- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2000

Sometimes safety measures can backfire, as New York Police Officer Frank Tobin learned the hard way.

Officer Tobin was responding to a burglar complaint when he was shot at. Luckily the bullet passed harmlessly through his hat, but moments later he was face to face with his attacker. He raised his pistol.

Instantly he realized the gesture was useless. He could see sunlight through his revolver's cylinder. It was not loaded. The night before he had hid the bullets from his young daughters and, that morning, he could not find the ammunition. His luck held and the assailant turned and ran. But if the confrontation had gone differently, Officer Tobin, my grandfather, could have been killed.

Frank Tobin learned that some precautions are detrimental to personal safety more than 40 years ago. If Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening and others pushing to child-proof guns by mandating "smart gun" technology get their way, many Americans could find themselves in my grandfather's shoes holding a functional firearm but powerless to stop someone with evil intentions. Or worse, others will learn how dangerous it can be to rely on child-proofing guns with technology instead of common sense.

Mandating smart gun technology is an attempt to digitize gun control. The technology works by placing an electronic or magnetic lock on a firearm. The lock will release when the authorized user grips the gun while wearing a ring or bracelet equipped with a magnetic strip. Other experimental locks read the owner's fingerprints.

In the computer age Americans won't lose bullets like my grandfather; instead they will lose the magnetic ring or the sensor will malfunction. But the result will be the same the gun will be useless when it is needed the most. Those who experience such a gun failure will find that the gun in their hand has been confiscated through technology.

The technology is two years away from being widely available, but gun-control advocates are laying the ground work to mandate it now.

President Clinton recently asked Congress to double last year's request and spend $10 million to help develop "smart gun" technology. Mr. Glendening has gone even further. Gun makers will develop the technology if "we make them" by requiring it for all handguns sold in Maryland, he said. He has since backed that up by asking the state legislature to pay $3 million over three years to develop the technology. If approved, that money would be paired with a mandate that all hand guns sold in the state have smart gun technology after May 2003.

That could only be the beginning. In his recent state of the state address, Mr. Glendening said he hopes children will "think of handguns and cigarettes as relics of a past, unenlightened age." Mr. Glendening's approach could "go national." As a condition of settling the lawsuits brought by a growing number of cities and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, gun makers could be forced to sell only "smart guns."

Controlling criminal use of guns through sophisticated locks will fail. Guns are simple, easily made devices, and therefore criminals will find a way around high-tech locks.

If you have a confined space, a substance that explodes and a projectile, you have a gun. A gun can be made from a few cheap plumbing parts from any hardware store. Such a device, often called a "zip gun," could easily fire several rounds of low-velocity ammunition before wearing out. Sadly, such a gun was used to kill my cousin, Laura Ronning, a few years ago in rural Pennsylvania.

Indeed, guns are so simple even technology spun off from the gun industry seems simplistic. Typewriters were first mass produced with technology Samuel Colt developed making his now famous revolvers in the 1830s.

Keys are still made with a lathe patented by Thomas Blanchard in 1819 to make gun stocks. If "smart gun" mandates make guns harder to come by, simple machine shops will likely be converted to make black market firearms.

Smart guns won't make schools any safer, because even this technology isn't that complicated and will likely be bypassed. Houston inventor Kenneth Pugh made one of the first smart guns in only a few days with spare parts found in his garage. It won't be long before teen-agers find ways to remove the technology without disabling the gun. After all, if teens can buy cocaine in the school yard after it is smuggled past an army of border agents, police officers and principals then they will find a way to bypass simple circuitry with tools in the family garage.

The anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre, April 20, will likely bring emotion and confusion back to the debate but the issue is not hopeless.

As in many other instances, personal responsibility is the solution. Gun-owning parents can take advantage of trigger locks, gun safes and some day, smart guns. But the essential component will remain the instruction those parents give to their children on the proper respect for firearms.

Potentially rendering guns inoperable through government mandates will only endanger those who are lured into a false sense of security and depend on both guns and gun locks to work at a critical moment.

Brendan Miniter is an editor for the Commentary section and edits the Sunday Forum page for The Washington Times.

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