Laws, childproof triggers may cut back on gun violence

Fatal gun violence can be reduced with laws that require background checks before purchasing firearms, as well as childproof trigger technologies that limit firing to the gun's owner, scientists say.

Experts are also studying new approaches that would take guns away from anyone served with a restraining order due to domestic violence, a controversial effort that was recently tried for the first time in California.

The problem of gun violence in America -- where shootings at schools, movie theatres and public places are a regular occurrence -- is difficult to tackle because of a powerful gun lobby, Constitutional protections for the right to bear arms, and also the sheer number of weapons in circulation - about one for every person across the United States.

"We have a heck of a lot of guns in this country - 310 million in private hands," said Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University in North Carolina.

People with mental illness are often implicated in mass shootings, even though they account for just five percent of all cases of violence against others, he told a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Therefore, other methods must be tried to keep guns out of the wrong hands.

- Childproof triggers -One such approach is to add technology to guns that enable the trigger to be pulled only by its licensed user.

Already, these "smart-trigger" technologies are being used in some European countries, and a task force convened by the US Department of Justice recently said the technology is ready for widespread use in the United States, where there are nearly 23,000 gun murders and more than 38,000 gun suicides per year.

"This is the future, but it is also now," said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore, Maryland.

"I think it will be something that will reduce adolescent suicides, unintentional shooting of children, and also crimes that result from guns that are stolen," Webster said.

However, the technology is expensive for now, costing thousands of dollars per gun, though Webster said the hope is that costs would come down once smart triggers become widespread on the market.

New Jersey last year became the first state to pass a law mandating that all new guns on the market must be equipped with childproof technology, beginning three years after smart guns are available.

- Weaker laws, more murders -Researchers also discussed new findings about a state that relaxed its gun laws, and apparently led to a significant rise in homicides.

In 2007, Missouri repealed its permit-to-purchase (PTP) handgun law, which required people buying a handgun to verify with the local sheriff that they had passed a federally required background check.

In the five years that followed, the state experienced a jump in its murder rate that was not seen in neighboring states, said the findings by Webster and colleagues, to be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Urban Health.

That meant between 55 and 63 additional murders per year in Missouri, while the homicide rate in the rest of the country was going down, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"This study provides compelling confirmation that weaknesses in firearm laws lead to deaths from gun violence," said Webster.

Another pilot study carried out in northern California focused on identifying people with firearms who had been recently served with domestic violence restraining orders.

Police went to their homes and asked for them to hand over their guns, in accordance with California law stating that people subject to domestic violence restraining orders may not purchase or keep guns in the home. 

Of several thousand cases involved in the study, 525 people with likely firearms were identified, and 119 people handed over their weapons.

"At the moment we don't know if that works or not," said Garen Wintemute, professor of emergency medicine at the University of California, Davis.

Some 1,127 women were killed by their partners in 2011, and 605,000 were assaulted, according to FBI figures.

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