Article

Smart Guns: Technology That Can Save Lives

Developments in smart gun technology can prevent unintentional shootings by children, reduce gun theft, and reduce teen suicide.

Gun store owner demonstrates a smart gun.
The owner of a gun store in Rockville, Maryland, demonstrates a German-manufactured .22-caliber smart gun with a safety interlock on May 1, 2014. (Getty/The Washington Post/Katherine Frey)

Last month, a two-year-old child in Detroit shot himself in the hand and shoulder with a gun found under his mother’s bed. Earlier this month, a four-year-old in Georgia was fatally shot after finding a gun in his parents’ car. Unfortunately, these types of incidents are all too common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 2015 to 2020, there were 573 unintentional gun deaths of children under 18. And in 2021, Everytown for Gun Safety estimates that there were 379 unintentional shootings by children, resulting in 154 deaths.

As a country, we don’t have to live like this. Unintentional shootings by children, as well as many other gun-related challenges, can be prevented. For example, safe storage of firearms is one incredibly well-researched practice that can help prevent accidental shootings, gun theft, and firearm suicides. However, the development of technology that can be used to prevent unintentional firearm deaths is behind the curve—largely due to opposition from the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Embracing technology that increases firearm safety is crucial to protecting communities from gun violence.

What are smart guns?

Smart guns, also known as “personalized firearms,” use technology such as radio frequency identification (RFID) or biometric recognition technology, including fingerprint readers, to prevent unauthorized users from firing the weapon.

RFID technology can activate a firearm when within a certain proximity of the weapon—and can be integrated into wearable devices such as watches or bracelets. This technology is not new and is already integrated into many things we already use. For example, toll booths use RFID technology to streamline highway tolling. Drivers purchase a transponder, such as the E-ZPass, that is then used to activate toll monitoring systems when within close range. RFIDs are also used by hospitals to keep track of medical devices and log patient charts.

Meanwhile, the most common application of biometric recognition technology is an everyday item: the smartphone. This technology is used to open a smartphone with one’s fingerprint and is similar to what can be used for smart guns.

Opposition: What’s the holdup?

In the late 1990s, gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson was sued by several cities and states for its role in the gun violence epidemic. In response, during the Clinton administration in 2000, a landmark initiative between the federal government and Smith & Wesson was issued that proposed the development of safer firearms. Included in this initiative were promises from Smith & Wesson to invest in new standards for gun locks, large-capacity magazines, testing standards, background checks, and the development of smart guns.

Unfortunately, the NRA opposed the enforcement of gun safety regulations such as background checks and smart guns and thus called on gun owners to immediately boycott Smith & Wesson. Sales for the large gun manufacturer plummeted. And after nearly going bankrupt, Smith & Wesson was subsequently sold for $15 million. This blitz by the NRA sent a message to other members of the gun industry that feared the same fate. Since then, developments for smart gun technology have largely stalled because of the gun lobby’s opposition to commonsense gun safety measures.

Three ways smart guns can protect communities

Firearm violence in the United States is a public health crisis. In 2020, according to the CDC, more than 45,000 people died from gun-related injuries, including roughly 2,280 people under the age of 17. Investments in firearm safety are critical to saving lives and curtailing the flow of guns in the United States.

The need for smart gun technology: By the numbers

45K+

Number of people who died from gun-related injuries in the United States in 2020

573

Number of unintentional gun deaths of children under 18 in the United States from 2015 to 2020

1.8M

Number of guns stolen in the United States from 2012 to 2017

721

Number of young people (ages 10–17) who died by firearm suicide in 2020

Specifically, three key issues can be addressed by smart guns: 1) unintentional shootings by children, 2) gun theft, and 3) teen suicide.

Averting unintentional shootings by children

Every year, hundreds of children in the United States find their parents or loved ones’ guns in the home and shoot themselves or someone in the household. Smart gun technology can prevent these tragedies by not allowing a gun to fire when it is not held by the owner. A smart gun fitted with biometric technology, for example, would require a fingerprint or palmprint of the owner for the trigger to release.

Preventing gun theft

According to 2020 analysis from the Center for American Progress, from 2012 to 2017, 1.8 million guns were stolen from individuals across the country, and an additional 53,900 guns were stolen from gun dealers. In many instances, stolen firearms are later used in crimes, such as murders, assaults, and car thefts.

Importantly, stolen guns are more than just a loss for the owner; they are a significant danger to communities across the United States. Yet a firearm equipped with RFID or biometric technology, in addition to preventing unintentional shootings, would not be able to be used by anyone other than the owner, eliminating the possibility of the gun being used in further crimes.

Reducing teen suicide

Teen suicide in the United States has been on the rise since 2007. According to data from the CDC, in 2020, 721 young people from 10 to 17 years old died by firearm suicide, a 10 percent increase from 2019. Through technology that only allows gun owners to use their firearms, smart guns can prevent teens from using firearms against themselves and, in the process, help reduce teen suicide.

For far too long, technology has been used to make guns increasingly more dangerous, while the technology to make them safer lags behind.

Conclusion

Smartphones are unlocked with a fingerprint to deter unwanted access. A push-to-start car won’t drive unless the key is within range. Likewise, the technology to improve safety standards for firearms exists; yet the United States is behind the curve. For far too long, technology has been used to make guns increasingly more dangerous, while the technology to make them safer lags behind. Smart guns can be used in addition to other prevention methods to reduce gun violence in the United States. If one more life is saved from unintentional shootings or one less stolen gun is used to commit a crime, the technology is worth the investment.

 

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.

Author

Marissa Edmund

Senior Policy Analyst

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