Survey: Most gun owners support sale of 'smart' guns but aren't likely to buy them

Guns with personalized safety features have been promoted as a way to help prevent firearm-related injuries, but a survey finds those interested in buying such technology already follow important gun safety practices

Smart gun

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A new study led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that almost four out of five current gun owners support the sale of both traditional and personalized guns through licensed dealers, but only 18% of gun owners reported being likely to purchase a personalized gun for themselves when considering the additional costs.

Personalized guns—sometimes referred to as "smart" guns—include safety features to help prevent use by unauthorized individuals, including children. Some personalized guns require unique biometric information, like an individual's fingerprint, to function. Others use radio frequency identification to connect a gun to a wearable device, like a bracelet, watch, or ring, to activate the firearm, much like a keyless entry. While not currently available for sale in the U.S., personalized guns have been promoted as a way to help prevent gun-related injuries.

"While the technology is designed to reduce gun-related injuries, people who reported being likely to purchase a personalized gun already engaged in safe gun storage behaviors."
Cassandra Crifasi
Deputy director, Center for Gun Policy and Research

The findings, published online today in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine, explore factors that may influence the purchase of a personalized gun, such as added cost and safe storage practices. The research suggests that low to moderate interest in purchasing a personalized gun could limit the intended safety benefits the technology offers.

"This is an important time in discussing gun policy and other solutions to reduce the burden of gun-related deaths," says lead study author Cassandra Crifasi, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research and assistant professor in the Bloomberg School's Department of Health Policy and Management. "Our results show that while the technology is designed to reduce gun-related injuries, people who reported being likely to purchase a personalized gun already engaged in safe gun storage behaviors."

Advocates of personalized gun technology often highlight the context of school shootings or children and adolescents gaining access to a firearm. If the guns were personalized, children or adolescents who find the firearm would be unable to use it without authorization. However, personalized guns would do little to prevent the leading cause of firearm death—adult suicide.

The researchers used a nationally representative sample of current gun owners to examine knowledge of and attitudes toward purchasing a personalized gun. The internet-based survey was fielded by the research firm GfK Knowledge Networks between March 15 and April 13, 2016. Results of the 1,444 survey responses were analyzed in 2018. Respondents were asked questions about availability, how likely they would be to purchase a personalized gun when the cost increased by $300, and concerns about the technology.

More than half of respondents had concerns about the cost of personalized guns, and 70% were concerned about the technology working when the device was needed.

The survey found that almost half, or 48%, of current gun owners had heard of personalized guns and 79% believe both traditional and personalized guns should be available for purchase from licensed dealers. Researchers then asked about the likelihood of purchasing a personalized gun if the safety features add $300 to the original price. Only 5% of respondents reported being extremely likely and 14% reported being somewhat likely to purchase a personalized gun for an additional $300. Overall, more than half, or 56%, of respondents had concerns about cost.

Researchers also found that respondents who reported safe storage practices, meaning all their guns are stored in a locked gun safe, cabinet, or case, or locked into a gun rack or stored with a trigger lock or other lock, had a 50% higher likelihood of purchasing a personalized gun. Respondents who had attended a safety training course had a slightly higher likelihood—52%—of purchasing a personalized gun.

The survey also found that 70% of respondents were concerned about the technology working when the device was needed.

"Designers of personalized guns appear to be targeting individuals who would not have otherwise bought a gun but may consider doing so if they thought the gun was safe," Crifasi says. "The introduction of personalized guns in the U.S. market could increase the number of firearms in a home. Given what we know about exposure to firearms and risk of suicide, the potential unintended consequences of personalized guns warrant further examination."