Guns don’t kill people, the saying goes, people kill people. Some of those people killers and their victims are children. It’s astonishing that this country seems unwilling to protect our young from the dangers of firearms.
A recent column in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof recited figures from the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that more preschoolers are killed by guns every year (about 80) than are police officers, about 50 of whom are killed by guns. According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, 20 children and teenagers are shot every day in the U.S.
Death by gunfire is a public health issue from which children are not exempt, and Kristof reminded readers of some of their recent, sad stories:
- Last month, Veronica Rutledge was shot by her her 2-year-old in a Wal-Mart when the little guy reached into his mom’s purse, found handgun that she legally carried and pulled the trigger.
- In November, a 3-year-old boy was shot in the face by a 4-year-old, and a 2-year-old shot and killed his 11-year-old sister.
Maryland passed a law in 2002 to require gun dealers to sell handguns manufactured from 2003 onwards, only if the handgun is equipped with an "integrated mechanical safety device" to prevent discharge unless the device is deactivated. Older handguns can be legally sold by dealers only if they are provided with an external lock of some kind (like a locked case). Unfortunately the law has plenty of loopholes and hasn't had much impact to make all guns truly child-proof.
In this country, it’s common practice to childproof your cabinets and electrical outlets. It’s common sense to protect young ones from dangerous toys. So why did a Florida court rule that doctors who ask their patients if they own firearms violate the patients' right to privacy?
It’s not a privacy issue, it’s a health issue. As a story in The Atlantic explained, the American Medical Association (AMA) considers gun violence an epidemic; in 2011, it advised doctors to counsel patients on gun safety.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, the magazine said, considers gun safety counseling a doctor’s job just like it is his or her job to counsel patients about the dangers of lead paint, and the risks of not using seat belts. “Pediatricians,” the policy statement reads, are “urged to counsel parents about the dangers of allowing children and adolescents to have access to guns inside and outside the home.”
The kid death toll, Kristof wrote, “is utterly unnecessary, for the technology to make childproof guns goes back more than a century. Beginning in the 1880s, Smith & Wesson … actually sold childproof handguns that required a lever to be depressed as the trigger was pulled.”
“Doesn’t it seem odd,” he continued, “that your cellphone can be set up to require a PIN or a fingerprint, but there’s no such option for a gun?”
The investigative news site FairWarning.org recently published a story about how different states are addressing (or not) the issue of gun control. One of its sources, Daniel Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, commented on NRA-backed measures to allow guns where alcohol is sold and on college campuses, and noted that a Missouri provision lowers the minimum age for a concealed carry permit to 19.
“That age group gets into a lot of trouble,” he told FairWarning. “I just really question how prudent it is to allow 19-year-olds to carry concealed handguns around. We don’t even let 19-year-olds drink a beer legally.”
Maybe it takes a kid to protect a kid. Kristof introduced readers to Kai Kloepfer, a 17-year-old in Boulder, Colo., who was inspired to do something after the cinema shooting in a Denver suburb in 2012. Kloepfer made childproofing guns his science fair project.
Kloepfer’s “smart gun” can be fired only by an authorized user recognized by the fingerprint on the grip. More than 1,000 fingerprints can be authorized per gun; neither a child nor a thief nor anyone can shoot it if their prints haven’t been authorized.
Kloepfer won a grand prize in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for his design, as well as a $50,000 grant from the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation to refine it. By the time he enters college, he hopes the technology will be ready to license to a manufacturer.
Kristof enumerated other ways to make smarter, safer guns, including the Armatix iP1, which can be fired only if the shooter is wearing a companion wristwatch.
But of course the NRA rejects the idea of smart guns because it doesn’t think any safety measure should become mandatory. “One problem has been an unfortunate 2002 New Jersey law,” Kristof wrote, “stipulating that three years after smart guns are available anywhere in the United States, only smart guns can be sold in the state. The attorney general’s office there ruled recently that the Armatix smart gun would not trigger the law, but the provision has still led gun enthusiasts to bully dealers to keep smart guns off the market everywhere in the U.S.”
Kristof quoted Stephen Teret, a gun expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who said “Smart guns are going to save lives. They’re not going to save all lives, but why wouldn’t we want to make guns as safe a consumer product as possible?”
Indeed, why should safety take a back seat to commerce? Why can’t commerce embrace safety, as a promotional tool?
That’s what David Hemenway, a public health expert at Harvard whom Kristof interviewed, believes. He told the reporter that police departments or the military should buy smart guns to create the market and prove that they work.
“Something is amiss,” Kristof concluded, “when we protect our children from toys that they might swallow, but not from firearms. So Veronica Rutledge is dead, and her son will grow up with the knowledge that he killed her — and we all bear some responsibility when we don’t even try to reduce the carnage.”
You can read a summary of federal and state laws on "smart guns" and related issues at the website of the http://smartgunlaws.org/gun-policy/">Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.