April 06, 2020
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A harm reduction strategy for guns makes the most sense

The mass shootings at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College earlier this month reignited the debate over guns and gun violence in the United States. Much social science evidence suggests that America’s widespread firearm ownership increases, rather than decreases, its deaths and injuries caused by gun violence. I cite this evidence not to make the case for gun control but instead the case for gun safety.

Promoting gun safety makes sense for two related reasons. First, Americans own some 300 million firearms — by far the highest rate of private firearm ownership of any nation. Second, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Second Amendment generally protects private ownership of firearms. These circumstances mean a “harm reduction” strategy to reduce the deaths and injuries associated with firearm ownership may well make more sense than efforts to restrict the private ownership of handguns by law-abiding persons.

The example of motor vehicles shows the potential of a harm reduction strategy for firearms. Gun rights advocates often say no one wants to ban motor vehicles, even though motor vehicles kill or injure many people. If that’s true, they ask, why should we ban firearms? Fair enough. But let’s then treat firearms the same way we treat motor vehicles by requiring every potential gun owner to have to first obtain a license after undergoing rigorous gun safety training and passing written and actual-use exams. Moreover, just as drivers with a history of reckless driving or drunken driving may lose their license, let’s also deny the right to own a firearm to anyone with a history of domestic violence or other kinds of violence and to anyone with a history of alcohol or other drug abuse. Because many states’ laws are lax in requiring licensing and in restricting gun ownership as just described and because loopholes exist in background check procedures, strong federal legislation is necessary.

Motor vehicles have become much safer over the years because of innovations such as seat belts, air bags, more rigid structures and new accident avoidance technologies. All these innovations have reduced traffic deaths per mile driven by about 80 percent since a half-century ago. Why should we not also make guns safer?

Federal law prohibits the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission from regulating guns. Why should guns be the only dangerous consumer product that the federal government does not regulate for health and safety? As gun safety advocate Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center observes, “Teddy bears get tested to make sure they can withstand use and abuse by kids, but guns don’t get tested to make sure they don’t go off when accidentally dropped.”

The failure to regulate gun safety is a shame, because the technology exists to make guns safer to own. Perhaps most important, guns can be “personalized” so they become inoperable if stolen, taken by an unauthorized relative or friend or picked up by a child. Just as today’s smartphones use fingerprint technology for activation, today’s guns could be designed to match a palm or fingerprint of their owner in order to be able to be used. Or they could be designed with a computer chip that would allow them to work only if the chip communicated with a specialized ring worn by the gun’s authorized user. Or they could be designed with radio frequencies that would allow the gun to work only with a specialized wristwatch worn by the authorized user. However personalized, these “smart guns” would save many lives and prevent many injuries.

Safer guns are hardly a new idea. D.B. Wesson, one of the founders of the famous Smith & Wesson firearm manufacturer, recognized the need for safer guns in the 1880s after a child was shot while playing with one of his company’s revolvers. The company developed and marketed a childproof gun with a lever that on its back that had to be pressed for the gun to fire. Although this gun went off the market years ago, safer guns are more important than ever.

In combination, federally mandated licensing, appropriate ownership restrictions and safer guns will reduce the death and injury toll from firearms significantly even if many deaths and injuries would still occur. None of these measures would take guns away from law-abiding individuals nor violate the Second Amendment as interpreted by the Supreme Court. With about 90 Americans dying every day from gun violence — homicides, accidental shootings and suicides — it is long past time for our nation to take effective action. Regardless of where Americans stand on the gun control versus gun rights debate, we should all unite on the need for gun safety through harm reduction.

Steven E. Barkan is Professor of Sociology at the University of Maine and author of “Criminology: A Sociological Understanding (6th Edition).” He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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