A Key Index of Inflation in the US Has Come Down

There are signs that inflation is coming down.  While still early and preliminary, recent monthly figures for the inflation indices that many economists (and Federal Reserve Board members) focus on, suggest a break from the inflation rates seen earlier in 2022. 

On January 27, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released its most recent monthly report on Personal Income and Outlays, with estimates for December 2022.  The figures are part of the National Income and Product Accounts (or NIPA, often referred to as the GDP accounts) that the BEA is responsible for.  The accounts include estimates for Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE), and to put those into real terms the BEA also estimates the price indices that apply to those expenditures.  Items are weighted as they are for the Personal Consumption component of the GDP accounts.

The prices shown are all seasonally adjusted and at annual rates.  There is a great deal of volatility in the month-to-month figures, so it is best to focus on the trends over several months.  Many commentators focus on the year-on-year figures (a 12-month moving average), and these are shown as the red line in the charts.  But a 12-month period is long, and one does not know if changes observed are due to recent events or to events of close to a year ago.  For this reason, I prefer the shorter 3-month moving average figures (in blue).  As one can see, major changes in the 3-month figures will often give a good indication of where the 12-month figures will soon go.

The first chart at the top of this post shows values for the overall rate of inflation (where all personal consumption expenditures are included), while the second chart shows the values for core inflation (where food and energy items are excluded).  Core inflation is a better indicator of inflationary pressures, as food and energy costs are largely commodity items with prices that go down as well as up.  Their fluctuations are often wide.  Other prices are typically more “sticky”, and hence the core inflation index that excludes the volatile food and energy components serves as a better indicator of the trends. 

Three-month core inflation rates have come down from around an average of about 5% (remember that all figures are at annual rates) during most of 2021 and 2022, to 3.6% in the 3-month period ending in November and then 2.9% in the period ending in December.  The overall PCE inflation rate fell earlier, from a higher level, and by more.  It was generally between 7 and 7 1/2% from late 2021 to June 2022 (and hit 8.6% in the 3-month period ending in March), but then fell to a range of between 2 and 4% since September.  In the three months ending in December, it was just 2.1%.  Interestingly, the 6-month change for the second half of 2022 was also 2.1% (at an annual rate).

Energy prices are a major part of this.  While the core inflation rate removes energy items from the basket of items included in the inflation index (along with food), those energy items will be those directly purchased by households.  That is, the core inflation index removes items such as gasoline purchased for your car or natural gas to heat your home.  But energy prices will also affect other prices indirectly – for example from the cost of fueling the trucks that bring items to the markets.  Based on the index of energy prices used in the computation of the overall PCE inflation index, energy prices rose sharply in March 2022, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February.  But the energy price index reached a peak in June 2022 and has since fallen almost to where it was in February 2022, just prior to the invasion.  Whether it will fall further is not known, but a further major fall from where it was in December is probably not likely anytime soon.  In this case, the inflation indices may not fall much further in the coming months, and may well bounce back up a percentage point or so.  But the trend is likely still downwards.

As noted before, these figures are still early.  One should expect fluctuations going forward, as there have been in the past.  And inflation in the next few months may well be higher than in the last few.  But the figures do suggest that inflation has come down, and has come down despite still very tight labor markets.  The unemployment rate was 3.5% in December – matching the lowest it has been since 1969, more than a half-century ago.  And the labor market has been tight for some time.  Unemployment was in the range of just 3.5 to 3.7% from March onwards, which is about the range of month-to-month statistical uncertainty in the estimates.

Despite these figures on inflation, there have been at least some prominent economists arguing inflation will remain high for an extended period.  Ken Rogoff – a professor at Harvard and a former chief economist for the IMF – authored a major article for the recent November/December issue of Foreign Affairs titled “The Age of Inflation”.  In it he wrote:

the world may very well be entering an extended period in which elevated and volatile inflation is likely to be persistent, not in the double digits but significantly above two percent.

Nouriel Roubini (often nicknamed “Dr. Doom” for his frequent pessimism, but who correctly forecast the 2008 financial collapse) has argued similarly, saying that high inflation will be with us for a very long time.

There are, of course, also economists arguing the other side – arguing that inflation has been and will be coming down.  The most well-known is perhaps Paul Krugman.  Another would be Jason Furman, a professor at Harvard and previously a chair of the Council of Economic Advisors during Obama’s presidency.  While they had argued earlier, in 2021, that inflation would not rise as far as it did and for as long as it did following the massive Covid spending packages of both Trump and Biden (totaling $5.7 trillion in federal government spending, or a huge 12.8% of GDP of 2020 and 2021 together), they now recognize and acknowledge that mistake.  But it is important also not to err in the opposite direction.

We will see what develops.  But based on what inflation has been in recent months, it very much looks like there has been a break from earlier levels and that the trend is downwards.

Personal Savings in the US Following the COVID Relief Programs, and the Possible Impact in 2023 and 2024

A.  Introduction

The US economy has just gone through an extraordinary period.  The impacts are still being felt – and probably will be for several more years, including into the presidential election year of 2024.  A key issue will be whether personal consumption expenditures will continue to grow – at least at some modest pace – as such expenditures are important not only in themselves, but also as they account for more than two-thirds of the demand side of GDP.  And this consumption will depend, in turn, on what happens to household incomes and on the decisions households make on their savings.

Very briefly, we will find:

a)  Personal Income before taxes and transfers (at the national level as measured in the GDP accounts, and where taxes and transfers are for all levels of government including state and local in addition to federal) fell during the Covid crisis but then recovered to where it was before by mid-2021.  Since then, however, it has been relatively flat in real terms.

b)  Personal Income after taxes and transfers (called Disposable Personal Income in the GDP accounts) rose during the Covid crisis due to the massive Covid relief packages, but returned to its previous trend path by mid-2021.  But as the Covid relief programs wound down, Disposable Personal Income (in real terms) fell, and by October 2022 was almost 7% below its previous trend path.

This stagnation in Personal Income, and fall in Disposable Personal Income, may well explain the common view of many that the economy is not well, despite unemployment rates that have matched the lowest levels of more than the last half-century.

c)  But while Disposable Personal Income fell below its trend path, Personal Consumption Expenditure (which had fallen during the Covid crisis) returned fully to its previous trend path by the Spring of 2021.  It has since followed that trend path almost exactly.

d)  This return of Personal Consumption to its previous trend path, while Disposable Personal Income fell well below its previous trend path, was only possible as households could draw on large savings balances that they had built up during the Covid crisis period.

e)  Those savings balances are finite, however, and are being drawn down.  While only a crude estimate is possible, calculations based on the savings rates that prevailed before the Covid crisis and then extrapolation based on the pace of the drawdown in 2022, suggest that the excess savings balances will be depleted sometime in 2024.

This may have significant implications, both economically and politically.  The Fed is currently raising interest rates aggressively in order to reduce investment spending and hence aggregate demand, with the objective of reducing inflation.  Federal fiscal spending has also been falling, with a reduction expected in FY2023 of a further about 1% of GDP.  Many analysts (including myself) have felt that a reduction in consumer expenditures in 2023 (as the excess savings balances built up during the Covid crisis run out) should be expected on top of this.  But based on the calculations discussed below, those balances might last into 2024.  That makes 2024 a complicated year economically, and 2024 is a presidential election year.

The possible macro consequences will be discussed in the concluding section of this post.  They are necessarily more speculative.  But first we will look at what happened to the savings rate during and following the Covid crisis (the chart at the top of this post), and then what happened to Personal Incomes, Disposable Personal Incomes, and Personal Consumption Expenditures – both in terms of their levels and relative to their previous trend paths.  The penultimate section will then provide an estimate of how much excess savings was built up during the Covid crisis period, the pace at which it is now being drawn down, and how long such balances might last before being used up.

