Is The ‘James Bond’ Gun Bill A Silver Bullet Against Gun Violence?

You may start seeing more people carrying James Bond’s gun around — by law. A new proposed federal law would require that all new guns, and eventually all guns for sale, would be required to have “smart” identification technology that only allows specially authorized users to fire it, something the silver screen saw recently in Skyfall. The law is intended to crack down on gun accidents, thefts, and suicides, but its critics — including a major gun violence prevention group — worry that it might make the problem worse.

Introduced by Rep. John Tierney (D-MA), the Personalized Handgun Safety Act of 2013 would require that all guns manufactured for sale or put up for sale, would have to have some kind of “personalized” technology that limited the ability to fire the gun to its owner and any individuals authorized. Since this technology is not widespread now, these requirements would kick in within two years for manufacturers and three years for sellers. Affected sellers include both federally licensed retailers and private sellers.

The bill is technologically feasible. Several possible ways of building “smart” guns include firearms that only activate when you press a special ring into it, guns that won’t work until you enter a key code, guns that only fire if they detect a specific radio signal, and guns that recognize biometric info like fingerprints. Some smart guns are already available abroad, including one Irish design that automatically disables guns when they’re brought into properly equipped schools.

There’s some reason to believe these measures could be effective in reducing gun violence. Roughly ten to fifteen percent of crime guns are acquired by theft; an average of 232,400 guns are stolen per year. Presumably, a smart gun couldn’t be used by a thief.

So long as parents don’t give their kids biometric “permission” or leave their gun key lying around, then kids also wouldn’t be able to fire the gun. Adam Lanza couldn’t have brought his mother’s guns to Newtown absent her say-so were they smart guns. Some of the 900 kids who died in gun accidents or suicides last year may not have lost their lives.

“Even if smart guns disarmed only our dumbest, laziest criminals and other unauthorized borrowers like kids,” wrote Dave Guston and Ed Finn, two professors at Arizona State University, “the savings in lives could be tremendous.”

But the Violence Policy Center (VPC), a major group supporting stronger gun regulations, is skeptical. A 2013 report on smart guns opposed “the use of any federal tax dollars in support of smart gun research,” though it didn’t take a position on a smart gun mandate of the sort Tierney is proposing. The report noted that most guns criminals use are acquired via personal sales from “straw purchasers” who initially acquired the gun legally, a distribution mechanism that wouldn’t be affected by smart guns. Moreover, the report finds, many children are allowed to use family guns by their parents, and the vast majority of guns in the United States are collected, not for sale, which means that most already-existing guns wouldn’t be covered by legislation like Tierney’s.

The VPC report even worries that smart gun laws might fuel gun sales. “Packaged with a strong sales pitch,” the VPC writes, “the technology could penetrate new markets for a gun industry that is facing long-term declines in household and personal gun ownership.”

The question may be moot. Some conservative commentators have already harshly criticized Tierney’s proposal, and the law can’t pass without GOP support.