New Technology Is Pushed To Reduce Gun Use By Young Trigger Locks Are Viewed As An Alternative To Unenforced Laws, Or No Laws, As In Pa.

Posted: April 28, 1998

As a small Pennsylvania town copes with the loss of a teacher killed at a middle-school dance, legislators and gun-control advocates are calling for laws to keep guns out of young hands through a modern twist: technology that will render the weapons unusable by anyone but their owner.

Pennsylvania is one of 35 states without laws holding parents accountable for their weapons. Police say the .25-caliber semiautomatic handgun used to fatally shoot teacher John Gillette at a school dance last week in Edinboro was registered to the father of the teenager accused of his death, Andrew Wurst. No negligence charge can be brought against the father.

There is no such law on the books, either, in Arkansas, Kentucky or Mississippi - states where, in the last year, young people have killed at schools with guns taken from parents, grandparents or neighbors.

Since Florida enacted the first ``Safe Storage Law'' in 1989, 14 other states - including Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland - have followed with rulings that hold parents accountable for gun negligence. But such laws are not always enforced, especially in cases when youngsters playing with guns accidentally shoot each other.

In North Carolina, a grandmother has been charged with a misdemeanor for failing to properly store a .38-caliber semiautomatic pistol that her 4-year-old grandchild found in her purse and used to accidentally kill his 6-year-old playmate Saturday.

But in Palmyra, Burlington County, last summer, officials decided against arresting a relative who left her gun within easy access of children when a 4-year-old boy was accidentally shot in the head by his 5-year-old sister.

``Prosecutors don't use [the laws]. They say, `Everybody's already suffered enough,' '' said Bryan Miller of Haddonfield, executive director of Ceasefire New Jersey, a group promoting legislation that would require guns sold there to include technology that would make them unusable to anyone but the owner. Miller's brother, Michael J. Miller, an FBI agent, was shot and killed inside a Washington police office in 1994.

Inexpensive, easy-to-use trigger locks have been on the market for years, and are required here and there, but have brought little fanfare. The new technology would create guns that ``recognize,'' and operate only for, their owner. Microchips could unlock the safety only after reading the owner's fingerprint, or by matching a chip in the user's ring. The idea is that children playing with guns should never be able to fire them.

There are more than 30 patents pending for the new safer-gun technology. And last fall, several gun manufacturers, meeting at the White House, vowed to start making childproof guns. Colt, for one, promises a new model by 1999.

The Pennsylvania legislature considered a parental-accountability law during the administration of Gov. Robert P. Casey, but it failed to pass because legislators could not agree on the issue, said Tony Ross, an aide to State Rep. Andrew Carn (D., Phila.)

Because such efforts have gone nowhere, Pennsylvania legislators are focusing on making guns safer. A bill sponsored by Carn would require all firearms sold in the state to be equipped with a locking device. Rep. T.J. Rooney (D., Lehigh) would establish broad, statewide handgun safety standards.

``Clearly, parents ought to be responsible for the handling and safety of these deadly weapons,'' said Ross. ``But clearly, that seems not to be enough. Even in Arkansas, those guns were locked up, and the kids broke in anyway. . . . There has to be some kind of way these tragedies can be prevented.''

Yet with both bills sitting in the House Judiciary Committee, proponents do not seem hopeful.

``They're going nowhere,'' said Ross. ``This is an NRA state.''

And the National Rifle Association has similar influence in Arkansas, Kentucky and Mississippi, said Joe Sudbay, director of state legislation for Handgun Control Inc.

It was in Jonesboro, Ark., that four young people were killed last month when two boys, ages 13 and 11, allegedly became snipers in a schoolyard, using weapons stolen from one of the boys' relatives.

In West Paducah, Ky., in December, a 14-year-old was charged with spraying bullets into the lobby of his high school. And in Pearl, Miss., two teens died in October, allegedly at the hands of a gun-wielding 16-year-old classmate.

Wayne Lapierre, executive vice president of the NRA, the nation's largest gun lobby, said the group had no problem with gunmakers making whatever they want, and supported parental responsibility bills. But it does have some concerns about the proposed technology.

For one thing, it is likely to increase the cost of firearms, with estimates running from $50 to 50 percent. Lapierre said he also worried that a complicated unlocking procedure could take away precious minutes if a gun owner's life was in danger.

``If a manufacturer wants to make that, that's their decision,'' Lapierre said. ``We don't think that's the kind of thing the government ought to be legislating.''

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