A note on usage:  When terms such as personal incomes or personal consumption expenditures are capitalized, they are referring to the specific concepts as measured in the published GDP accounts (or more properly, the National Income and Product Accounts, or NIPA).  Terms that are not capitalized refer to the concepts more generally.  And I made one modification: “Personal Current Transfer Receipts” is defined in the NIPA accounts as net of social insurance (Social Security and Medicare) taxes paid.  I instead include such taxes in the category of Personal Current Taxes (i.e. together with individual income taxes), and Personal Transfers are then just the gross transfers (from Social Security, etc.).

B.  The Personal Savings Rate

The personal savings rate jumped sharply with the onset of the Covid crisis in March 2020.  From a rate of between 6 and 8% of disposable incomes for most of the period between 2013 and 2019, and reaching 9% in 2019 and early 2020, the rate jumped to 14% in March and then 34% in April 2020.  Such a jump is unprecedented in peacetime.  The only time there has been anything similar was during World War II.

The data for this chart (and those below) were calculated from data published by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) as part of the National Income and Product Accounts.  And while the GDP estimates themselves are only presented on a quarterly basis, the BEA provides monthly estimates for Personal Income, its sources (wages, etc.), Personal Taxes paid and Transfers received, and how the income thus derived is then used for consumption expenditures and other outlays, and residually for Personal Savings.  See in particular Table 2.6 in the NIPA accounts.  All the figures used here are seasonally adjusted and (where relevant) at annual rates.

The Personal Savings rate is defined as Personal Savings as a share of Disposable Personal Income, where Disposable Personal Income is Personal Income as received in the market (from wages; interest, dividends, and rents received; and income from unincorporated businesses) less Personal Taxes paid plus Personal Transfers received.  These Personal Transfers include that received from Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans’ benefits, unemployment compensation, and other such programs, but during the Covid crisis there were also major transfers from the various Covid relief bills (the direct stimulus checks, the paycheck protection program, grants to small as well as large businesses, and much more) as well as from a large jump in unemployment compensation.

The series of Covid relief measures were huge.  The total appropriated under the six packages passed for Covid relief (five while Trump was president and one early in the Biden administration) sums to $5.7 trillion.  To put this in perspective, the total paid in federal individual income taxes each year is only about $2.6 trillion.  Spread over two years, the $5.7 trillion came to 12.8% of the GDP of 2020 and 2021 together.  A bit more than two-thirds of that money was appropriated under the bills signed into law by Trump, and a bit less than one-third by Biden.  And while the appropriations were passed by Congress with bipartisan (indeed often unanimous) support while Trump was president, the American Rescue Plan signed by Biden on March 11, 2021, received zero votes from Republicans in Congress.

The Covid relief bills provided massive transfers to households (in addition to massive transfers to the corporate sector as well).  But especially with the lockdowns, and then continuing to a lesser extent once the lockdowns were lifted due to Covid concerns (thus leading to less travel, less eating out at restaurants, etc.), consumption expenditures by households fell.  Much of the transfers received under the Covid relief bills hence ended up accumulating in savings balances (including regular bank accounts).  One can see in the chart at the top of this post the peaks in April 2020, January 2021, and March 2021.  These coincided with when what is commonly referred to as the “stimulus checks” – of $1,200, $600, and $1,400 respectively – were sent out.

As conditions normalized, the savings rate came down as the Covid relief measures wound down and as consumption recovered.  But then the savings rate continued to fall to levels well below those of 2019 and before.  The next section will review what was behind this.

C.  Personal Incomes, Personal Disposable Income, and Consumption

The paths followed for Personal Income and its components, from 2013 through to October 2022, are shown in the following chart:

The top three curves show the levels (in constant 2012 dollars) of Personal Income before Taxes and Transfers (in black), Disposable Personal Income (in purple), and Personal Outlays (in orange).  Personal Outlays are in essence almost the same as Personal Consumption Expenditures, but not quite.  Personal Consumption Expenditures accounted for almost all of Personal Outlays consistently throughout this period (never less than 96.0% nor more than 97.1%), but Personal Outlays also include non-mortgage interest payments (mortgage interest is included in housing expenditures) and small amounts of transfers of households to the rest of the world (i.e. overseas, probably mostly to family) and to government.  But since Personal Outlays are almost entirely Personal Consumption Expenditures, and their paths almost identical (just shifted slightly due to the steady 96 to 97% share), we will use the two concepts interchangeably for the purposes here.

The light blue lines on top of each are the simple linear regression lines of the paths from January 2013 to February 2020 – a period where each of the paths were extraordinarily stable – and with each then extrapolated at that same trend pace through to October 2022.  Not only was there little fluctuation in the paths between January 2013 and February 2020, but it was the same path through both the second term of Obama and the first three years of Trump (followed by the crash in Trump’s fourth year).  Indeed, the paths were so stable that the light blue lines of the linear regressions almost obscure the black, purple, and orange paths of the underlying data – up to February 2020.

This then changed abruptly in March 2020 with the onset of the Covid crisis.  But before getting to that, we should discuss the three additional curves in the lower part of the chart.  Shown are the amounts paid in Personal Current Taxes (in red), Personal Current Transfers (in green), and Personal Savings (in brown).  Personal Savings will equal Disposable Personal Income less Personal Outlays (which, as noted above, are basically Personal Consumption Expenditures).

Starting in March 2020, Personal Savings shot upward.  This was due to a combination of the far higher transfers (in green – under the first of the major Covid relief packages), the lower Personal Outlays (in orange – due to the lockdowns and general caution in going out to spend money due to the spread of the virus that causes Covid), and, to a lesser extent, lower taxes paid (in red – as the Covid relief measures included allowing tax payments to be deferred).  With a good deal of volatility (as a consequence of the timing of the major Covid relief packages), this continued through 2020 and to roughly the spring of 2021.

The resulting impacts on Personal Incomes (before and after taxes and transfers) and on Personal Outlays are shown in the upper right of the chart.  A blow-up of this section of the chart may make this easier to follow:

Personal Incomes (before taxes and transfers) recovered quickly, albeit only partially, as the lockdowns were lifted in 2020.  They then continued to rise, although at a slower pace, to the latter part of 2021 as the general economy recovered.  Since then, they have been largely flat.  By October 2022, they were 4.6% below where they would have been had they continued to follow their light-blue regression line for their path prior to March 2020.

Disposable Personal Incomes (i.e. after taxes and transfers) rose during the Covid crisis due to the Covid relief packages – as these more than offset the reduction in Personal Incomes during the crisis (when GDP fell and unemployment rose).  But by mid-2021, Disposable Personal Incomes had come down to the level of Personal Incomes before taxes and transfers, and then continued to fall as the Covid packages wound down.  By October 2022, Disposable Personal Incomes were almost 7% below where they would have been had they continued to follow their light-blue regression line for their path prior to March 2020.

In sharp contrast to Personal Incomes (before or after taxes and transfers), Personal Outlays (or Consumption Expenditures) returned to their previous path by March 2021, and since then have followed that previous path almost exactly.  They could do this only because households could draw down on the high savings balances they had built up during the Covid crisis period.  But there is only so much in those savings balances.  How long might they last?

D.  Excess Savings Balances

Savings rates shot up with the onset of the Covid crisis – due to the transfers received and the difficulties in spending – but the savings balances are now being drawn down.  While the resulting growth in private consumption expenditures has accounted for much of the growth in the demand for GDP in 2021 and continuing into 2022, those excess savings balances cannot last forever.

