Nearly 6 in 10 Americans -- including 42.8 percent of gun owners -- say that if they were to buy a new gun, they would willingly buy one equipped with technology preventing it from being fired by an unauthorized user, a new national survey has found.
The survey suggests an openness to guns that are referred to as "smart" guns, "personalized" weapons and "childproof" firearms. Their development has been championed in recent years by the Obama administration and a range of physicians' groups and public-health advocates.
All have argued that the adoption of such guns would reduce the number of accidental injuries -- often involving children -- and suicides by teens and others who use someone else's firearm to end their lives. The technology likely would make stolen firearms unusable to criminals and protect most gun owners from having a firearm wrestled away and used against them.
In the United States, 33,636 people die yearly because of gun violence.
The introduction of such weapons in the marketplace, however, has met fierce resistance from gun-rights organizations and some gun owners. Those critics argue that the new generation of guns will prove unreliable and that few Americans want them.
As a result, products incorporating owner-authorization technology are not widely available.
In 2013, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for gun manufacturers, released findings suggesting that just 14 percent of Americans would be willing to buy a firearm incorporating the new technologies.
The new survey reported Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health, however, suggests that estimate is low. In a nationally representative Web-based polling of 3,949 Americans, researchers from Johns Hopkins, Harvard and Northeastern universities found that 58.8 percent of respondents said they would be willing, or very willing, to buy a gun described as childproof.
Among those who already own guns, 42.8 percent said they would be willing, or very willing, to purchase such a gun. Some 24.2 percent called themselves unwilling, or very unwilling, to buy a childproof firearm. The remaining 33 percent said they were undecided.
Openness to smart guns was higher among women, with 62 percent saying they would be willing to buy such a weapon (55.5 percent of men surveyed said they would willingly buy one). Though openness was high among respondents who have children in the home -- 65 percent said they would be willing to buy one -- a majority (56.3 percent) of those with no children in the home also favored the availability of such guns.
Self-described liberals were most likely to pronounce themselves willing to buy a childproof gun (71.4 percent). Smaller majorities of those who identified themselves as politically moderate (55.8 percent) or conservative (55.7 percent) did so.
Among gun owners, those owning only handguns were more likely to declare themselves willing to buy a childproof gun than were those who owned only long guns, a category that includes rifles (54.9 percent versus 48.4 percent). Gun owners who owned multiple types of guns were most resistant to the new technologies, with 30.3 percent declaring themselves unwilling to buy such a firearm and 35.5 percent saying they would consider it.
Stephen Teret, a gun-violence researcher at Johns Hopkins University, said the survey might prompt gun manufacturers to rethink their resistance to adapting user-authorization technologies to existing or new guns.
"It means that, yes, there's a market out there" for guns with safeguards against unauthorized use, said Teret. "For domestic gun manufacturers, it suggests that if they want to survive, they'd better start moving in this direction. And for venture capitalists who want to make a lot of money, it suggests that they can do well financially by doing good."
Indeed, while the federal government has fueled the development of smart-weapon technology with millions of dollars over the years, venture capitalists have recently moved in to promote the development of such technology.
Led by venture capitalist Ron Conway, the San Francisco-based Smart Tech Challenges Foundation in 2013 launched the Smart Tech for Firearms Challenge. The philanthropists distributed $1 million in donated funds to entrepreneurs and inventors seeking to develop and bring to market technologies that would make guns safer from unauthorized use.
Next month, the foundation, in conjunction with gun-control advocates Washington CeaseFire, will host a symposium to present developments in safer gun technology.
In addition to reviewing the potential market for weapons equipped with the new technologies, the San Francisco Smart Gun Symposium is expected to highlight growing support for smart weapons among law enforcement leaders. King County (Wash.) Washington Sheriff John Urquhart, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr and Richard Beary, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, have said police should consider adopting smart guns.
At the same time, the debate over childproof guns has gotten the attention of presidential hopefuls. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie, a candidate for the GOP nomination, recently pocket-vetoed a measure that would have altered the political landscape for the new technology.
On Tuesday, Christie declined to sign into law a measure that would have required gun dealers to offer their customers at least one model of gun that is designed against unauthorized use. That requirement would have become effective once the New Jersey attorney general found that a firearm meeting that description was reliable and safe.
The now-dead measure would have replaced a 14-year-old law that would require all New Jersey gun dealers to sell only weapons with safeguards against unauthorized use, once a reliable example comes on to the U.S. market. That mandate has been excoriated by gun-rights advocates. In recent years, proponents of childproof guns have called it a "poison pill" hampering the development of safer guns and called for its repeal.
The measure pocket-vetoed this week by Christie, who faces tough questioning over previous support for some gun control measures, would have repealed that mandate, replacing it with new strictures. The National Rifle Association opposed the newly passed bill as well. Calling the mandate "misguided," the NRA said its effect would be similar to the government forcing auto dealers to offer new self-driving car technology for sale regardless of consumer demand or viability.