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David Gunn's modest proposal for gun safety

David Gunn knows he's stepping into the crossfire. He knows the gun-control folks are likely to view him as a crank while gun owners denounce him as the Antichrist. But the former gun shop owner is an inventor by inclination and has been a firearms buff ever since he was a kid, and he can't help tinkering. Let others rage on about gun violence and the Second Amendment; Gunn's busy working on a technological fix to the problem. And he thinks he has it -- a "firearms safety management system" both sides can embrace, once they understand it.

Growing up on a ranch near Granby, Gunn did his share of hunting and screwing around with guns; at fourteen he got shot in the heel when an untended .22 fell over and went off. In the 1970s, Gunn operated a gun-and-fishing-rod shop on Kipling. (Yes, it was called Gunn's Guns.) "We sold a lot of guns, including backup guns for cops," he recalls. "These days, nobody wants to deal in used guns, but we did."

Gunn went on to operate a successful construction business, while developing inventions and patents in his spare time, including a magazine for an electric screw gun that he suggests was "thirty years ahead of its time." He also worked on firearm innovations, despite a tiff with the FBI over his design for a fully automatic action for caseless ammo that didn't overheat. "The government thinks we're all idiots, especially inventors," he sighs.

The Gunn removable trigger.
The Gunn removable trigger.

A decade ago, after one child killed another with a gun found under a bed in Arvada, Gunn devised a removable trigger, on the theory that when kids see a gun has no trigger to pull, they lose interest in it. He insists it's better protection for gun owners with children than safety locks: "Safety locks are ridiculous. They can take them off. It engages them to do so. What defeats them is when there's nothing there. They want instant gratification."

Yet the escalating toll of mass shootings, from Aurora to Newtown and beyond, has prompted Gunn to think much more ambitiously about gun safety. Collaborating with an electronics expert, he's come up with a prototype for a device that he believes can revolutionize the campaign for prevention of gun violence -- without altering the weapon's original specs or infringing on the right to bear arms.

The device is essentially a kind of plug in the gun barrel that can be activated or retracted with a signal from an electronic key. It could be controlled by a handheld transmitter or even a cell-phone app. The most obvious benefit of the device, the inventor contends, is in safe home storage. Guns could be deactivated when not in use, a home defense weapon could be rendered live in seconds when needed -- but an intruder would find nothing but useless weaponry (and, more important, couldn't use your gun against you).

Well, maybe not completely useless. A disabled gun could still injure the person who attempts to fire it. Gunn had one shotgun he was testing disintegrate when he fired it by pulling a string from a distance with the device activated. "Most modern guns won't explode," he says, "but they will fall apart." He's working on venting more of the gases so that won't happen.

Gunn sees more far-ranging -- and controversial -- implications to the technology, though. Schools, government buildings, even private businesses could be equipped with transmitters that activate the devices and make the guns inoperable, essentially creating gun-free zones. The device could also transmit a GPS signal, allowing authorities to track stolen guns. Attempting to tamper with or disable the device could also send out an alert to law enforcement, similar to what happens when parolees attempt to remove their ankle bracelets.

Remotely tracked and disabled guns? If that sounds like an Orwellian prescription for gun control and eventual confiscation -- well, Gunn has heard the objections already. But he argues that there are ways to make guns smarter, in order to stymie mass shooters, without stomping on the rights of the law-abiding. "We're looking for a beginning here," he says. "The two sides are so polarized that nothing gets done. But you have to start somewhere."

Gunn has spoken to state and federal leaders and even some gun industry executives about his plan. He says there would have to be a special exception in the patent law to allow for the devices to be manufactured without competing against the major gun companies. Yes, it would take years and plenty of incentives to persuade millions of gun owners to swap out their weapons, or components of their weapons, for ones equipped with the device. Yes, the government would have to actively encourage such a move, possibly by requiring that any firearms used for hunting or recreational purposes on public lands be so equipped. Yes, the government's involvement would undoubtedly raise the hackles of the National Rifle Association leadership and its lobbyists.

That doesn't bother Gunn. "I'm just stubborn enough to turn down anything the NRA could offer me," he says.

Gunn is hoping for more audiences with lawmakers who've been stymied in their efforts to pass any sort of meaningful gun legislation. This is a better way, he insists: "I'm way ahead of the times. If I had the media and the politics behind me, this would go so fast."

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