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The one thing the president can do now to reduce gun violence

The president has been on quite a roll recently, with favorable rulings from the Supreme Court on gay marriage and ObamaCare, congressional passage of his Asian trade pact, and a memorable, racially healing speech after the Charleston tragedy. But the one area where he has been totally frustrated has been in his efforts to make a dent in the nation’s terrible toll from gun violence. Indeed, a recent YouTube video included clips from Obama after 14 different shootings that sounded painfully redundant and futile.

Last year, for the first time in almost a century, more Americans died from gun violence than from car accidents. Since the turn of the millennium almost half a million Americans have died from gun violence and the annual death toll has remained steady at approximately 32,000 annually, including almost 20,000 from suicide.

Other countries and some states have proven that gun safety legislation works. According to David Hemenway, director of injury prevention at the Harvard School of Public Health, the 10 states that have the most comprehensive gun legislation have one-sixth the level of gun violence versus the 10 states with the least comprehensive legislation. Despite this obvious life-saving path, passage of meaningful gun safety laws at the federal or even the state level is highly unlikely for the foreseeable future. 

{mosads}In the absence of legislative success, the president may want to explore new technological options to reduce gun violence. Technology such as electronic rollover stabilizers played a key role in the more than 50 percent drop in auto deaths (per passenger mile driven) over the past 30 years and now can play a key role in reducing gun deaths. Smart guns utilize a variety of technological constraints including biometrics identification that read the shape and force-grip of one’s palm, or an RFID digital handshake involving the close proximity of an enabling computer chip typically worn on bracelet or ring.

It’s reasonable to believe that smart guns could reduce firearms deaths by some 10,000 lives, a figure that represents almost a third of all gun deaths annually. Two million children in the United States live in homes with unlocked guns, a major contributing factor to the over 10,000 children and teens in this country who every year go to emergency rooms due to gunshot wounds, according to the Journal of American Academy of Pediatrics. Under the age of 10, 75 percent of these injuries are due to accidents.

Some 9,500 Americans commit suicide every year with a firearm they do not own. Guns cause death in some 94 percent of all suicide attempted with a firearm versus just 2 percent when the act is committed with pills or a knife. Significantly, we know now that if we can stall the original suicide impulse by an hour or two, (i.e., by making it more difficult to find a useable firearm) many, many, deaths can be avoided.

There are over 900,000 law enforcement personnel in this country and one of the primary concerns of virtually each and every police officer is that a criminal will use a policeman’s own gun against him. It’s not an unjustified fear, as some 5,800 police are assaulted annually and firearms are the No. 1 cause of police deaths. Finally, add as potential beneficiaries of new smart gun technology victims of crime and domestic violence who are killed with a third-party firearm not owned by the perpetrator.

Recent research by the national firm Penn, Schoen, Berland of some 800 adult respondents showed that 40 percent of all gun owners are willing to consider swapping to smart guns. The results inversely skew with age: 54 percent of gun owners 45 and under would consider swapping to a smart gun. More than 4 out of 5 gun owners of all ages believe gun dealers should be able to sell smart guns. Officially, gun rights groups including the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation are neutral on smart guns though openly cynical about the technology and concerned about ulterior government motives. One gun rights leader, however, Alan Gottlieb, founder of The Second Amendment Foundation, said on a YouTube video that he would probably purchase a smart gun if he became comfortable with the technology.

Smart guns are now available in Europe though their mainstream distribution in this country has been stymied by a well meaning but controversial New Jersey law that mandates all guns sold there must be smart guns within 30 months of the technology being commercially available anywhere in the country. But it now looks like the New Jersey mandate will be repealed sometime this year, thus stripping some of the controversy around smart guns. Widespread adoption of this life-saving technology and indeed further investment in this nascent industry is likely to be slow until consumers can trust the innovation.

The president can make his move by encouraging the various federal law enforcement groups, from the FBI to the Secret Service, CIA, TSA and U.S. Border Patrol, to test and ultimately validate smart guns. Overall these various federal national security groups represent well over 100,000 officials and can generate irrefutable legitimacy to smart guns. Such validation should in turn stimulate state and local law enforcement across the country to use smart guns and eventually a consumer swap out of traditional firearms to safer smart guns.

An America void of guns does not exist and probably never will. The next best thing then is to have guns that will not operate when in the wrong hands; that children and teens cannot operate; that will not fire if stolen or taken out of a policeman’s hands by a criminal; that can’t be used by violent partners or the frantically suicidal. The free market is offering a powerful answer to one of our nation’s most intractable public health issues. All it needs is a nudge from our nation’s CEO to put things in motion.


Fascitelli is president of Washington Ceasefire, a 32-year-old nonprofit in Seattle dedicated to reducing gun violence.


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