A crude calculation can be made of how much might be in those savings balances and how long they might last.  It can only be crude as one cannot know with any certainty how much would have been saved in the absence of the Covid crisis and all the impacts it had, nor can one know what returns might have been earned on those savings balances (returns that would depend on how they might have been invested – or not).

Savings rates were relatively stable between 2013 and early 2020 (as seen in the chart at the top of this post), and it is reasonable to assume savings rates would have been similar in the absence of the Covid crisis.  For the purposes here, I looked at scenarios where the savings rate would have remained at its average over 2013 to 2019 (which was 7.3%), or at its somewhat higher average over 2017 to 2019 (of 7.9%).  I also assumed, in part for simplicity, that there was no return earned on these excess savings balances.  This is not unreasonable, as much of what was received under the Covid relief packages were left to accumulate in bank accounts where there was no return.  Interest rates on CDs and such have also been very low for most of this period (and negative when adjusted for inflation).  And to the extent the funds were invested in the stock market (or in bitcoins!), the returns will depend very much on precisely when the investments were made.  The markets were going up for much of the period but now have come down – and sharply.

When the actual savings rates were higher than those assumed in the scenarios (of 7.3% or 7.9%), an excess savings balance was built up, and when the actual savings rates were below these benchmarks, these savings balances were brought down.  Expressed as a share of GDP, the resulting excess balances were:

The balances grew, often rapidly, to March 2021 and then peaked in August 2021 at about 10 to 11% of GDP (depending on what base savings rate is assumed).  Since then, those balances have come down.  Based on the pace of their fall in the most recent six months, they could last for another 18 or 23 months – i.e. for another one and a half to two years – depending on the base savings rate assumed.  That is, they would carry over into 2024, and possibly be all used up just prior to election day in 2024.

There is a good deal of uncertainty in any such forecast – in part due to the factors discussed above that make any such estimate of excess savings balances only approximate.  But there are also issues in what might transpire going forward.  The estimate that the balances might last for another year and a half to two years is based on a simple extrapolation of the extent to which such balances (as imperfectly estimated) have come down over the past half year.  That pace might accelerate.  For example, if Disposable Personal Income widens further from its trend path (this might have stopped in the last few months, but it is still early and hard to say), while Personal Consumption continues to rise according to its trend path, then Personal Savings will fall further and the pace at which the savings balances will be brought down will accelerate.  On the other hand, if the economy weakens and unemployment rises, consumers may become more cautious and decide to conserve their savings balances.

So one should draw only broad conclusions.  But the data does suggest that the excess savings balances built up during the Covid crisis remain significant, and could provide support to continued growth in Personal Consumption Expenditures for some time – perhaps a year or more.  Many had assumed – including me before I looked at the data in this way – that the strong Personal Consumption Expenditures of the last two years would be diminishing soon, as excess savings balances were being used up.  But this data suggests that strong consumption growth might persist for another year or more.  What does this imply for the macro economy?

E.  Macro Implications

Inflation has been high – at 6 to over 8% year-on-year by various measures.  This is far in excess of the goal of the Fed of an inflation rate of around 2%.  In response, the Fed has been aggressively raising the short-term interest rates it controls, as well as reducing its holdings of bonds on its balance sheet (with the aim of raising longer-term interest rates).  Higher interest rates can be expected to reduce demand for investment (in particular in long-lived assets such as housing and other structures), and this lower demand will reduce pressures on prices.

Inflation had averaged around 2% – or even less – since the mid-1990s, but then rose as the economy recovered from the Covid crisis.  As discussed above, Personal Consumption Expenditures recovered quickly and strongly, with this made possible by the high savings balances that had been built up following the series of Covid relief packages while consumption was limited.  But the strong consumption expenditure demands that followed in 2021 and 2022 then faced often limited supplies due to supply chain difficulties as well as the cutbacks in production generally during the peak of the Covid crisis in 2020.  And some items of production cannot be placed into an inventory to be sold later.  For example, a restaurant produces meals for diners, but a meal that was not produced and sold during the Covid crisis cannot simply be kept somewhere and then sold later.  The meal not produced is gone forever.

The result has been a classic “demand-pull” inflation.  While the labor market is now tight, with unemployment the lowest it has been for more than a half-century, increases in nominal wages have fallen short of inflation.  That is, real wages have been falling, and one cannot attribute the inflation observed as primarily stemming from cost-push factors.

The Fed is thus raising interest rates to limit investment demand, and hence aggregate demand.  Whether it will be able to do this without sparking a general recession is the challenge it is facing.  While not impossible, it will certainly be tricky.  In addition, federal fiscal policy will also likely be acting in the direction of reducing demand.  Federal fiscal expenditures fell sharply in FY2022, as the Covid relief packages wound down.  As I write this, Congress has yet to approve a budget for FY2023, but the most recent forecast of the Congressional Budget Office (from July) was that federal fiscal expenditures would fall a further 1.2% of GDP in FY2023.  And with Republicans controlling the House starting in January, it is not likely that fiscal spending will be allowed to respond should the need arise next year due to a downturn developing.

In this sensitive balance of policies – with the Fed seeking to constrain demand but not by too much, and fiscal expenditures unresponsive should conditions change – what will happen to personal consumption expenditures will be critical.  A concern of many has been that such consumption expenditures might also be abruptly reduced once the excess in savings balances built up during the Covid crisis had become used up.  Inflation might well then come down quickly, but possibly with the economy falling into a recession as well.

The analysis above suggests that personal consumption expenditures – growing as it has over the last year and a half – could still be sustained through 2023.  If so, the likelihood of a recession in 2023 will be reduced (although still possible – depending on what the Fed does).  But conditions in 2024 might well then become more difficult to manage.  With the House controlled by the Republicans, who have said they will seek to force through cuts in the federal budget (as they did following their election win in 2010), a fiscal response to the changing conditions might not be forthcoming.  The Fed may be forced to switch rapidly from raising interest rates to cutting them, in an effort to stem a downturn.

It will likely not be easy to manage.  And with 2024 a presidential election year, there may well also be political factors complicating any response.

A Way Forward on Gun Safety: A Doable Reform That Could Make a Difference

This post was updated on October 4, with the addition of the Executive Summary and some minor editing of the text.  Several further changes were made on October 25 to clarify certain points, in response to comments received.  The substance has not been changed.  

Executive Summary

Deaths due to guns are far too high in the US – see the chart above.  And following the all-too-frequent mass shootings in the country, including the one at Uvalde, Texas, earlier this year, calls are made for something to be done.  Yet little is ever achieved.  While new gun safety legislation was passed following Uvalde, it was modest at best.  No one expects any measure that might put a significant dent in the number who die each year from firearms could ever be passed by the US Congress.  But a different approach is possible.

Two measures that have been proposed in the past, but which have not been put together, could have a far greater impact.  As importantly, the measures could be implemented through actions that a president has authority to take, coupled with actions that could be implemented in the states most willing to address gun safety.  As a track record is created and confidence is gained, it could then spread to further states.

The first pillar is to make available reliable personalized firearms (also often called “smart guns”), that will fire only when the owner is pulling the trigger and not when anyone else is.  The technology exists, but like any technology can be further improved.  One approach is fingerprint identification – a technology that has now been placed on hundreds of millions of smartphones worldwide, as well as on laptops, keyboards, and other devices.

Personalized weapons will not fire for others.  No longer could a child, when finding a parent’s loaded gun, end up tragically shooting themselves or a playmate.  Nor could a personalized firearm be used by a teen or preteen who, tragically, might be suicidal.  Nor would a personalized gun that had been stolen or obtained in some other way be of any use to teens in a gang – they would not fire (and one has to be 21 to buy a handgun).

