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The Path to Safer Guns

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When cars first became available, air bags and seat belts weren't part of standard production. During the early 1900s, safety -- both for drivers and pedestrians -- became an issue as mechanical and structural failures in cars and reckless driving caused more and more accidents. These problems prompted technological solutions: the invention in 1936 of the Drunkometer, a tool used to analyze a driver's blood alcohol level, and later its improvement in the 1950s in the form of the Breathalyzer; the move from lap belts for protection to three-point seat belts; the creation of the Hybrid III, a specialized dummy for crash testing that closely mimics human response in a crash setting. These advancements allowed cars to be what they are today: safer vehicles used for transportation that are "the first line of defense in an accident."

It was a combination of movements that brought those technological changes to bear, however. As the National Museum of American History chronicles in its study of the automobile, there were four factors that moved regulation, industry standards and public opinion toward car production that was both stylish and safe. It was a combination of a technological response to the problem at hand, a market response from the industry, a scientific response from the academic community and a government response with regard to legislation. Companies and individuals were making progress through inventions and changes to car models, universities were creating institutes that studied car crashes and offered insight into best ways of protecting passengers, and the federal government passed legislation forcing these technological changes into the marketplace.

The same could happen today with guns.

According to a report by the Violence Policy Center, gun deaths in 2011 outnumbered deaths by cars in 14 states plus the District of Columbia. The report notes, "The health and safety regulation of motor vehicles stands as a public health success story, yet firearms remain the last consumer product manufactured in the United States not subject to federal health and safety regulation."

Smart gun technology already exists. Personalized guns use two types of technology to connect a registered user to a gun before the weapon can be used: token-based technology, which requires the owner to wear a watch or a ring that activates the weapon, or biometric technology, which scans fingerprints or grip before the weapon is rendered useful. The technology isn't perfect. Critics argue that in dangerous situations, it is impractical to put on a watch to activate a gun. Supporters note that smart guns would reduce fatalities by stolen guns and accidental shootings by children.

The issue is that industry, government and public opinion have not come together on this topic. When a gun shop in Maryland tried to sell a smart gun, the owner faced death threats because the sale of a smart gun would trigger a law on New Jersey books that would begin to eliminate non-personalized guns once the sale of personalized guns begins. As this article in The Huffington Post points out, laws that are impractical or ill-conceived make it harder to get smart guns on a mass-produced, consumer level. The author of the New Jersey smart gun law says she'll advocate for its repeal if the NRA doesn't stand in the way of smart guns becoming more publicly available.

Legislation isn't the only impediment. The NRA, with its tough stance on protecting an individual's right to own a gun, has been relentless in lobbying. Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law, recently spoke at the Commonwealth Club of California about the history of the Second Amendment. Waldman noted that the Second Amendment referred to a militia's ability to bear arms but that in later years, the amendment was interpreted to include an individual's right to bear arms. However, Waldman pointed out that it wasn't until 2008 that the Supreme Court recognized an individual's right to gun ownership as an interpretation of the Second Amendment.

Waldman further noted that the existence of the Second Amendment didn't negate responsible gun ownership. "To be clear, there were plenty of guns in the founding era," Waldman writes.

"Americans felt they had the right to protect themselves, especially in the home, a right passed down from England through common law. But there were plenty of gun laws, too. Boston made it illegal to keep a loaded gun in a home, due to safety concerns. Laws governed the location of guns and gunpowder storage. New York, Boston and all cities in Pennsylvania prohibited the firing of guns within city limits. States imposed curbs on gun ownership. People deemed dangerous were barred from owning weapons."

Waldman's chronicling of the evolution of the Second Amendment and the NRA reminds us that the NRA took a path similar to that of car safety advocates to lobby its position. In a separate article, Waldman writes that the NRA established scholarship on its interpretation of the Second Amendment, launched a decades-long campaign to change public opinion and eventually got a ruling from the Supreme Court in 2008 that solidified its interpretation. "Improbably, the gun movement's triumph has become a template for progressives," Waldman notes, "many of whom are appalled by the substance of the victories." He goes on to say, "The triumph of gun rights reminds us today: If you want to win in the court of law, first win in the court of public opinion."

These days that public opinion is fractured. And gun control laws aren't passing. Even a bi-partisan bill on background checks for gun purchases that had a 90 percent approval rating from Democrats and 84 percent approval from Republicans and independents failed to pass in the Senate. That gridlock has a chilling effect on technological innovation. Jim Schaff, vice president of Yardam Technologies. is quoted in this article saying, "The path to the consumer market is a challenging path... As a startup, there is only so much risk you can afford." Yardam was originally working on smart gun technology, but switched paths because of the opposition it anticipated.

This is precisely what concerns Waldman. "My worry is that Second Amendment fundamentalists and a rush to the courthouse could chill the kind of innovation that could make [safer guns] happen," he said during his discussion at the Commonwealth Club.