Mass. should embrace 21st century gun control measures

Keeping up with technology will enhance state’s leadership role

MASSACHUSETTS HAS BEEN a progressive leader in common-sense gun control. The Commonwealth requires permits for gun purchases, maintains an assault weapons ban, restricts magazine capacity, and mandates universal background checks for the private sale of firearms.

On top of these measures, applicants for gun licenses have to take a gun safety course, and the licensing process can take several weeks. If police believe an applicant poses a threat to public safety, they can also petition a court to block the application or, depending on the gun permit, even block an application themselves. In 2018, the state further passed a “red flag” bill, which, through a court process, allows for the temporary removal of firearms from people considered to pose a threat to themselves or others.

Despite these measures, 242 people died from gun violence in Massachusetts in 2017. To reduce this number in upcoming years, policymakers must be proactive in dealing with technological advances. Many of these advances have made accessing and producing unregistered firearms significantly easier.

The potential prevalence of 3D printed guns presents a serious challenge for law enforcement. In 2013, the Department of Homeland Security circulated a bulletin that warned advances in 3D printing capabilities, such as the availability of 3D printing files for firearms components, and difficulties in regulating 3D printing files could threaten public safety. Tracking the creation and ownership of the guns could be impossible. Those printing their own guns can do so without a background check or a gun safety course. Even banned models, such as assault rifles, can be made without significant challenge. In this circumstance, individuals who would otherwise be deemed unsuitable to get a gun license, for, perhaps a history of domestic violence or mental health issues, could obtain a firearm.

Today, 3D printed guns are rare, but that could change. The printers needed to make guns can cost thousands of dollars, and the quality of the guns produced by these means remains unreliable. However, both the cost and quality hurdles may disappear with time. Blueprints for 3D printed guns could soon be easily accessible. A federal judge banned Cody Wilson, a blueprint owner, from publishing firearms blueprints for free on the internet. Wilson, though, found a workaround by selling the blueprints. Depending on regulations and future court decisions, selling these blueprints could be legal. Even if it were illegal, enforcement and regulation could be unfeasible.

Recognizing this risk, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, along with other state agencies, recently issued a public safety notice highlighting the handful of existing laws that 3D printed guns could violate. 3D printed guns may also violate the federal Undetectable Firearms Act, which makes illegal any gun that could pass undetected through a metal detector. In Massachusetts, too, one is required to have a firearm license in order to purchase or possess ammunition, making it harder for an unlicensed person to operate a 3D printed gun.

While these deterrents exist, they must be bolstered. Removing all blueprints from the internet is already a lost cause, but legislators could incentivize 3D printer manufacturers or outside companies to address the challenge. As Chelsea Parsons of the Center for American Progress told Vox, 3D printers can have blocking software that would recognize and halt the printing of parts of firearms. The Massachusetts Legislature should aim to work with companies to try to block the proliferation of these firearms blueprints. Similar to how modern computers have a variety of malware protection software, 3D printers could also have such software and the Legislature could help create a market for this through incentives. A detection software in 3D printers certainly may not be perfect, but it will put up an important barrier to those seeking illegal firearms.

While 3D printer capabilities present a troubling new threat when it comes to gun proliferation, technological advancements and regulation can also work together to prevent gun deaths. Alongside the push to keep illegal 3D printed guns off the streets, policymakers must work to incentivize smart gun technology to reduce gun violence from legally obtained guns.

Smart gun technology enables a gun to detect its owner, and it can therefore prevent an unauthorized user from firing the gun. Its implementation should have an immediate impact in two ways.

First, smart guns can also reduce the risk of stolen guns to public safety, as stolen smart guns would be inoperable. From 2012 to 2015, an estimated 2,561 firearms were stolen in Massachusetts.

Second, smart guns can prevent children from using firearms. Although Massachusetts is the only state that requires all gun owners to store their guns with a lock, this law is hard to enforce. This is particularly a safety problem for children. Since 2015, over 1,000 children in America under the age of 18 have unintentionally fired a gun and harmed themselves or someone else. A handful of these incidents were in Massachusetts. Most recently, an 11-year-old boy in Dudley fatally shot himself in the head by accident. From 2015 to 2016, there were a dozen incidents in Massachusetts schools of a child bringing or possessing a firearm.

The 2002 New Jersey Childproof Handgun Law has hampered the introduction of such technology into the market. The law states that once smart guns became available for commercial sale, all handguns sold in New Jersey must soon after be smart guns. The gun lobby has since mobilized to keep smart guns out of the market so that this New Jersey law would never be triggered. Recognizing the effect of the law, New Jersey may soon adopt legislation that would instead require each gun retailer to carry smart guns, but would still permit the sale of other firearms. This legislation would likely open the door for smart guns to enter the market nationwide.

With its existing strong regulations towards guns and with its record for technological innovation, Massachusetts can lead the country in both creating smart gun technology and introducing it into the market.

For example, Biofire, a Boston-based company, created fingerprint-sensing technology for firearms. The state can incentivize companies like Biofire in Massachusetts as well as help those from outside the state enter the market. Safe Gun Technology Company, a company in Georgia, designed a biometric authentication device that can be retrofitted to existing firearms.

Tax incentives or research funding could quicken the pace for such technology to enter the market and could help companies reach scale. The combined technology of Biofire and Safe Gun Technology Company could equip most firearms in Massachusetts with life-saving smart gun technology.

As these technologies are introduced, the Legislature should incentivize gun owners to use the technology, too. The state can use tax incentives or subsidize the cost for current gun owners to retrofit their guns to incorporate smart technology.

Neither preventing the creation of 3D printed guns nor increasing the prevalence of smart gun technology will be a panacea for solving gun violence. Still, together proactive, preventative legislation in these two areas can ensure it is harder to obtain an illegal firearm in Massachusetts and the use of a legal firearm can be restricted to the gun’s lawful owner. These steps will help reduce gun deaths, and ensure that gun regulation keeps pace with technological advances.

Meet the Author
After all, the guns of today are far different than those of yesterday. A flintlock musket with gunpowder, lead balls, and single round volleys is barely comparable to a semi-automatic, high capacity AR-15. Instead of being reactive to the arrival of new technology, Massachusetts needs to take the lead and ensure that its progressive principles adapt to the guns of tomorrow.

Samarth Gupta grew up in Acton and graduated last year from Harvard. He is currently a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.