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Duke professor supports ‘smart guns’

Duke University professor Philip Cook discusses the benefits of “smart guns” yesterday at the Institute for Health, Healthcare Policy and Aging Research. – Photo by Ruoxuan Yang

On shelves in Europe is the newly developed “smart gun.” The device is implanted with an electronic chip that only allows the owner of the gun to fire and could well be the key to reducing gun violence in America, Philip Cook said.

Cook, the ITT/Terry Sanford professor of public policy at Duke University, gave a lecture yesterday afternoon on gun safety. 

The lecture was part of the Brown Bag Seminar Series titled, “The Underground Gun Market: What (if anything) Can Be Done To Keep Guns Away from Dangerous People?” at the Institute for Health, Healthcare Policy and Aging Research in downtown New Brunswick.

“It’s a concept we are all used to with our cars,” he said. “Some cars on the market can be unlocked this way. It’s an easy technology to transfer to guns.”

The smart gun is currently being kept off shelves nationwide due to a New Jersey law known as the Childproof Handgun Law of 2002, he said. 

The law states that once smart guns are available anywhere in the country, all handguns sold in New Jersey must be smart guns within 30 months. To prevent a ban on handguns in New Jersey, vendors everywhere in the United States are not selling smart guns. 

Although the law is keeping the product from buyers, Cook believes smart guns could greatly reduce violence.

“If you are not an authorized gun user and have somehow gotten hands on a gun, the gun will not fire,” Cook said. “Gun theft would be much less common with the implementation of smart guns nationwide.”

The National Rifle Association is playing a role in whether smart guns will ever see the shelves as well. Multiple gun dealers in America have announced smart gun sales, and the NRA has attacked these dealers. 

“The NRA is not unaware of this New Jersey law,” Cook said. “They have done everything they can to stop the introduction of this smart gun.”

The NRA is known for supporting the expansion of the types of guns available on the market, so the organization’s favor toward restricting the types of guns people can own is ironic, he said.

Cook went on to explain his findings on the underground gun market, focusing on five urban cities: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Boston.

Rutgers chose Cook to speak because he is is a leading scholar on gun violence, income inequality, crime prevention and the economics of crime literature, said Carol Boyer, associate director at the IHHCPAR.

“Cook hypothesizes that a better understanding of the social networks and underground sources of guns will shed light on ways to disrupt gun supply and reduce gun violence,” Boyer said. 

Cook’s research of the underground gun market began in 2005 in Chicago with help from sociologists Jens Ludwig, Sudhir Venkatesh and Rutgers professor Anthony Braga, Cook said. 

After interviewing people living in the Chicago projects, Cook found most residents do not own guns, either out of fear of getting involved with guns or because they cannot afford one.

But Cook’s findings conflicted with statistics claiming the majority of homicides in the Chicago area are committed with guns. He hypothesized gang members in Chicago account for most of the homicides.

With the help of ethnographer Venkatesh, the Chicago study also documented the existence of brokers and straw purchases.

Cook’s research found that when a person has a criminal background and cannot legally purchase a firearm, that person would often pay off an accomplice to buy the gun for them. The transaction is called a straw purchase, and the accomplice is termed a broker. 

In addition to the use of smart guns, an increased transaction cost on guns could curb violence.

Ayse Akincigil, associate professor at the School of Social Work, questioned whether a nationwide gun buyback program would be successful in curbing gun violence. Gun buybacks involve the police paying civilians for unauthorized guns on the streets with the hope of reducing the number of firearms in circulation.

Gun buyback programs are effective, Cook said. In New York, the police set a permanent price for gun buybacks at $100, which Cook said is “another ball game entirely.” 

The New York Police Department’s set price floor makes it less likely that civilians will sell their guns on the streets. 

Akincigil also brought up the idea that regulating gun manufacturers could further prevent gun violence. 

Some of the same law firms that regulated cigarettes then turned their attention to regulating guns in more than 30 cities, but Congress immunized the gun manufacturing industry from regulations in 2005.

“Manufacturers could help in many ways,” Cook said. “It’s easy to design a gun that cannot be fired by a child under six.” 

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