns around bring risks. Practically speaking, it’s not the incredibly rare risk of mass homicide, but the everyday risks of injury, accident, domestic altercations, and suicide….The fact is: lethal home invasions and burglaries are incredibly rare.”

The odds of being shot, intentionally or accidentally, by your partner—or your toddler—are much higher than those of a complete stranger breaking into your apartment and murdering you. The Bureau of Justice reports that every year, around 100 homicides happen during household burglaries, making up under 1 percent of all U.S. homicides.

Being permanently at the ready to shoot a potential burglar carries significant risks. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that families that own guns keep the weapons locked, unloaded, and separate from ammunition. But in a 1994 RAND-UCLA study, only 39 percent of parents reported doing so. This means they have easy access to their firearms in case of emergency, but it also means their children have access to them most of the time. In the light of these statistics, gun ownership in the name of protecting the family starts to seem ludicrous.

Still, this is the argument most often made by Second Amenment advocates and their supporters. In a Forbes column that lists red herring after red herring about the safety of smart guns, Joseph Steinberg plays off of this fear. “Lawfully armed citizens protecting themselves and/or their families could be killed if their weapons malfunction during a home invasion or attempted rape,” Steinberg writes. 

Instead of inventing hypothetical situations in which smart guns could fail, we should be working on refining the technology behind them, making them cheaper, more widely available, and consistently reliable for users. It makes no sense to maintain the status quo, which we know isn’t working, because a new technology may not work. The biggest hurdle will be convincing parental gun owners to purchase smart guns instead of standard-issue firearms. In a 1,200-person survey conducted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, 74 percent of respondents said that they would not buy a smart gun. And in an interview with USA Today, Illinois gun-shop owner Brent Ball told the reporter, “I think it is the stupidest thing ever made. Nobody who is a gun person will ever ask for that.”

Allegra Kirkland is AlterNet's associate managing editor. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Salon, Daily Serving and The Nation.

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