by Susan DeFrancesco
Guns are ubiquitous consumer products. About 40% of all U.S. households contain at least one firearm and one in every four households contains a handgun. Guns are also deadly, killing 38,500 people in the U.S. in 1994.
Yet, unlike most other consumer products, guns are virtually unregulated. In fact the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal agency charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risks of injury and death associated w1th consumer products, is expressly prohibited from regulating firearms or ammunition, and no other federal agency regulates the design of guns for safety.
States and localities can act locally to require safer gun designs using model legislation developed by researchers at The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. The Center, established in 1995 with funding from The Joyce Foundation of Chicago, is in the forefront of redefining gun policy to include the view that the safety of guns can be regulated much the same as other consumer products.
The model legislation, entitled "A Model Handgun Safety Standard Act: Creating a Safety Standard for Personalized Guns, requires that handguns manufactured after a certain date be personalized. Personalized guns are those that, by design, can only be fired by an authorized user. Methods for personalization include low-technology devices such as built-in combination locks and high-technology electric radio frequency or magnetic sensory devices.
Colt's Manufacturing Company Inc. recently developed a prototype for a personalized handgun using radio frequency technology. This method involves the use of a tiny transponder, embedded in a ring or watch-band or worn on clothing, that emits a radio frequency. The transponder signals a unique code to the gun, and the personalized gun will only fire if it detects the presence of its transponder.
The most effective personalization measures are those that provide automatic or passive protection to consumers. Automatic or passive protection is far more effective in preventing injuries than those measures which require action on the part of the individual to be protected.
The model law targets handguns because they are most open the firearm of choice for people purchasing a gun for self-defense, for the suicide victim, and for the criminal. Personalized handguns would be child-resistant-inoperable by the young child who finds the handgun in the home or the despondent teenager who reaches for the family gun to commit suicide. The criminal who steals the gun from the home would also be unable to operate the handgun and its value on the illegal gun market would be greatly diminished. An estimated one half million guns are stolen each year from homes, and the majority of guns stolen are handguns.
A recent nationwide telephone survey of U.S. adults reveals overwhelming public support for the regulation of guns as consumer products, especially with regard to safety. Seventy-five percent (75%) of those surveyed in the 1996 National Gun Policy Surveys developed by The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in collaboration with the National Opinion Research Center (NRC) at the University of Chicago, support government safety regulation for gun design Eighty-six percent (86%) support legislation requiring all new handguns to be childproof and 68% favor legislation requiring all new handguns to be personalized.
New Jersey and Pennsylvania legislators will soon consider state bills requiring personalized handguns based on the Hopkins model law.
Many products have been modified to make them safer, including motor vehicles, prescription drug packages, and cigarette lighters. Government-mandated changes in drug packaging have reduced the number of deaths from child poisonings. Safer cigarette lighters have saved the fives of an estimated 80-105 children under 5 each year. The decline in motor-vehicle-related deaths and injuries over the last several decades has been largely the result of safer car design, such as laminated windshields, collapsible steering assemblies, dashboard padding, improved door locks, and air bags. Similarly, government-mandated personalized handguns can save lives and reduce firearm injuries.
Susan DeFrancesco is coordinator of the The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. Located in The Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, the Center provides accurate information on firearm injuries and on policy; develops analyses, and evaluates strategies to prevent firearm injuries; and conducts public health and legal research to identify gun policy needs.