In his recent heartfelt address, President Obama stated it is time for "meaningful action" on gun control. It is often said that one of the main impediments to such action is the Second Amendment to the Constitution. According to the Supreme Court, the Amendment protects the right of citizens to possess handguns in the home for the purpose of self-defense. If that is the essential scope of the right, then meaningful gun control legislation would work hand-in-hand with modern technology to protect that right, while limiting the extent to which guns are used for other purposes. Such technology exists today, in the form of fingerprint recognition software. Presumably, it can be adapted to the firearms context while keeping within the strictures of the Second Amendment.
In the recent Bond movie Skyfall, the throwback super agent is equipped with a handgun -- calibrated to his handprint -- that only fires when it is in his grip. In a scene where Bond loses the weapon, his life is saved when his enemy is unable to fire the weapon at him. Similar technology, fingerprint recognition, is available now and is used in many contexts: for example, in the workplace to clock workers in and out, on computers to limit unauthorized access, within door locks to prevent unwanted entry. Apple's recent pursuit of a company that specializes in this technology is fueling speculation that its devices will soon have a fingerprint recognition application to bar unauthorized use. If we will have the ability to limit access to Angry Birds through fingerprint scanning technology, surely we should adapt it to real-life killing machines.
In the Supreme Court's landmark 2008 decision striking down the District of Columbia's restrictive gun laws, the Court found that certain limits on the right to possess handguns for the defense of one's home were unconstitutional. But the Court also found that the government could impose licensing requirements and ban assault weapons because neither restriction infringed unreasonably on the fundamental right to defend one's home. It stands to reason that handgun restrictions, such as the requirement of an instantaneous fingerprint scan that would restrict the use of the gun to just its owner, would not infringe on the right of self-defense and would be constitutional.
Similarly, requiring that multiple authorized users would each have to be separately licensed would also seem consistent with the constitutional right; if licensing handguns is constitutional, certainly licensing each user of the handgun would be as well. Furthermore, only the agency that handled gun licenses would be empowered to add an authorized user. Hacking a fingerprint scanner would carry similar penalties to filing down a gun's serial number.
What might such a requirement prevent? Plain and simple: the unauthorized use and unrestricted re-sale of firearms.
Admittedly, some of the unconstitutional restrictions that the Court addressed in the D.C. case included ways to make handgun possession marginally safer, like requiring trigger locks or that the firearms be maintained disassembled. Those restrictions were found wanting under the Second Amendment but only because they were considered to restrict the right of self-defense because of the time it might take for a homeowner to access his or her gun to deploy it in defense of the home. If that is the gauge against which restrictions are measured, if a restriction did not impede the rapid deployment of the firearm, the constitutional concern would melt way. Thus, an instantaneous fingerprint scanner would be no more burdensome than loading the handgun or releasing its safety. Thus, once technology is available that only permits authorized use, but is no more restrictive than a safety, it could pass constitutional muster easily.
Just as the Constitution would pose no barrier to such minimally restrictive innovations, surely those who support the rights of individuals to protect their home would have no argument with sensible controls designed to ensure that the owners of guns are the only ones permitted to fire them. Since such restrictions would not impinge on the constitutional right to defend one's home, there would be no legal impediment to their passage. One would hope that any lingering practical or political impediments can be swept away through American ingenuity on the one hand, and desperate necessity on the other.