Personalized firearms would also be safer for police and others.  Approximately 10% of police killed in the line of duty are killed with their own service weapon (or that of a colleague) – a weapon that was seized in a struggle with the officer as they tried to subdue a subject.  Similarly, private individuals confronting a criminal have often ended up being shot with their own gun.  (And while certainly not something I would recommend, there are those who believe teachers in schools should keep loaded and easily accessible guns in their classrooms.  A personalized firearm would not fire if a disgruntled student grabbed it.)

But perhaps the greatest value of personalized firearms that are linked to, and will fire only for, an individual owner is that they would change the dynamics of how guns end up in the hands of criminals. Stolen guns would be of no value to them – they could not be fired.  The same would be true for guns obtained through a straw purchaser (a colleague or a girlfriend), or from another gang member, or purchased on the black market.  Most criminals are armed with such illegally obtained weapons.  Personalized firearms would be of no use to them.

Making personalized firearms available would be complemented with an incentive to switch to them.  This is the second pillar, which would require gun owners to hold liability insurance that would pay compensation for any unjust harm caused by their gun.  This proposal comes from Jason Abaluck and Ian Ayres (professors at Yale).  The basic idea is similar to the requirement that all car owners hold insurance to cover the liability resulting from damages that car might cause – something required in all 50 states.

The payments would be at a standard amount (based on the nature of the injury) set by an insurance regulator.  This is similar to what is done for workers’ compensation insurance, and would allow the parties to avoid going to court to determine in each case the compensation to be paid.  Court processes are slow and expensive.

Private insurers would then have a strong incentive to determine (in competition with other insurers) what the insurance premium rates would need to be in order to cover the risks.  They would need to assess the risks and charge accordingly.  As for car insurance, those risks will likely be assessed based on factors such as the age of the owner, their gender, any criminal or other such record, the nature of the firearm being insured, and more.  Rates for hunting rifles, for example, would be relatively low, while those for handguns higher.  Importantly, the risks and hence the rates on personalized firearms would be well below what they would be for similar traditional weapons in similar hands.

Compensation payments in cases of suicides would need to be handled differently.  Just like for life insurance (which is not paid on suicides), paying the estates of those who commit suicide with their firearm could encourage such a tragic event.  Rather, the compensation payments from the insurer in such cases would be paid into a general fund.  That fund would be used for compensation payments to those harmed by a firearm, but where it was not possible to trace the origin of the firearm used.

The third pillar is that it can be implemented in a step-by-step process that does not require new federal legislation.  To start, the Biden administration would work with existing as well as potential new manufacturers of personalized firearms to further develop the technology, organize tests and demonstrations of reliability and effectiveness, and then based on the results of such tests, declare which models met the standards and would be eligible for federal procurement.  This is all within the standard authority of the executive branch.

Those models would then be made available as an option to federal officers who carry firearms.  They would not be required, but with over 130,000 federal officers carrying firearms, there will certainly be many who would prefer them.  Similarly, such models would be made available to the over 750,000 sworn state and local officers who carry firearms, in those jurisdictions that approve and for those officers who would prefer the safety of such arms.

Experience would then build confidence in the suitability of personalized firearms.  As that confidence grows, and as production costs come down with mass production, demand for such personalized firearms would also grow among private individuals.  Many gun owners – should they feel they have a continued need to keep guns in their homes – would prefer such arms.

In parallel, states keen on addressing gun violence would introduce liability insurance requirements.  Insurance in the US is organized at the state level.  Certain states could take the lead to establish the model and show what works, but the more states that participate the better.  The lower premium rates on the lower-risk personalized firearms would be a strong incentive to switch to such arms.

Ideally this should apply in all 50 states.  Realistically, one must recognize that a number of states will be reluctant or even opposed.  But as a track record is established, attitudes will hopefully change.  It may well take decades, as those attitudes are driven by fear and fears can be strongly held.  But the aim is a virtuous circle, where progress in reducing gun violence leads to the measures spreading more widely, which in turn leads to a further reduction in gun violence.

It certainly will not be perfect.  There will be those who seek to evade the law, and deaths due to guns will certainly not end overnight.  But with the US as such an extreme outlier, it would not take much to do better.

 

A.  Introduction

The tragedy of shootings in the US has not stopped.  In May, an 18-year old in Uvalde, Texas, slaughtered 19 school children – aged 9, 10, and 11 – plus two of their teachers.  Following such tragedies – as also after the killing of 14 teens and three adults at Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, and the killing of 20 children aged 6 and 7 as well as six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 – there are calls for something to be done.  But opponents of measures to place limits on the easy availability of weapons in the US have always succeeded in blocking any serious measure that would put a real dent in gun deaths in the US.

While it is commendable that Congress did pass a new gun safety law following Uvalde, it was modest at best.  While accurately described as the most important gun safety measure passed since 1994 (when a partial and temporary – now expired – ban on sales of new semi-automatic assault rifles was approved), the compromises required in order to secure enough Republican votes to allow passage given the Senate filibuster rules limits what it will do.  There will be enhancements to background checks to include juvenile records; individuals will be allowed to petition courts to limit gun ownership of previous intimate partners who have been guilty of domestic violence (closing what has been called the “boyfriend loophole”, as earlier law applied only to spouses); plus it authorizes increased federal funding to the states to implement mental health and crisis intervention programs and to enhance school safety investments.

While such measures are positive and should be applauded, it is telling that even such a modest bill can be accurately described as the most significant gun safety measure in close to three decades.  But sadly, there is no reason to believe that such measures, while positive, will have much of an effect on the overall number of those killed each year in the US from firearms.  Over 47,000 died in the US in 2021 due to gun violence.  And while mass shootings are particularly horrific, the number who die each year in mass shootings will normally be in the dozens.  Most deaths come from the “routine” use of guns to shoot someone, and rarely make national news.

Far more certainly could and should be done.  This blog post will describe one such reform – a major one – that actually could have a substantial impact.  It also could have a greater than zero chance of being implemented.  It would be a market-based approach based on the principle of individual responsibility (which might appeal to those conservatives who believe in individual responsibility as well as market-based measures), plus the focus would be on providing individuals a new choice – and not an obligation – on the kind of guns they may choose to own.

Nor would it require new legislation to be passed by Congress.  The initial impetus would be actions that a president has the authority to take.  This would then be complemented with measures that can be approved at the level of individual states.  States that are most willing to enact measures to reduce gun violence could take the lead.  While it would be more effective with a regional grouping of states, and more effective still at a national level, one could start in individual states and then see it spread as experience is gained and as a track record is established.

There would be two elements in the measures themselves.  The first would be a broad introduction of personalized weapon technology (often also called “smart guns”) – where the only one who can fire the gun is the owner.  The second would be a financial incentive to switch to such guns.  The latter would be achieved by the requirement that those owning a weapon must buy liability insurance for that weapon, where private insurance companies would set their rates for such coverage to reflect their assessment of the risk of that weapon causing harm.  One should expect the rates to be low on a personalized gun but relatively high for regular handguns.

Neither of these proposals is new.  But I have not seen the two put together before.  And together they should be expected to be far more effective than either individually, as they reinforce each other in an important way.

This blog post will present how such a program would work and could be implemented.  The post will first discuss how personalized firearms would not only stop many of the deaths (such as of children) that arise with current weapons, but would also very importantly change the dynamics of how criminals and criminal gangs arm themselves.  There would be no value to them of a personalized gun that had been stolen, or obtained through a straw purchaser, as they would not be able to fire it.  This will be followed by a discussion of how liability insurance on firearms would work.  And the section following that will then look at how one might get there from where we are now.

