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Jewish World Review June 28, 2000 / 25 Sivan, 5760

James Freeman

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Consumer Reports

Can technology eliminate gun deaths? --
LOOKING FOR AN END to gun violence, various politicians are considering new laws to require gun-safety technologies Ė devices to ensure that a gun can only be fired by its rightful owner. One idea is to have a fingerprint scanner on the weapon. Another is to have a radio controlled gun that would only fire when it receives a message transmitted from a ring or bracelet on the owner.

So will any of this high-tech stuff work? The fingerprint-scanning idea doesnít seem to hold much promise in the short term. Wear-and-tear and dirt smudges might prevent the gun from recognizing the owner. But at least one gun maker, Colt, believes that consumers could see a radio-controlled firearm in 4-6 years. Personally, Iíd wonder about batteries and random cell-phone static getting in the way, but we can probably assume that there will be a techno-fix for this problem.

Of course, technology has its limits. Removing the urge to commit violence will prove a bit more elusive. And the Columbine killers werenít using their parentsí guns, so itís unlikely that transmitting rings would have saved anyone from that tragedy. As politicians consider new technological mandates, itís worth noting that the problems theyíre trying to solve have been receding for years.

After last year's school tragedies and the media attention surrounding the Million Mom March, it may seem as if America is plunging into an abyss of gun-related violence. Obviously, one homicide is one too many, but it may surprise you to know that by almost any measurement America is becoming a safer place. And the government's National Center for Health Statistics cites the sharp decline in gun violence as the primary reason.

Murder has not been in the Top 10 causes of death in this country since 1993. In 1998, the most recent year for which we have complete data, the chance that an American would be murdered was roughly 1 in 16,000. That's the lowest murder rate we've had since the 1960s. By means of comparison, in 1998 you had a greater chance of dying of septicemia, a blood poisoning by a virulent microorganism. You were also more likely to die of nephritis, an inflammation of the kidney, than to be murdered.

As for 1999, the terrible year of Columbine, we won't have complete data until this October, but the FBI recently released its preliminary annual Uniform Crime Report for last year. The Bureau estimates that the number of murders in the U.S. in 1999 declined by 8% from the previous year. So even including those terrible events that have been seared into our memories, the problem of gun violence continues to recede, even as it becomes more important as a political issue. The FBI also estimates a 7% drop in rape, a 7% decline in assault, and an 8% decline in robbery in 1999.

The FBI has more complete data for 1998, when its crime index fell for the seventh consecutive year. Just about any way you look at it, the news on crime just keeps getting better. The murder rate has fallen roughly 40% since 1980, and politicians from both parties can claim some credit. We saw steep declines under both President Reagan and President Clinton. Actually, success against crime hasn't necessarily been a function of Presidential leadership. Longer sentences have made it more costly to commit crimes, and many big-city police departments, particularly those in New York and San Diego, have achieved great success with innovative programs. The Heritage Foundation's Robert Moffit credits a renewed emphasis on cracking down on minor offenses, sending a message to criminals that crime won't be tolerated.

Sadly, despite the general decline in crime, one group of victims still faces a high risk of murder. Young African-American males face horrendous odds in many cities. A recent Heritage study examined murder rates in various US cities and found that the most dangerous place of all is Washington, DC. A 15-year-old African-American male in DC has an 8.5% chance of being murdered before his 45th birthday. Nationally, the average for black males is 2.2%, while the average for white males is just 0.3%. The good news is that murder rates declined dramatically during the 1990s for young black men in New York and LA. But progress in DC is slow and in Baltimore things are actually getting worse. Does anyone believe that a lack of firearm technology is the cause?

Whatever their age, race or gender, far too many people in this country fall victim to violent crime. Still, the real story of the last twenty years is that Americans, heavily-armed as they may be, are much less likely to kill each other. To make gun deaths even less likely, letís focus on the real causes of violence, and they have nothing to do with technology.

JWR contributor James Freeman is editor of Tech Central Station. Comment by clicking here.

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