When kids kill

trigger happy

  guns n sneakers Safer gun technology
Could firearms be redesigned to restrict access by would-be child murderers? Can technology help solve a social problem that has stalemated the political process?

A growing number of public health researchers say the decades-long redesign of automobiles provides a good example of how a consumer product can be improved to reduce the death toll. Starting with the introduction of seat belts in the 1960s, and continuing through the advent of air bags in the 1990s, autos became less dangerous, and death rates fell correspondingly.

Gun-violence researchers have plenty of ideas. For example, Trudy Karlson, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says an electronic lock in the grip, being tested by a couple of firearms makers, would allow a gun to be fired only by a person wearing a special decoder ring, and not by thieves or unauthorized children. Simple trigger locks, and locking up guns to deny access to children could also be effective. See "Reducing Firearm Injury and Death" in the bibliography.

Karlson would eliminate the double standard that prohibits the import of easily-concealed, cheap weapons but not their domestic manufacture. Short-barreled "Saturday night specials" are the murderer's tool of choice, she says. "Our study in Milwaukee showed that 75 percent of murders were committed by guns with a barrel shorter than 4 inches."

Small is beautiful
Guns could also be redesigned to reduce the number of bullets they can fire before reloading. Storing more bullets allows shooters to keep up the rampage for longer. Kip Kinkel, the accused Oregon gunslinger, was finally subdued while trying to reload, after firing 51 bullets from 3 guns.

Statistics show that gun violence intensified after semiautomatic pistols became more common in the 1980s. Semiautomatics often hold more bullets than revolvers, and they fire more quickly. Thirty-four percent of those shot with a semiautomatic pistol in Philadelphia died at the shooting site in 1990, compared to only 18 percent of those shot with a revolver. (See "The Relationship Between Firearm Design and Firearm Violence" in the bibliography).

None of the technological changes would prevent all school killings, and gun control always faces stiff political opposition. Yet Karlson thinks safety improvements may be only a matter of time. "Sometimes I compare it to the cigarette issue. The Surgeon General's report in 1964 showed incontrovertibly that cigarettes cause cancer. Now, two generations later, we're finally seeing the FDA talk about regulating tobacco as a drug," and a proposed national tobacco settlement is in the wings.

Indeed, the families of three young people shot to death by juveniles carrying illegal handguns have sued three gun manufacturers for damages. Their suit claims that the weapons were designed and marketed for gang members by emphasizing "high volume firepower" and "fingerprint resistance." And Chicago's mayor, Richard Daley Jr., has asked the city attorney to evaluate a possible gun-liability lawsuit, modeled on the tobacco-liability suits.

To Karlson, the long, slow response to tobacco deaths is instructive about the deaths by gunfire: "We can come to grips with hazardous consumer products and through a variety of government interventions and education programs change the cultural values."

Sure-fire readings and surfings on school violence.

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