LAST WEEK, the Maryland General Assembly began considering Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposal that guns be sold only if they can be operated exclusively by someone bearing the correct fingerprint or wearing an individualized electronic ring.
The locks are touted as a way to reduce the rate of accidental gun deaths and suicides among children. But despite the obvious feel-good appeal of gun locks and safe-storage laws, these rules are more likely to cost lives than to save them.
Accidental gun deaths among children are fortunately much rarer than most people believe. Consider Maryland in the five years from 1992 to 1996. With more than a million children under age 15, only two accidental gun deaths occurred in that age range -- an annual rate of 0.4 deaths. Including suicides committed with guns raises the average to 2.4 deaths per year. With 1.2 million adults in Maryland owning at least one gun in 1996, the overwhelming majority of gun owners must have been extremely careful, or the figures would be higher.
According to national studies, those who fire a gun accidentally overwhelmingly have problems with alcoholism and long criminal histories, particularly arrests for violent acts. They are also disproportionately involved in automobile crashes and are much more likely to have had their driver's license suspended or revoked. Those who are most at risk are least likely to obey the law. Academic studies of safe-storage and gun-lock laws have also overwhelmingly found no evidence that they reduce the total number of suicides -- even if a few studies have found some small reductions in suicides committed with guns. There are simply too many ways to commit suicide. If people are intent upon killing themselves, they will do it with or without a gun.
However, Maryland's proposed law poses real risks. The most obvious problem is that gun locks are costly. Those who are most threatened by crime -- poor people, particularly blacks living in high-crime, urban areas -- benefit most from being able to protect themselves. "Smart locks," even when they become reliable, will add hundreds of dollars to the price of guns and prevent many poor people from being able to protect themselves and their families.
Locked guns are also not as readily accessible for defensive uses. Since criminals are deterred by armed victims, gun locks may increase crime. Serious reliability issues exacerbate this problem. Fingers that are slightly dirty or not placed exactly on the fingerprint-reading device may prevent the gun from firing. The legislation proposed by the governor would not apply to police officers for this very reason. There is also the concern that "smart" locks relying on radio signals can be jammed by criminals.
Guns clearly deter criminals. Americans use guns defensively more than 2 million times each year -- five times more frequently than the 430,000 times guns were used to commit crimes in 1997. Ninety-eight percent of the time, simply brandishing the weapon is sufficient to stop an attack. Police, while extremely important in reducing crime, can't be there all the time and virtually always end up at the scene after the crime has been committed. Having a gun is by far the safest course of action when one is confronted by a criminal.
Even if people have young children, it does not make sense for them to lock up a gun if they live in a high-crime urban area. Laws that make people lock up their guns or not own guns in the first place will result in more deaths.
My recent research examining juvenile accidental gun deaths or suicides for all 50 states from 1977 to 1996 found that safe-storage laws had no impact on either type of death. However, they did render law-abiding citizens less able to defend themselves against crime. The 15 states that adopted safe-storage laws during this period faced over 300 more murders and 3,860 more rapes per year. Burglaries also increased dramatically.
Laws frequently have unintended consequences. Sometimes even the best-intentioned ones cost lives.
John R. Lott Jr., a senior research scholar at Yale University Law School, is the author of "More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws" (University of Chicago Press, 1998). He will be the featured speaker tomorrow at the Carroll County Republican Central Committee's gun raffle.