There are some simple innovations that can be added to handguns to help reduce the 10,000+ murders and accidental gun deaths America witnesses each year. The biggest roadblock to these innovations is the partnership of gun partisans and extremists who block common sense initiatives to make guns safer. Let us learn the lesson of Pharaoh not to harden our hearts to what will make us safer. Let us pursue and embrace smart gun technology.
Softening Our Hearts: Embracing Smart Gun Technology
Thirty-three thousands Americans died last year in car accidents. Of that number, around half were not wearing seatbelts. Estimates suggest that 15% of drivers and passengers do not wear seatbelts even though seatbelts save more than 12,000 lives every year. If everyone who was in a traffic accident last year had been wearing a seatbelt, nearly 3,000 more people would be alive today.
Seatbelts save lives. But when they were introduced as a feature in American cars in the early 1960s, the public was wary. People were afraid that seatbelts might trap them in their cars; they assumed they would be uncomfortable; and they were concerned about the cost they would add to cars. Throughout the 1970s, the vast majority of Americans opposed any sanction-bearing laws that would require them to wear seatbelts.
But today, the landscape is very different. Every state has some form of mandatory seat belt law, and federal regulations require minimum safety standards on every car sold in the US. Public opinion has changed dramatically in the past fifty years, especially among the quarter-million people whose lives were saved by seatbelts, a simple, common-sense safety solution.
Every year, more than 30,000 people are killed by cars. And every year, the same number—around 30,000 people—are killed by guns. Just as seatbelts save thousands of lives every year through sensible and practical technology, so too can so-called “smart gun” technology also save thousands of lives. I am moved by rabbis, ministers, and imams around the country who urge us not to stand idly by while people die unnecessarily to gun violence. If we embrace smart-gun technology as we once embraced seatbelts, tens of thousands of tragic deaths can be prevented.
What is a smart gun? A smart gun is a weapon that will only fire when it’s in close proximity to a paired device. For instance, a smart gun owner might wear a ring that must be within six inches of the gun in order for it to fire. Now, it’s no longer possible for a child to shoot someone with that gun accidentally, as happened 265 times last year.  In a police department, all smart guns can be programmed to fire only when close to any number of authorized police badges. Now, an officer need not be afraid of being shot with her own weapon. This protects not only police officers but also the suspects they pursue since many police shootings happen because officers fear their own gun might be used against them.
Additionally, some smart guns come equipped with remote access technology—just like your cell phone. If someone steals your phone, you can easily shut it down remotely so that no one else can use it. The same goes for smart guns: any stolen weapon is instantly useless. Since 90% of homicides are committed with stolen weapons, thousands of murders can been prevented with this simple tool.
Currently, smart guns only exist as prototypes. With additional research, however, these prototypes can in just a few years be safe, effective, and reliable. If any part of President Obama’s recent executive actions will have an impact on gun violence in America, I believe it will be the federal government’s investment in smart gun research.
Smart gun technology can be the seatbelt of firearms. One study suggests that if every gun in America were a smart gun, the total number of gun-related deaths and crimes would be cut in half. But one major obstacle stands in the way: the hardened hearts of the gun lobby.
My friend and mentor Rabbi Joel Mosbacher is the co-chairman of a nationwide gun violence prevention campaign called Do Not Stand Idly By. In his work advocating for sensible and practical smart gun technology, he’s spoken to a lot of gun owners and gun users. And in my tenure as his assistant rabbi, I met my fair share as well. Most gun owners that Rabbi Mosbacher and I have met are enthusiasts. They own guns for hunting, collecting, or protection, and they celebrate their rights to lawfully and safely own firearms. These people, among them my own father, by and large support reasonable efforts to reduce gun violence and are open to smart gun technology. They are open to efforts not to control their guns but to make them safer.
But the gun lobby isn’t made up of enthusiasts like this; it’s driven by partisans and extremists. Gun manufacturers make up more than half of the companies who contribute to the NRA,  which itself donates millions of dollars to politicians who support the industry. These companies have vested interest in unfettered sale of powerful, deadly weapons. And, gun extremists, who view all American politics through rose-tinted crosshairs, have usurped control of the NRA, insisting that any effort to curtail gun violence is an attack on freedom and should be aggressively resisted. Gun manufacturers have neglected to research technology that can make their guns safer, and gun extremists decry any efforts to fund such research. Both groups ultimately are opponents of gun safety and enablers of unnecessary gun violence in America.
The behavior of gun partisans and extremists isn’t new. We see it in this week’s Torah portion as time and again, plague after plague, Pharaoh “hardens his heart.” Rather than grant the Hebrews freedom from slavery, Pharaoh watches his people first cower in fear, then suffer in pain, and ultimately die by the thousands. He has the power to save them with a word, but he fails them utterly, abandoning them to a violence that could have been prevented.
We have a responsibility to learn from Pharaoh’s mistake.
In every other industry in America, innovation breeds safety. Cars become safer, medicines become safer, toys become safer. Why should guns be any different? The federal government may in years to come dedicate resources to developing smart gun technology; I sure hope they do. In the meantime, I also join Rabbi Mosbacher and the Do Not Stand Idly By campaign in urging gun companies also to research smart gun technology. We encourage police departments and the United States Military to join us in growing the demand for safe, reliable guns that take reasonable steps to reduce deaths caused by accident or theft. Without passing a single law, gun manufacturers can make a real impact in the fight to reduce gun violence.
God promised our ancestors freedom. God promised us redemption and deliverance from a violence we could not control. God taught our people to hope for a better future, a safer and more peaceful future. And God commanded us to do everything in our power to bring that future to life.
Let’s not let hardened hearts stand in the way.
 See http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pubs/806572.pdf, especially p. xi-2 (471) and o, xi-4a (499).
 http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pubs/806572.pdf, p. xi-19 (521).
 See for example http://dailycaller.com/2013/02/13/stand-and-fight/.
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