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Building a Safer Gun

By Geoff Brown

Accidental shootings claim about 800 lives in the U.S. each year, along with many serious injuries. Researchers at the Center for Gun Policy and Research are working to make guns safer by helping state governments develop legislative mandates for gun manufacturers. Research by the Center shows that devices such as magazine safeties and loaded chamber indicators can save lives. Accidental gun deaths might be reduced by 20 percent or more if all guns had these simple devices.

Loaded Chamber Indicator

Accidents occur when gun owners or others mistakenly assume a gun is unloaded. This simple device—usually a pin that becomes extended when a semi-automatic pistol is loaded—indicates that a gun is ready and able to fire. Unfortunately, for inexperienced users or young kids, it won't keep the gun from firing. Still, "a car has a gauge that tells you when it has gas," says Stephen Teret. "Why shouldn't a gun tell you 'I'm loaded'?"

Magazine Safety

Semi-automatic handguns have the potential to keep a bullet in the firing chamber at all times; many accidental shootings occur when the gun operator removes the magazine but doesn't realize there's a bullet still inside. With a magazine safety, a mechanical latch is activated when the weapon's magazine is removed, rendering the gun useless until the magazine is reinserted. A few gun manufacturers, including Smith & Wesson, already include this device on many of their models. But the device gets flak from some gun advocates who contend that it impedes the pistol's effective use in close quarters and combat-type situations.

Both the magazine safety and loaded chamber indicator were invented nearly at the same time as the modern pistol. Smith & Wesson and Colt developed such devices a century ago, although their use today is rare. (Only some 10 to 15 percent of eligible handguns have these safeties.)

"Personalized" Gun

Technologically impractical until recently, this device could revolutionize gun safety. The guiding concept: to link a gun to an authorized user through an electronic security device. One early path of development was a ring with an electronic code that the authorized user must wear on his or her gun hand; the ring's code "unlocks" the weapon. Without it, the gun is inert. Another option would be a fingerprint reader, much like those used on laptop computers, which would unlock the weapon only for the approved user.

Kids would be unable to fire a personalized gun that belonged to their parents; thieves couldn't resell stolen personalized weapons; and "straw purchases" would become more difficult with a fingerprint system.

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