All major reforms to reduce gun violence in the US have failed.  While there is good reason to remain skeptical, the US is such an extreme outlier compared to other nations that it should not take all that much to get to a better place than where the country is now.  As the chart at the top of this post shows, homicides from the use of firearms in the US (adjusted for population) are close to an order of magnitude higher than in any other developed, democratic, country.  The closest is Canada, with a homicide rate due to firearms of 0.49 per 100,000 (based on the annual average from 2016 to 2019), versus 4.2 for the US in this period.  That is, the homicide rate was close to nine times higher in the US than in Canada.  It was more than twenty times higher than in the European Union, and well more than 100 times higher than in the United Kingdom.  [The figures were calculated from data collected by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), where the most recent comparable data across countries is for 2019 (and 2020 would have been a special case anyway due to Covid).  I took the annual average over 2016 to 2019 to avoid the possibility of an exceptional figure for some country in any given year.]

The incredibly high rate of gun homicides in the US could well be seen as depressing.  Why should the US stand out in this way?  But one can also see it as an indicator of what is possible.  Other countries from around the world show that deaths from guns at the rates seen in the US are far from inevitable.  It really should not take much to reduce US rates to well below where they are now.

B.  The Impact of Personalized Gun Technology

The aim is simple:  Make available guns that will fire reliably and with no special action by the owner, but not by anyone else.  That is, a positive identification would enable the gun to be fired by the owner, but not when someone else is handling the gun.  The technology exists, with alternative ways to enable this.  See, for example, here, here, and here, or this now somewhat dated 2013 report prepared by the US Department of Justice.

There are two broad approaches in the technology as it currently stands:  one relies on biometric information for the individual owner (with recognition of that individual’s fingerprints, palm prints, hand grip pattern, blood vein patterns in the hand, voice, and/or face), while the other uses token-based systems (where an RFID reader in the weapon is linked to an RFID tag or token embedded in an item carried by the owner, such as on a ring, watch, bracelet, wristband, and/or badge).  Token-based systems are the easiest to implement, but would not provide all of the advantages of a true personalized firearm.  While it would stop the accidental firing of a gun by a child that came upon such a weapon at home, for example, it would not stop such weapons from being sold to criminals in the black market (as the RFID token could be provided along with the weapon).  Still, it would be a step forward in reducing the risks of harm from firearms, and better than doing nothing at all.

While initially personalized guns will be basically hand-assembled and expensive, their ultimate cost should not be all that much more than for a regular gun once mass production starts.  ID systems no longer cost much.  Fingerprint ID sensors have been built into hundreds of millions of smartphones, as well as into devices such as laptops and keyboards.  And as for the cost, an Apple keyboard with Apple’s Touch ID button built-in costs only $50 more than a similar Apple keyboard without Touch ID (and this is at Apple’s premium prices).  While this technology, like any technology, can and should be further developed, technology is not the constraint on making such weapons now.

There are clear and important benefits.  Starting with the more obvious and then proceeding to those that would change the dynamics of how guns spread to criminals:

a)  Children:  It would save the lives of many children – from toddlers to teenagers.  All too often, young children come upon a loaded gun of their parents in their home, play with it, and then accidentally shoot themselves or a playmate.  As they get older, such guns may be used by a depressed teen or pre-teen to commit suicide.  And teenagers are all too often the victim of a firearm assault, usually by a handgun illegally obtained by another teenager.

In 2020, deaths due to firearms were the number one cause of death of those aged 1 to 19 – exceeding the number killed in traffic accidents.  And the mortality rate due to firearms in the US of children aged 1 to 19 – at 5.6 per 100,000 in 2020 – was close to 20 times the average in comparable countries of just 0.3:

This analysis comes from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), using CDC and IHME data.  It is tragic that the US should stand out in this way.  While these figures include deaths when it was an adult handling the gun and pulling the trigger, such cases are only a small share of the total.

Rather, those deaths will largely be deaths due to other children holding the guns.  But by federal law, the minimum age to buy a handgun is 21.  Children cannot buy them.  While 18 and 19-year olds can buy shotguns and rifles in many (but not all) states – even though they cannot buy a beer in many of those same states – deaths due to homicides or suicides are largely from handguns.  According to FBI data, 94% of homicides by firearms (when the type of firearm was reported) were by handguns.  And almost all suicides are by handguns.  Thus almost all deaths of children due to firearms were likely by firearms obtained from someone else.  If children were not able to fire a gun they came across in their parent’s nightstand or obtained from someone else – due to personalized gun technology that would keep them from firing – most of those lives would have been saved.

b)  Police:  Two studies, of the partially overlapping periods of 1996-2010 and 2003-2013, each found that approximately 10% of the police officers who were killed while in the line of duty were killed by their own service weapon (or that of a colleague also at the scene).  This would typically involve a struggle with the suspect as the police are trying to subdue him (or her, but almost always a him), where the suspect was able to take control of the officer’s weapon and then use it on the officer.

This would not be possible if the police officers were using personalized weapons that only they could fire.

c)  Private individuals:  While there do not appear to be good statistics readily available on the number of private individuals who die from their own firearm when confronting a robber, burglar, or some other criminal (at least from what I have been able to find – only anecdotal stories such as this one), the share could well be higher than is the case when police officers confront criminals.  Police officers are trained to handle such situations; private individuals are not.

d)  Guns with Teachers in Schools:  While certainly not something that I would endorse, there are those (such as the NRA and former President Trump) who believe the way to make schools safe would be to provide teachers with loaded and easily accessible guns in their classrooms.  But one can easily imagine the tragedy that could follow when a disgruntled child or teenager could grab such a gun as easily as the teacher could.  And with millions of classrooms in the US, such tragedies would likely not be rare.

The situation would be different if it were a personalized weapon that could not be fired other than by the teacher.  While still not something I would recommend – teachers are not trained police officers – at least such guns would be of no use to a disgruntled student.

e)  Ending the trade in stolen guns:   The benefits listed above go to specific groups – certainly important groups (children, police officers, individuals confronting criminals, and teachers) – but still relatively narrow.  But with biometrically-based personalized guns the norm, there would also be a fundamental change in how guns spread in the nation, and in particular in how they get into the hands of criminals.

Specifically, since biometrically-linked personalized guns can only be fired by the owner, they will be of no use to anyone else.  Thus there will no longer be any reason to steal them, whether from an individual or from a gun shop.  This has become particularly important with the recent (June 2022) Supreme Court decision overturning a 109-year old New York State law that limited the carrying of concealed weapons outside of the home.  Guns carried outside of the home are easier to steal – with most of those thefts from unlocked parked cars.

We know what will likely now follow, as one can see what followed after a number of state legislatures chose to revoke such laws that had been on the books in their states.  A recent careful study (issued by the NBER, and summarized here and here) found that such changes led to a 35% increase in gun thefts, a 32% increase in armed robberies, and a 29% increase in overall firearm violent crimes (all controlling for other factors).

With personalized weapons, there would be no value in stealing a gun.  It would not work for the thief.

f)  Straw purchases:  With only biometrically-based personalized guns available, there would be no value in someone using a straw purchaser (such as a colleague or girlfriend) to purchase a gun when they were barred from doing so (for example due to a criminal record).  Such a gun would be of no use to them.  Such straw purchases would of course only totally cease when all guns for sale were such personalized guns.  Until then, gun manufacturers and gun shops would be serving two markets:  One for those who desire a gun only for their personal use, and one for guns that are of value to criminals who wish to illicitly pass along a gun they purchased to someone ineligible to buy one.

