SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

May 16, 2013

Tierney unveils bill calling for smart handguns

High-tech innovation would allow guns to be fired only by their owners

BY ETHAN FORMAN
STAFF WRITER

---- — SALEM — In the most recent James Bond thriller “Skyfall,” 007 packs a pistol coded to his palm print that fires only when he holds it — a high-tech feature that saves his life when the gun falls into the wrong hands.

Yesterday, Congressman John Tierney introduced a bill that could make that technology a common feature of handguns in the next two years.

The bill would not restrict gun ownership or infringe on a gun owner’s Second Amendment rights, Tierney said in announcing the legislation during a conference call with advocates of gun violence prevention.

It’s a move meant to make gun ownership safer, he said.

“The bill itself just seeks to personalize handguns,” Tierney said.

John Rosenthal of Gloucester, chairman of the nonprofit group Stop Handgun Violence, said Tierney’s bill has the potential to revolutionize gun ownership without infringing on citizens’ right to bear arms.

It has the potential, he said, to cut down on the 11,000 gun homicides last year, many of them committed with stolen weapons. The nation also saw 19,000 suicides carried out with guns last year, something smart-gun technology could lessen. And, he said, it could cut down on incidents of young children accidentally shooting themselves or others.

Rosenthal said 17 percent of law enforcement officers killed by a gun have had their own weapon turned on them.

Proponents only touched on the technology that would prevent anyone other than the owner from firing the weapon, mentioning in passing radio frequency ID in which one wears a bracelet or ring coded to the gun; biometric sensors; and unique ID numbers on the guns themselves.

This bill, called the Personalized Handgun Safety Act of 2013, was unveiled against the backdrop of a heated debate in Washington over gun control following the massacre of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. last year. Most recently the debate has focused on universal background checks.

Tierney’s bill would authorize grants through the U.S. Department of Justice’s research and development arm, the National Institute of Justice, to develop smart-gun technology. It would direct the Consumer Product Safety Commission to come up with a smart-gun safety standard, and require that all handguns made in the United States within two years of the bill’s passage be personalized and comply with this new standard.

Those selling handguns three years after the bill passes would have to retrofit the handgun, with the money for this coming from the Asset Forfeiture Fund of the Department of Justice.

Supporters said the cost to retrofit a gun could be as low as $20.

The bill holds gun makers liable if they fail to make handguns that meet the government safety standard two years after the bill passes.

“They will be held responsible so we can protect our children and not our guns,” Tierney said.

Dave Franks, the owner of Dave Franks Motorcycles Sales on Bridge Street in Salem, said he stopped selling firearms seven months ago because there were too many regulations to follow.

“They papered me over,” he said.

When asked what he thinks about smart guns, Franks called it a “waste of time and money” and said people can already secure their firearms by locking them up.

“Irresponsible people is the problem,” Franks said. “It’s not the device.”

Michael Caggiano, a certified firearms instructor and owner of Salem Firearm Safety, which runs gun safety courses, had just the opposite view. “I think that if the technology worked and it was cost-effective, it would be fantastic,” he said.

While he agreed that guns not in use should be locked up, as required by state law, he also noted that those in cabinets can be broken into.

“If technology can help in addition to that, that would be great,” Caggiano said.

The push for smart guns has come up before.

Rosenthal, who is a gun owner and does skeet shooting, said back in the mid-1990s he met with Ed Shultz, the former CEO of Smith & Wesson, and asked about trigger locks and smart-gun technology.

In 2000, the company, facing mounting lawsuits from cities over handgun violence, voluntarily agreed to develop smart-gun technology and put other safety measures in place, according to Rosenthal and various reports.

“There was about 20 minutes of jubilation,” Rosenthal said. Then the National Rifle Association and the rest of the industry announced a boycott, and the gun maker nearly went out of business before it was sold off, he said.

“I think you need financial incentives and hopefully a law to hold them accountable. And we would need, hopefully, another gun company to do it, too,” Rosenthal said.

During the conference call, Ann Marie Crowell, a Saugus mother, told the story of how her 12-year-old son, Brian, was accidentally shot in the neck and killed on Christmas Eve in 1997 by his best friend, who was playing with his mother’s handgun, which she kept in her room for protection.

“Our lives have changed forever,” Crowell said, “and I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through as a parent having to bury a child.”

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.