In the summer of 1970, the Ford Motor Co. unveiled a small, stylish, coupe that it hoped would prove a worthy rival to the cheap European and Japanese imports then hitting the market. Ford’s tiny car sold for less than $2,000, and it proved to be a big hit. The company sold 100,000 of them in just five months, and by the mid-1970s, Ford was selling 500,000 Pintos every year.
There was just one problem: The most popular subcompact in America was a death trap. The flaw was its fuel tank. In tests performed before the Pinto’s launch, Ford’s engineers discovered that rear-end crashes would cause the gas tank to rupture and catch fire. As Mother Jones later reported in a landmark exposé, the vehicle caused at least 500 burn deaths in eight years and perhaps as many as 900. Ford settled hundreds of lawsuits with victims. In 1978, a California jury awarded $125 million in damages to Richard Grimshaw, who, as a 13-year-old, had been disfigured when the Pinto he was riding in exploded after it was rear-ended by a car going 28 mph. (The driver, Grimshaw’s mother, died from her burns.) The damages were later revised down to $3.5 million, but the message to Ford was clear. The company initiated a massive recall of the car, and shortly afterward it stopped making the Pinto.
The history of the Pinto isn’t unusual. You can tell a similar story about many other American consumer goods. In general, products in the United States used to be very unsafe. Cars exploded, appliances caught fire, drugs killed children. In the early 1980s, there were about 300 deaths caused by carbon-monoxide poisoning from home devices—things like furnaces and water heaters—every year. Nowadays there are fewer than 200 such deaths, and the number keeps decreasing. What happened? As in the story of the Pinto, lawsuits, media coverage, and regulations forced change. Unsafe products caused tragedies that made headlines, companies were fined and embarrassed, and slowly but surely, our products improved.
There’s a singular exception to this general advancement: guns. Research shows that it’s possible to make safer firearms. There are a slew of sensible technologies that gunmakers could add to their products that might prevent hundreds or thousands of deaths per year. One area of active research is known as the “smart gun”—a trigger-identification system that prevents a gun from being fired by anyone other than its authorized user. (James Bond carries one in Skyfall.)
But we aren’t likely to see smart guns on the market anytime soon. Even though the idea is technologically sound—researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology have created a working prototype of a gun that determines whether or not to fire based on a user’s “grip pattern”—gun makers aren’t taking it up. They’ve been slow to add other safety technologies, too, including indicators that show whether a gun is loaded and “magazine safeties” that prevent weapons from being fired when their ammunition magazine is removed. (The magazine’s removal might lead some users to assume the gun isn’t loaded when there may in fact be a round in the chamber.)
Why aren’t gunmakers making safer guns? Because guns are exempt from most of the consumer safety laws that improved the rest of American life. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which was established in 1972, is charged with looking over thousands of different kinds of products. If you search its database for “guns,” you’ll find lots of recalls of defective air pistols and lead-covered toy guns but nothing about real firearms. That’s because the CPSC is explicitly prohibited from regulating firearms. If you’re injured by a gun, you can’t even go to court. In 2005, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which immunizes gun makers against lawsuits resulting from “misuse” of the products. If they can’t be sued and can’t be regulated, gunmakers have no incentive to make smarter guns. It’s the Pinto story in reverse.
The New Jersey Institute of Technology began working on its smart gun a decade ago, after the state passed a law mandating that all handguns sold in New Jersey carry smart triggers once the technology became widely available. Donald Sebastian, senior vice president for research and development at NJIT, says that until about 2007, researchers at the school worked to perfect a grip-recognition system that could identify a gun’s rightful user. The system works with pressure-sensing transducers embedded in the gun’s grip. Over a training period of about 50 shots, the system learns a user’s grip “signature,” the pattern by which his muscles exert pressure as he’s firing. “We’re better than a 99 percent false negative rate,” Sebastian says. “An authorized user will be recognized 99 times out of a 100.” (This does mean that one time out of 100, you’ll go to fire your gun and it won’t shoot—though as Sebastian points out, guns often fail for mechanical reasons, so a 1 percent chance of failure wasn’t considered a fatal flaw.)