Freedomnomics

Article published Saturday, May 26, 2016, at National Review.

When ‘Smart-Gun’ Laws Are Not So Smart

By John R. Lott, Jr.

At a White House conference on Tuesday with representatives of state and local law enforcement from all 50 states, Vice President Joe Biden asserted that an “overwhelming majority” of Americans fully support so-called smart guns — firearms that can only be fired by a particular person. Biden claimed that this technology “could have gigantic payoff for us” in saving lives and reducing gun-related violence.

Now, President Obama wants to use federal grants to encourage police departments to buy “smart guns” for officers. The idea is to prevent officers’ guns from being used against them. In reality, this technology is more likely to endanger lives than to save them.

In the five years from 2010 to 2014, 14 police officers were murdered with their own guns. This is slightly less than three per year out of the 627,949 full-time law-enforcement officers in our country. The possible lives saved have to be balanced against the risks introduced by switching to these guns.

Smart guns use a fingerprint or palm reader in order to operate — something akin to what is available on your smart phone. Or they can require a radio signal from a wristwatch worn by the officer.

But perhaps the Obama administration should watch fewer James Bond movies and listen to the concerns of the police, who are less than thrilled about experimenting with these new types of guns. “We have some very, very serious questions,” says James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Their reasons for concern are many and obvious. For example, radio signals can be jammed. Imagine police arriving on a crime scene only to find that their guns can’t fire. Your iPhone has a state-of-the-art fingerprint scanner, but anyone who uses the device knows that the technology is far from 100 percent reliable. The phone may not unlock if your finger is positioned the wrong way or if it is slightly damp or dirty. For cops faced with an armed criminal, a few seconds’ delay may mean the difference between life and death.

Another problem is that the recoil from firing a smart gun could damage the sensitive electronics. This would be especially true of larger-caliber guns. The smart gun that is currently available is a mere .22-caliber handgun and costs about $1,800, including the watch. The cost of arming all full-time law-enforcement officers would run in excess of $1.1 billion.

It’s one thing to require that police officers carry these guns. But New Jersey now mandates that once these smart guns are available in stores, they will be the only type of handgun you can buy. Even if the price of smart guns falls to the point where they’re only a few hundred dollars more expensive than other guns, the higher costs will price many Americans out of the market. These laws would disarm the very people who are the most likely victims of violent crime — poor blacks who live in high-crime urban areas.

As with the push for expanded background checks, it’s hard not to conclude that “commonsense” smart-gun laws are simply another way of increasing the price of guns and reducing gun ownership.

Gun-control advocates only seem to look at the benefits of gun control. But if they really want to save lives, they should to finally acknowledge — and answer — the fact that these laws have real safety costs.

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