Such straw purchases serve not only criminals in the US.  The drug cartels in Mexico largely arm themselves by such straw purchases in the US, particularly in states with lax laws on gun purchases.  The Government of Mexico estimates that more than a half million guns are smuggled each year from the US into Mexico arming these gangs (with those guns largely obtained through straw purchases, they note).  They estimate that 70 to 90% of the guns recovered at crime scenes in Mexico had been smuggled from the US.

g)  Guns in gangs:  With biometrically-based personalized guns, there would be no point in passing around guns within a criminal gang to other members:  they would not be able to fire them.  But as long as guns that anyone can fire are available, criminal gangs will be able to obtain guns they can provide to other members for some criminal activity.  As in the case of straw purchasers, gun manufacturers and gun shops would know that they are serving two markets:  One where the guns are for personal use and one where they are of value to criminals.

h)  Black market:  Similarly, a black market in guns – for sale to individuals who would not be permitted to buy them from gun shops for some reason – could only exist for non-personalized weapons.  A personalized gun linked biometrically to an individual would be of no use.

Those who believe that weapons should be kept away from criminals should strongly support a move to personalized guns.  The NRA itself has noted:  “Most people sent to prison for gun crimes acquire guns from theft, the black market, or acquaintances.”  It went on to say: “Half of illegally trafficked firearms originate with straw purchasers who buy guns for criminals.”

Personalized guns would end this.

C.  Liability Insurance on Guns

The complementary reform to making personalized guns available would be to require that all gun owners carry liability insurance to compensate those harmed by the use of that gun – whether criminal or accidental.  The proposal was set out by Jason Abaluck and Ian Ayres, both professors at Yale, in a column written for the Washington Post and published in June 2022.  As they note, all car owners are required to carry liability insurance on their cars, to compensate those who may be harmed when that car is driven.  Those harmed by the use of a gun should be similarly compensated.

The basic elements of the approach are:

a)  The insurance would be market-based.  Private insurers would provide the policies, and would charge insurance premium rates that in their estimation reflect the risk that that gun might be used in a way that causes unjustifiable harm.  The harm might be accidental or criminal, but a victim has suffered either way.

b)  The amount of the compensation will depend on the extent of the harm, but would be paid at given amounts pre-set by a regulator (where in the US, insurance regulators are state-level entities).  This would be similar to how claims under workers’ compensation insurance are handled, where each state sets out a formula for the compensation based on the nature of the injury and other relevant factors.  There would then be no need to resort to the courts to determine damages in each case, thus avoiding the high costs and often long delays of the courts.

c)  The premium rates would then be set by the private insurer, in competition with other private insurers, at rates that best reflect that insurer’s judgment that their costs would be covered.  There would be a strong incentive for the insurer to research what factors are associated with the harms caused by the possession of guns.  One might speculate that these would include factors such as the age of the owner, gender, whether they had a criminal record or not, and more.  But one factor that some fear might be included would not be:  There could be no differentiation based on race (whether one thought – when other conditions are already taken into account – that this might be an independent factor or not), as that would violate anti-discrimination laws.

d)  The premium rates would also, and importantly, depend on the nature of the gun.  Hunting rifles are seldom used in crimes, and the insurance rates on such weapons would be low.  The rates on personalized guns – which only the owner can fire and hence are not ones that might be fired accidentally by a child or of any value to a criminal gang if stolen (as discussed above) – would be particularly low.

e)  While the actual premium rates would depend on what the insurers find by their due diligence, plus also depend on the standard rates of compensation that would be set in a particular state, to illustrate one might assume an average rate for such liability insurance on a gun might be $100 a year.  But on a hunting rifle it might be $50 a year on average, and on a hunting rifle of an older owner (say over the age of 30) it might be just $30 a year.  The liability insurance on handguns would cost more, as would insurance for those who are young.  This is all similar to what one finds with car insurance, where the rates depend on the age of the driver, gender, prior driving record, and the particular make and model of the car.

And it is important to note that insurance rates on personalized guns would be well below what they would otherwise be for the type of gun and for given factors such as the age of the owner – probably at least half or less.

f)  Liability payments in the case of suicides would need to be treated differently.  Suicide through the use of a readily available firearm is, sadly, common in the US.  Suicide by firearm accounted for over 60% of all firearm deaths over the last decade according to CDC data (in the decade to 2020 – the most recent year in the CDC data).  While it fell to “just” 54% in 2020, that was only because homicides due to firearms jumped by 35% in 2020.  (And it is noteworthy that despite all the stresses of Covid in 2020, the number of suicides by firearms in 2020 was basically the same as in 2019, and below what it was in 2018.)

If, in a suicide, the compensation payments were paid to the family of the deceased, there could be a perverse incentive motivating at least some of the suicides.  This is similar to the issue with life insurance, which is therefore not paid in cases of suicide.  To handle this, Abaluck and Ayres propose that payments from the insurer would still be made.  This would motivate the insurer to charge higher premia in cases where suicide risk may be high (which would in turn lead to fewer guns in the hands of those with such risk).  But the compensation paid would then go into a general fund to compensate victims of gun violence in cases where the guns used could not be traced.

Sadly, with suicides accounting for well over half of all the deaths due to firearms, this fund to compensate those where the firearm could not be traced would be “well funded”.  And this would address the criticism that some might have that the guns used in at least some of the criminal homicides might not be found.  It would still be possible to compensate those victims.

g)  All firearms would need to be registered, but this is already required (at least for certain types of firearms) in some states in the US.  While there are currently only six such states that require some such form of registration, those six states include California and New York and together account for one-quarter of the US population.  And it is worth noting that five of those six states (including California and New York) are in the top seven states in the US with the lowest death rates per capita from firearms in the US (CDC data for 2020).  The average death rate from firearms in those six states is less than half the rate in the rest of the nation.  While there are of course many factors involved in determining mortality from firearms, this does suggest – contrary to what the NRA would say – that such registration requirements do not make things more dangerous.

The registration process could also be used as the process by which a personalized firearm is “locked-in” to a specific owner.  That is, any newly purchased firearm would need to be brought in to some designated location (possibly some specific police station, as set by the local jurisdiction), that would have the special equipment needed to unlock the firearm and then lock it in to the fingerprints or other biometric measure of the specific owner.  Until it is unlocked in this way, the weapon could not be fired by anyone.  And after it is locked in to the new owner, it could not be fired by anyone else.

h)  Firearms sold in the US are already required by federal law to have a unique serial number engraved, stamped, cast, or otherwise embedded into them, to certain specifications (e.g. their depth) so as not to be easily removable.  Those serial numbers link a specific gun to a registered owner.  One would of course expect criminals would seek to evade this by trying to obliterate the serial number.  However, that is not easy.  Scratch marks are obvious, and even when a serial number is scratched out, there is special equipment that can often still recover the serial number, as the process of imprinting that number will lead to identifiable deformities in the underlying metal.

Police would in any case be legally able to seize any gun with a serial number that had been scratched out or otherwise hidden, or when not in the possession of the registered owner with a valid liability insurance cover – when the police find such a gun on someone who had been stopped for some reason.  Police are often blocked from seizing such weapons now and from making arrests connected to them.  Responsible owners would have no reason to worry, as there would be an ID on the gun and they would have proof of their liability insurance.  This is just as is typically required now when a car driver is stopped by the police for some reason (where the first request typically made by the police officer is to please provide proof of registration and insurance).

