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Overview On lune 2, 2002, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) convened a group of individuals in Washington, D.C., to discuss owner-authorized handguns. Some 40 people with diverse back- grounds took part in the one-day workshop (see Appendix A). This report is a summary of the workshop discussions, which focused on three topics: the state of the art of technology for creating owner-authorized handguns, liability concerns affecting the development and use of such firearms, and the potential impact of these devices on health and crime in the United States (see Appendix B). The National Academies, of which NAE is a part, are accustomed to examining complex sometimes controversial issues at the intersection of science, technology, and society. Owner-authorized handguns, often called "smart" guns, have generated considerable public interest. The feasi- bility and utility of smart firearms have been debated in a variety of forums, but, for the most part, these discussions have not included the . . . engineering community. The lune workshop, funded by NAE, was intended to set the stage for a more in-depth examination of owner-authorized handguns. In December 2002, NAE received support from the David and Lucile Packard Founda- tion to assess the technical feasibility of developing a reliable smart hand- gun. The 12-month project, which began in summer 2003, will provide 1 1
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2 OWNER-AUTHORIZED HANDGUNS cost and time estimates for bringing one or more smart-gun technologies to the marketplace. For the purposes of the lune 2002 workshop, an "owner-authorized handgun" was defined as a firearm that would only function when operated by the designated owner of the handgun. In retrospect, a better descriptor might have been "user-authorized," since there are situations in which a person other than the handgun owner might have a legitimate need to fire the weapon. For example, more than one adult in a family might need access to a handgun for purposes of home-defense; and in some police departments, law enforcement personnel share firearms. Whatever the terminology, owner-authorized handguns are meant to prevent specific unintended or undesirable uses of handguns: accidental shootings, usually by very young children; the shooting of police officers by assailants using the officers' own weapons; suicides, especially by teenagers; homicides by individuals using stolen handguns, guns purchased informally ("gray market" firearms), or guns sold illegally ("black market" firearms); and other crimes, including robberies, committed with stolen handguns or guns purchased on the gray or black market. Simple methods of preventing guns from firing, such as grip safeties, have been available for a century or more. Although the focus of the work- shop was on high-tech approaches to preventing unauthorized use, the ap- plication of certain low-tech solutions, such as trigger locks, could be an effective deterrent in some situations. More sophisticated technologies have only recently begun to be investigated. These include systems with elec- tronic, magnetic, mechanical, radio, and sensor components, often in com- bination. Access may be controlled based on something the gun owner knows (e.g., a PIN code), something the owner possesses (e.g., a magnetic ring), or something unique to the owner (e.g., a fingerprint). As is true of technologies generally, whatever technology is contem- plated for owner-authorized handguns will be imperfect. Every technology has advantages and drawbacks and creates new, unanticipated problems. No single technological approach is likely to satisfy the needs of all handgun users. Police officers, for example, have different requirements for handguns than typical homeowners trying to protect their families. By the same token, the needs of these two groups differ from those of gun collectors and target shooters. All users, however, appear to have a common interest in technology- enhanced firearms that are as reliable and robust as traditional handguns. No hard data are available about the amount of money being spent on research and development (R&D) related to smart-handgun technologies.
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OVERVIEW 3 R&D by the gun industry is probably limited, however. For several years, the federal government has supported a small amount of R&D on smart handguns through a program at the National Institute of justice. And at least one state, New lersey, has earmarked funds for smart-handgun re- search at a state-run university. Taken together, these investments appear to fall well short of the amount necessary to bring a technology to the com- mercial marketplace in the near future. Product liability will influence both the ability and the willingness of gun makers to pursue the development of owner-authorized handguns. Guns differ fundamentally from other products in that, in normal use, they are intended to cause harm. Therefore, liability is limited to foreseeable, "unintended" injuries caused by a defect in the firearm. Defects may result from manufacturing flaws, design flaws, or a failure to provide adequate warning of the risks of using the product. The existence of a defect is based on the state of the art at the time the product was manufactured. The challenge for the courts will be to deter- mine the state of the art at a given point in time. If a technology for owner- authorized handguns matures and is considered state of the art, it is pos- sible that a gun manufacturer could be held liable for not incorporating it. In such a climate, the threat of litigation could provide a strong incentive for R&D and innovation. Gun makers who pursue smart-handgun tech- nology might realize a competitive advantage over those who do not. Gun makers who lag behind could risk being shut out of the marketplace. Given the technical challenges of producing a reliable owner-authorized firearm, however, the fear of litigation could also stifle innovation. Gun makers have three not-mutually-exclusive avenues for addressing the liabil- ity threat: creating the best design and warning possible; buying liability insurance; or seeking protection from the government. Legislation now working its way through Congress would prohibit civil liability actions against gun manufacturers for damages resulting from the misuse of their products. The bill provides no protection to gun makers for injuries caused by defective products, however. Every year, handguns kill and injure thousands of people and are used in the commission of a variety of crimes. Policy makers at the state and national levels, and the public, have focused on police officer gun takeaways and accidental shootings involving children as the problems that can be best addressed by owner-authorized handgun technology. However, these two problems account for a small percentage of the deaths and injuries caused by handguns. According to the FBI, between 1992 and 2001,
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4 OWNER-AUTHORIZED HANDGUNS 46 police officers were killed by service revolvers either their own or a partner's in the hands of an adversary (FBI, 2001~. Fewer than 200 chil- dren under age 20 were killed by unintentional discharges of firearms in 2000, the latest year for which there are data (NCHS, 2002~. In contrast, of the 28,663 individuals killed by firearms in 2000,58 percent (16,586) were suicides, and 38 percent (10,801) were murder victims. Although most crimes are not committed with guns, the majority of gun crimes are committed with handguns. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, perpetrators of nearly 90 percent of rapes and sexual assaults, robberies, and aggravated assaults in 1993 used handguns in committing their crimes (Zawitz, 1995~. Slightly more than half of the roughly 500,000 guns stolen each year are handguns. A variety of studies have shown that adult and juvenile offenders have stolen firearms or kept, sold, or traded stolen firearms. Smart-handgun technology could influence the diversion of firearms from authorized to unauthorized users. Diversion occurs through transfers within the home; seizures of handguns from victims by assailants; thefts from homes, vehicles, and commercial locations; and transfers in so-called secondary markets, such as "straw" purchases made on behalf of individuals who cannot legally buy guns. Smart-handgun technology could make un- authorized transfers difficult or unprofitable. Because there are some 70 million "dumb" handguns in circulation in the United States, the im- pact of technology-enhanced firearms on suicide and homicide rates would depend on their speed of market penetration. The ultimate size of the effect would be influenced by the interplay of a variety of legal, behavioral, eco- nomic, and other factors. The availability of owner-authorized handguns could encourage some people to purchase firearms who otherwise might not, thus increasing the total number of handguns in circulation. The availability of firearms per- ceived to be "safe" could also have the unintended effect of encouraging people to use less stringent firearms storage practices. And because it might be difficult to tell the difference visually between a technology-enhanced handgun and a dumb handgun, the presence of smart handguns in the home, for example could increase the risk of accidental discharges of weapons mistaken for smart handguns. Given the uncertainties involved and the absence of data, it is impossible at this time to predict whether reliable owner-authorized hand- guns would have an overall beneficial or detrimental effect, especially in the short term. Despite this uncertainty and the current technical immaturity
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OVERVIEW 5 of these devices, the potential utility of owner-authorized handguns is intriguing. Considerably more research in the laboratory and by social scientists will be necessary to provide manufacturers, policy makers, and the public with enough information to make informed decisions on this . . important topic.
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Representative terms from entire chapter: