Could “smart” technology that requires a unique biometric “key” to unlock a weapon help reduce firearm deaths in the U.S.? Advocates think it could and are pushing for wider implementation. But they will face skepticism from gun owners, who worry about reliability. Good morning, and welcome to "Field Notes," a newsletter on the latest ideas and research to solve problems. I'm David D. Haynes, Ideas Lab editor. In the Journal Sentinel's Ideas Lab, we find and test ideas to solve problems in our communities.
With 38,658 people killed by guns nationwide in 2016, two-thirds by suicide, the grass-roots advocacy group Common Ground of Southeastern Wisconsin is pushing the idea of applying smart technology to guns. Common Ground is working with Do Not Stand Idly By, a national effort, to pressure gun makers to emphasize technology that requires user authentication to make a gun work.
Organizers want gun makers to do two things: make safer weapons and weed out bad actors in their distribution chains. “It doesn’t ask for any new laws … the focus is really on the gun manufacturer and holding gun manufacturers accountable for what responsibility they bear for gun violence,” said Laura Vuchetich, a Common Ground leader helping to coordinate the national campaign.
Research points to the need. Firearm owners who store weapons safely are less likely to be injured or killed either accidentally or by suicide. But more than half of gun owners do not safely store their guns, studies show. Other research shows that safe storage helps prevent the impulsive use of a firearm during a suicide attempt.
The idea is to persuade police departments and the military, which combined are responsible for 40% of all guns sales, to demand smart weapons. That could create a market-based incentive to get smart guns more widely distributed.
It's intriguing but, as with any idea involving guns in America, it's more complicated than it might seem at first glance.
Some gun owners, including some in law enforcement, worry about reliability. Timmy Oh of VARA, a company working on a biometric firearm safe, told BuzzFeed News recently: “Guns need to work every single time, and I’m not comfortable with putting my life dependency on (smart guns) yet.” I've talked to gun owners who feel the same way. What if there's a smudge on the screen?
And while the NRA doesn’t oppose technological updates, it vehemently opposes mandating such guns, as New Jersey tried to do.
Vuchetich, herself a gun owner, gets this but remains confident of the long-range potential of smart technology. “Americans are clever people. We have reached solutions for far more complicated things, and this is absolutely solvable if people put their minds to it.”
Wisconsin had 664 firearm deaths in 2016; 455 of them were by suicide, according to reporting by 24/Wall St., a content partner of USA TODAY.