Set phasers to stun — technology like Star Trek’s phasers lies under the radar and behind red tape, but it has the potential to solve a problem that has afflicted America for decades: gun violence. Unfortunately, solutions to gun violence discussed in mainstream politics have only brought limited effectiveness and intense partisan gridlock. Fortunately, other solutions have tremendous potential, and they are politically feasible.
While the focus thus far has largely been on limiting guns themselves with more screening and red tape, banning certain makes, etc., a critical element has been ignored — the bullets themselves. A pro-market approach to enabling bullets that are less lethal but that have more stopping power can reduce gun violence while pleasing gun owners, safety advocates, and even the NRA to boot.
It’s worse to think we’ve made progress when we haven’t than it is to do nothing at all. Assault rifles only account for 2-8 percent of gun deaths; how much can a ban of new ones achieve? Will opposing factions ever stop fighting and disabling new restrictions? Can we ever reach the low homicide rates of other first world countries in a nation where guns outnumber people? How much progress can we claim when suicides — the majority of gun deaths — would have failed in over 70 percent of cases if other methods were used?
The outlook may look bleak, but not if we refocus our methods. While we have a 200-year supply of guns in this country, we have a 3-year supply of bullets. Here, it is important to recognize the difference between lethality and stopping power: stopping power is neurological while lethality is physical. This means that by legalizing and encouraging bullet markets to pursue non-lethal technologies, we can vastly reduce gun deaths.
How do these traits differ? Lethality, or killing ability, is largely related to internal organ damage and bleeding, while stopping power is based on shock. Getting shot will ground an attacker not because it will kill them (we live for minutes even when our heart stops), but because it hurts. The pain doesn’t have to be in internal organs. Unfortunately virtually every option on the market relies solely on causing shock and pain through deep penetration. In contrast, many other technologies such as electric shock, safe chemicals like salts, or surface-damaging bullets, have superior stopping power but are less lethal. Design matters too. High-fragmentation technology like hollow point bullets can have incredible stopping power at low depth of penetration, but are very lethal at full depth. In addition, an overlooked niche includes less lethal bullets such as those made of low-density material for target shooting.
So what can be done? A whole lot. Low-lethality bullets can immediately gain exemptions from bullet taxes, waiting times, and other restrictions. Laws must be revised to make exceptions for and legalize high stopping power technologies such as safe salts for low-lethality bullets. Subsidies and funding can be considered for producing, creating awareness for, and marketing safe technologies. Scientific metrics for rating bullet lethality must be developed, possibly by the defense department. Research funding for low lethality bullets must be pursued. At this point NRA members should be drooling dollar signs, and that’s perfectly fine if it saves lives.
Others can help too. Advocacy groups can provide for bullet exchange programs and create marketing campaigns. Companies can start producing bullets for this underserved market. Local governments can spearhead modifying regulations and creating incentives. Perhaps most crucially, the consumer can vote with their wallet by buying bullet types that keep their families safer.
The potential impact is huge. Only 4 percent of murders are premeditated, so modifying the tools affects almost all cases. Fear of painful failed suicides can discourage using guns or encourage abstaining, potentially reducing two thirds or more of lost vulnerable and usually young minds. And unlike the controversial debates happening right now, both parties can sign on.
However, conflict in politics is inevitable. Some may push for heavy use of restrictions on bullets rather than pro-market approaches. Some may fight certain high stopping power technologies since they’re painful. Some may fight any change whatsoever, even if it means fewer choices for self-defense. But ultimately, there is plenty of middle ground.
Americans demand a comprehensive solution to the problem of gun violence. We want to retain our second amendment rights and the ability to defend ourselves without suffering the lethal consequences of firearms. New bullet technologies offer a way to achieve this goal, but the silence regarding their use has been deafening. It’s time to be loud.
David Warsinger is a graduate student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.