Citing Health Benefits of Safer Guns, Weinberg Tries Increasingly Popular Tactic

Andrew Kitchenman | November 6, 2015 | Health Care
NJ state senator promotes bill mandating availability of safety technology as way to prevent accidental and other gun deaths

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg talks about her revamped "smart gun" legislation.
When state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) announced a new bill to require gun sellers to stock so-called “personalized” guns — weapons equipped with technology that limits their use to their owners — she framed the measure as a way to reduce gun deaths.

In doing so, Weinberg took an approach that’s been gaining supporters across the country: treating deaths from shootings much the way we deal with diseases like diabetes or depression – as a public health threat that can be reduced through preventive measures.

Instead of requiring gun stores to ban the sale of conventional guns, as would be the case under current state law, the new bill would require gun stores to sell “smart” guns alongside conventional weapons.

While viewing the use of guns in violent deaths as a public-health issue has gone through up-and-down cycles, researchers say it’s on an upswing.

There are obstacles to conducting health research on violent crimes, and gun-rights advocates say it’s a misleading way to frame gun control.

But public-health researchers say the New Jersey bill could reduce three kinds of gun-related deaths: those from children playing with unsecured guns, suicides by people other than gun owners, and homicides with stolen guns.

The bill would repeal provisions of a 2002 law that says the sale of conventional handguns would be prohibited in the state 30 months after “personalized” or “smart” guns are available in stores. It’s unlikely to become law as long as Chris Christie is governor, since he has opposed more regulation of gun sales.

While the technology is available, “smart” guns aren’t available for purchase . Supporters of requiring the technology say gun sellers have refused to stock them due to fear of a backlash from gun-rights advocates who are concerned about the New Jersey law going into effect.

Those e same gun-rights proponents also have said there isn’t a market for the guns.

The guns can use a variety of technologies, including fingerprint recognition or requiring that a special bracelet be within a several inches of the weapon .

Both types of guns would be available

In place of the 2002 prohibition, Weinberg’s bill would require retailers to sell personalized guns along with other guns. Supporters say this would be preferable to the current situation, since it would at least force the availability of guns equipped with the safety technology.

Weinberg’s bill isn’t likely to become law any time soon. Christie has highlighted his opposition to gun control during his presidential campaign, In addition, he recently vetoed a bill that would have made it more difficult for people with a history of psychiatric commitments to have their records expunged so they can purchase a gun. The Senate voted to override that veto, but the Assembly hasn’t taken action yet.

At the press conference announcing the bill, Senate Democratic staff members distributed statistics about the number of firearm deaths nationally in 2013. They included 505 deaths from the accidental discharge of a firearm, including 69 children younger than 15. In addition, there were 21,175 suicides and 11,208 homicides through gunfire, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“If this is not a public-health crisis, I don’t know what is,” said Weinberg, who sponsored the 2002 law when she was an Assembly member.

Weinberg said she hopes to secure support for the new bill from the medical community. She said that supporters of the 2002 law included healthcare workers “who see the outcome of these (shootings) in emergency rooms.”

Weinberg used a public-health argument in attempting to head off objections to provisions of the bill that would require retailers to display personalized guns in the same way they display other guns.

“We ban retailers from displaying cigarettes, because we know it’s a health hazard,” she said. “So now we’re going to require retailers to offer a safe gun for sale.”

While “personalized” gun advocates say the technology has been available for years, gun retailers have shied away from offering the weapons in the face of opposition from gun-rights advocates. Weinberg pointed to the case of a California shop owner who denied trying to sell smart guns after hearing objections from the gun lobby, and a Maryland shop owner who said he decided against selling the guns because of threats he received.

Previous law backfired

In effect, the New Jersey law that was initially intended as a way to encourage personalized guns to be sold has become an obstacle, since gun-rights advocates oppose any attempt to sell the guns due to the New Jersey law, according to “smart gun” supporters.

The New Jersey law “was a bone in the throat of a lot of people,” said Stephen Teret, director of the Center for Law and the Public’s Health at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. Teret supports the new bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex and Morris) and Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem).

Teret sees the new bill succeeding at doing what the original law was intended to do – bringing personalized guns to market.

“No one can tell you the exact number of gun deaths that would be averted once personalized guns are on the marketplace, but it would be a substantial net public-health gain,” said Teret.

Teret said focus on the guns as a public health-issues has “waxed and waned” over 36 years that he’s studied the issue, but it’s is on the rise now.

“I am more optimistic than I have ever been about the country, our society understands guns as a public health issue and that there may be public-health solutions to reduce the number of gun injuries or deaths,” Teret said.

Northeastern University epidemiology and health sciences professor Dr. Matthew Miller said legislation like Weinberg’s can be viewed as “harm reduction,” in the same way that distribution of free syringes reduced the spread of HIV.

He noted that more than half of suicide deaths are by gunshots, and that nearly two-thirds of deaths by gunfire are suicides.

“You an actually save a lot of lives,” such as teenagers who in moments of crisis attempt to kill themselves using guns owned by their parents, Miller said.

Miller said personalized gun technology could be similar to improvements made to car radios in the 1990s that made them useless if attempts were made to hook them up to other cars.

Gun lobby remains opposed

Gun-rights supporters have resisted the public-health argument, saying that lawful use of conventional guns can save lives.

Scott Bach, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Rifle & Pistol Clubs, said the current state law should be repealed.

“New Jersey’s ‘smart gun’ law is a ban on every conventional handgun ever made so we welcome its repeal, but we do not welcome government efforts to force market acceptance of dangerous and unreliable technology, after which the politicians will be back with their ban,” Bach said in an emailed statement.

“If smart guns are such a great idea, why does New Jersey’s current law exempt police from their use, and why does it say the state can’t be sued if the mandated gun goes ‘click’ instead of ‘bang’?”

The National Rifle Association of America’s Institute for Legislative Action also had a negative reaction to the public-health argument put forward by Weinberg.

“While we’re not opposed to research and development of ‘smart gun’ technology, we do oppose any government attempt to mandate the use or sale of ‘smart gun’ technology,” said institute spokesman Lars Dalseide in a statement.

[related]Since 1996, Congress hasn’t provided any funding for the CDC to research guns, after NRA members raised concerns that the agency was promoting gun control.

There has been research nationally on personalized gun technology, including work done at New Jersey Institute of Technology by Donald Sebastian, currently NJIT’s senior vice president for research and development.

Sebastian declined to comment on the specifics of Weinberg’s bill, which he hadn’t read as of yesterday. But he said he supported the concept behind it.

Since 2002, personalized gun technology has continued to improve, Sebastian said.

Perhaps more importantly, technology that would have once seemed unlikely, such as “smart thermostats” and self-driving cars, have been embraced by many people, Sebastian noted.

“Even great-grandmas and great-grandpas are walking around with smartphones,” Sebastian said. “The starting premise of the introduction of digital technology into a weapon is much less of a factor than it was back then,” in 2002.

“What really hasn’t changed is the whole framework of the discussion,” he said, particularly from those who perceive the technology as an attempt by non-gun users to inflict restrictions on gun users.

“I’m hopeful that Loretta’s announcement might take off the table the excuse that allowing the technology” will lead to prohibition of conventional guns, he said.

Instead, the bill could “make it what it always should have been – something that’s driven by market interest and acceptance.”