Criminals without this would indeed have reason to be concerned, just as a criminal driving a stolen car who is stopped by the police has reason to be concerned.  Others should not be.

i)  A more recent technology that is now available is for guns to place a unique, identifiable, mark on the cartridge casings that are ejected as a gun is fired.  Called microstamping, California passed a law in 2007 that all new models of semiautomatic pistols for sale in the state would need to incorporate microstamping once certain patents had expired so that the technologies would become publicly available without constraint.  Those patents expired in 2013, and hence the requirement came into effect from that date.  However, under pressure from the gun lobby, gun manufacturers then avoided the requirement by not introducing new models of such guns – as the law only applied to new models.  California then passed, with effect from July 1, 2022, a revised law easing the requirement and with other modifications, but it is too early at this point to see whether it will be skirted as well.

Microstamps on cartridges would prove to be of great help in tracing the guns used in a crime, and hence in solving those crimes, as spent cartridges will normally litter the scene.  Pro-gun groups have, however but not surprisingly, criticized the California law as unworkable, and brought lawsuits against it.  They argued that criminals would seek to evade the law by grinding down the mechanisms imprinting the microstamps.  However, the California Supreme Court ruled against them.  (Furthermore, while criminals do indeed seek to evade the law, that would seem to be tautological.  That is what criminals do.)

There is no doubt that the technology for microstamping, already good, could be made better.  That is true of any new technology.  But while there should be further such work, the technology as it exists would already be of tremendous benefit in solving many of the unfortunately numerous cases where guns are fired in a crime in the US.  And while such microstamping would lead to more criminal cases involving guns being solved, it is not absolutely necessary for a liability insurance system to work.  Rather, it would make such a system work better.

It does, however, pose a separate issue.  One would want to encourage all responsible gun owners to arm themselves – in those cases where they feel they have a continued need to arm themselves – with weapons that incorporate such microstamping technology.  Many of those weapons are subsequently stolen or otherwise end up arming a criminal, and if they are not personalized weapons, may be used in a crime.  Then, precisely because it would be possible to identify the weapon that had been fired to harm somebody even if the shooter got away with his gun, the insurer who had provided liability insurance on that weapon would need to pay the resulting claim.  Because of this, insurers would have an incentive to charge higher insurance premium rates on weapons with the microstamping technology.  This would not apply to personalized guns – as such guns could not be fired by anyone other than the owner – but would apply to traditional weapons.

To address this, one could have a requirement from the state’s insurance regulator (or by legislation) that the insurance rates on weapons with the microstamping technology would be charged at some lower rate – perhaps half – than the rate for a similar weapon but without that technology.  To make up for the other half, transfers could be made from the fund discussed above to compensate victims where it was impossible to trace the gun that was responsible for the harm.  That fund would be funded by the compensation that would have otherwise been paid in cases of suicides, and with suicides in recent years generally accounting for over 60% of deaths due to firearms, that fund would have ample balances.

j)  Requiring liability insurance coverage would not only be a strong incentive to choose a personalized gun if one is going to buy a gun, but would also be a strong incentive to turn in at least some of the extra guns that a person may have.  According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, 66% of those who own a gun say they own more than one gun, and 29% say they own five or more guns.  Gun owners, when faced with paying liability insurance premiums each year for each of their guns, would now have an incentive to turn in their excess guns (possibly all of their guns) in one of the increasingly common police buy-back programs, rather than simply let them accumulate in their home.

As they grow older, gun owners will also often realize that guns around the home – especially several guns around the home – do not make their families safer.  But it is easy now to do nothing and allow such guns simply to lie around in a cabinet.  Having to pay an insurance premium each year would be a reminder, as well as an incentive, to do something about it.  And taking such guns out of circulation would end the risk that they may end up in someone else’s hands and be misused.

k)  Insurers providing liability insurance on firearms would require the loss or theft of a firearm they insured to be reported immediately to the police.  There is no nationwide practice on this now, other than by federally licensed gun dealers (where there is a federal law requiring this).  While 13 states plus Washington, DC, do require such reporting by gun owners, and two more require such reporting in certain circumstances, the 35 other states have no such requirements.  While this reporting would not be as important for personalized guns (as discussed above), stolen guns that can be fired by anyone feed criminal activity.

Mandatory liability insurance would be an additional incentive to be careful where one stores a gun.  Guns kept in unlocked cars are a major source of such thefts.  Someone with a history of guns being lost due to such negligence would pay higher liability insurance rates.  This would lead gun owners to be more careful.

l)  Insurance requirements are a state-level matter in the US.  Thus states can decide individually whether to require liability insurance on firearms kept by residents of their states, just as each state decides what to require on liability insurance on cars.  Note there is no Second Amendment issue here – even though gun advocates will undoubtedly claim that there is.  While the modern interpretation of the Second Amendment by the current Supreme Court is that there is an individual right to keep a firearm at home (and with the recent decision overturning the 109-year old New York State law, also a right to carry concealed weapons outside of the home), there is no right to getting such firearms for free.  You must pay for them.  Similarly, a state can require you to pay for liability insurance that will compensate those harmed by an illegal or accidental discharge of that firearm.

It would of course be far better for all states to require such liability insurance rather than just some.  But an individual state could adopt it, and ideally work with other nearby states so that such insurance would be required on a regional basis.  Those living in reluctant states that do not at first have this would then see how well the process has worked in the states that had adopted it.  Assuming it proves effective, voters in those states – “armed” with such evidence – can then work to require their own legislatures to adopt similar measures.

This now gets into the process by which these dual reform measures (personalized firearms and liability insurance on firearms) could be implemented – the topic of the next section below.  We have seen that the reforms are workable.  There is nothing impossible here.  The issue, rather, is one of willingness.

D.  A Step-by-Step Program

How to get there from where we are now?  It will not be easy, and one should recognize that it may take decades due to the emotions involved.  Attitudes will need to change, and as these attitudes are driven by fear, they can be strongly held.  Current gun owners will need to see that personalized weapons are reliable and effective, as well as safer for them and their loved ones.

Proceeding step-by-step would allow confidence to build over time, fears to diminish, and should ultimately lead to a far better place than where we are now.  A program can start with measures that the Biden Administration, acting within the authority a president has, can act on.  States willing to take measures that would curb gun violence can also act.  Experience can then create comfort, and demonstrated progress can lead to confidence that this path forward leads to lower gun violence.  The aim is a virtuous circle, where progress in reducing gun violence engenders greater confidence and hence willingness to implement such measures more broadly, which in turn leads to lower gun violence.

Specifically:

a)  To start, the Biden administration should work with both current manufacturers of personalized firearms, as well as with potential new manufacturers, to further develop the technologies involved.  While technologies exist, they can always be refined and improved – making them more reliable, easier to use, and lower cost.  This can be done with the authority federal agencies (such as the FBI, the ATF, and others) have to develop equipment they might use.  A focus would be on reliability – that the personalized gun will always fire when the finger of the owner is on the trigger and not when that of someone else is.  One would also want a technology that could not be disabled or disconnected – where any attempt to do so would lead to a weapon that could not be fired at all.  And there are critics who assert that a personalized gun could be “hacked” remotely.  I do not see how this would be possible, at least for a fingerprint ID or similar biometric system, as it would be totally self-contained to the gun and not connected to the internet or some other external system.  But to address such possible concerns, one would also want to show the technology developed cannot be hacked in some way.  Critics could be invited to test the systems themselves.

b)  As such technologies are developed, the Biden administration can then organize regular evaluations of the technologies to test (and demonstrate) how well they work, and to determine also where further development work might be focused.  Based on such testing, they can then announce which specific personalized firearms would be eligible for federal procurement.

c)  With such personalized weapons developed, tested, validated, and declared eligible, they would then use standard federal procurement procedures to make available such firearms to federal law enforcement officials who wish to arm themselves with such weapons.  This would be voluntary, but with over 130,000 federal non-military officers authorized to carry firearms, there would certainly be many who would prefer the safety of such personalized firearms.  Armed federal officials include not just those in well-known agencies such as the FBI and the Secret Service, but also those in, for example, the border patrol and federal prison guards.  Many would prefer a weapon that could not be used against them in case they get into a struggle with someone they are trying to arrest or control.

d)  There are also about 750,000 sworn state and local law enforcement officers in the US, spread over about 18,000 government agencies.  Sworn law enforcement officials carry firearms.  There are an additional more than 300,000 non-sworn officers in such agencies, some of whom carry firearms for their job.  Many of these officers would choose to use personalized firearms if given that option.  They should be given that option.

e)  While the number of law enforcement officers who choose personalized firearms over traditional ones might at first be relatively small, that number can be expected to grow over time as the personalized firearms prove their reliability and safety.  And one should expect jumps in those choosing such weapons following publicized cases of law enforcement officers being shot with their own weapons.

f)  Based on the experience gained by law enforcement officials who have voluntarily chosen to carry personalized firearms, as well as with the continued development and refinement of the technologies involved, one could move over time to wider use of such weapons in these agencies.  As confidence is gained in their reliability and advantages, personalized weapons could become the standard weapons issued in at least certain federal agencies.  Federal financial assistance to state and local law enforcement agencies could similarly be geared to encouraging the use of such weapons.  Such federal financial assistance is significant, and could, for example, fund a higher share of the costs when the procurement is of personalized weapons than when it is for traditional firearms without such protections.  Again, the pace of the shift would depend on a demonstration of reliability and as confidence is gained.

g)  With the development of what would be a substantial market for such personalized firearms for law enforcement officials at the federal, state, and local levels, and the confidence that such use would engender, the much larger private market could develop.  With demonstrated effectiveness, as well as falling costs as mass production becomes possible, one would see interest in such personalized weapons among private individuals who believe they need a firearm for their personal protection.

h)  In parallel, states that are most interested in reducing gun violence could take the lead in adopting measures to encourage the use of personalized weapons.  This would start with mandatory registration and reporting requirements, which some states already require (with this associated with lower per capita deaths from guns than in other states – although this is likely due to many factors).

i)  Such states would also start to require that individuals take personal responsibility for any unjustified harm that might be caused by their weapons, by carrying liability insurance on whatever guns they own.  The states would set standard compensation amounts for those injured by the use of a gun that causes harm – whether accidental or criminal.  Private insurance companies would set the premium rates for such insurance, in competition with other private insurers.  As discussed in Section C above, such insurance rates can be expected to be far lower for personalized firearms than for similar firearms that can be fired by anyone.  This would provide a further incentive for individuals to choose such firearms over traditional ones.

j)  And also as discussed above, this would be complemented with generous buy-back programs designed to get as many traditional guns out of circulation as possible.  These programs already exist in many jurisdictions.  They would become particularly valuable as personalized firearms replace traditional firearms, and as individuals take on the costs (through the liability insurance they would be required to obtain) that they now impose on others from the harm caused by such weapons.

k)  There may also be transitional issues to be addressed.  If only a few states require liability insurance, a high share of the victims of gun violence in those states may well be from guns obtained by criminals in other states.  When the guns used could not be traced, those harmed by those guns (or in the case of homicides, their estates) would be compensated from the general fund discussed earlier (funded by payments that would otherwise have been paid in the cases of suicides).  When the guns can be traced (as they have serial numbers on them) and came from a state that does not require liability insurance, the question would arise whether there might be some other process – possibly via private lawsuits – to hold those responsible accountable for the harm caused by those weapons.

But one should not over-complicate this.  First, such transitional issues might not, in practice, be all that important quantitatively.  The magnitudes will depend on several factors.  And it will matter less as more states sign on to such a program.  The sooner they do, the better.  But if, to start, only a few states participate with then a high share of the harm resulting from guns obtained from other states, it is possible that the compensation paid to the victims might have to be limited.  But even limited compensation is better than no compensation at all, which is what we have now.

E.  Conclusion

Serious reform measures that would reduce gun violence in the US have repeatedly failed in recent decades.  As a result, even the most ambitious programs now being proposed are so modest that few believe that, even if approved, they would have a significant impact on the overall numbers.  They are still worthwhile – as any death averted is still of value.  But no one believes that a serious reform program would ever be passed by the US Senate, where just 40 senators can block any action.

What has been suggested here is an alternative approach.  One would proceed step-by-step, starting with actions the president can take on his own authority.  Individual states can then also proceed with measures they have the authority to pass and implement.  At least certain states, including several of the larger ones such as California, New York, and Illinois, would likely be willing.  Over time, as experience is gained and the benefits become clear, other states should be expected to join.  And at some point, even the most reluctant states would have to recognize that their lack of action is only serving to arm criminals.

The Biden administration should presumably have no issue with proceeding as presented above.  The Biden campaign platform on gun safety issues said specifically:

Put America on the path to ensuring that 100% of firearms sold in America are smart guns.  Today, we have the technology to allow only authorized users to fire a gun. For example, existing smart gun technology requires a fingerprint match before use. Biden believes we should work to eventually require that 100% of firearms sold in the U.S. are smart guns.

Given this commitment, the Biden administration should have no issue with ordering work to be done to further develop, test, and validate personalized firearms, and then to make such weapons available to federal law enforcement officials who carry a gun as part of their job.  I am not aware, however, of any actions along these lines that are underway.  A “Fact Sheet” released by the White House on July 11, 2022, listed 21 executive actions that President Biden has taken to reduce gun violence, but smart guns were not mentioned.

One can be certain that the NRA would still oppose this.  The knee-jerk reaction of the NRA in recent decades has been to oppose any and all gun reform proposals.  But at least formally, the NRA is not opposed to the development of smart guns nor to making them available for gun owners to acquire.  They say they are just opposed to making them mandatory.  Their position (as recorded on their website) is:

The NRA doesn’t oppose the development of “smart” guns, nor the ability of Americans to voluntarily acquire them.  However, NRA opposes any law prohibiting Americans from acquiring or possessing firearms that don’t possess “smart” gun technology.

The proposal as presented above is fully in line with this.  Smart guns would be developed and made available, but not made mandatory.   The NRA should in principle not be opposed.

But the NRA’s history on the issue is not encouraging.  In 2000, Smith & Wesson (the oldest and largest gun maker in the US) announced that, working with the Clinton White House, it would introduce a smart gun to the US market.  The NRA was outraged, and with its gun owner allies organized a boycott of Smith & Wesson firearms that drove the company close to bankruptcy.  The firm was sold to a new owner (for just $15 million) with the new owner reversing the plans.  The boycott ended, and Smith & Wesson once again became one of the largest manufacturers of guns in the US.  Not surprisingly, the firms planning now to bring smart guns to the US market are all start-ups.  They are not among the major gun manufacturers, who would be vulnerable once again to an NRA-led boycott.

What is key is that the NRA recognize that we are all on the same side here.  We all agree that we do not want “bad guys with guns” to commit crimes.  And should an individual wish to purchase a firearm, they will remain eligible to do so under this proposal.  An increasing share should, over time, see the advantages of personalized firearms over those without such safety mechanisms.  But it will be many years before the nation gets to the point where 100% of the new firearms being sold will incorporate such safety mechanisms.

It will not be perfect, certainly, but there is a need to start.  Any lives saved are worthwhile.  And the Biden administration can take those critical first steps.