PALO ALTO, Calif. -- In the summer of 1970, the Ford Motor Company unveiled a small, stylish, coupe that it hoped would prove a worthy rival to the cheap European and Japanese imports then hitting the market. Ford's tiny car sold for less than $2,000, and it proved to be a big hit. The company sold 100,000 of them in just five months, and by the mid-1970s, Ford was selling 500,000 Pintos every year.
There was just one problem: The most popular subcompact in America was a death trap. The flaw was its fuel tank. In tests performed before the Pinto's launch, Ford's engineers discovered that rear-end crashes would cause the gas tank to rupture and catch fire. As Mother Jones later reported in a landmark expos, the vehicle caused at least 500 burn deaths in eight years and perhaps as many as 900. Ford settled hundreds of lawsuits with victims. In 1978, a California jury awarded $125 million in damages to Richard Grimshaw, who, as a 13-year-old, had been disfigured when the Pinto he was riding in exploded after it was rear-ended by a car going 28 mph. (The driver, Grimshaw's mother, died from her burns.) The damages were later revised down to $3.5 million, but the message to Ford was clear. The company initiated a massive recall of the car, and shortly afterward it stopped making the Pinto.
The history of the Pinto isn't unusual. You can tell a similar story about many other American consumer goods. In general, products in the United States used to be very unsafe. Cars exploded, appliances caught fire, drugs killed children. In the early 1980s, there were about 300 deaths caused by carbon-monoxide poisoning from home devices -- things like furnaces and water heaters -- every year. Nowadays there are fewer than 200 such deaths, and the number keeps decreasing. What happened? As in the story of the Pinto, lawsuits, media coverage, and regulations forced change. Unsafe products caused tragedies that made headlines, companies were fined and embarrassed, and slowly but surely, our products improved.
There's a singular exception to this general advancement: guns. Research shows that it's possible to make safer firearms. There are a slew of sensible technologies that gunmakers could add to their products that might prevent hundreds or thousands of deaths per year. One area of active research is known as the "smart gun" -- a trigger-identification system that prevents a gun from being fired by anyone other than its authorized user. (James Bond carries one in "Skyfall.")
But we aren't likely to see smart guns on the market anytime soon. Even though the idea is technologically sound -- researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology have created a working prototype of a gun that determines whether or not to fire based on a user's "grip pattern" -- gun makers aren't taking it up. They've been slow to add other safety technologies, too, including indicators that show whether a gun is loaded and "magazine safeties" that prevent weapons from being fired when their ammunition magazine is removed. (The magazine's removal might lead some users to assume the gun isn't loaded when there may in fact be a round in the chamber.)
Why aren't gunmakers making safer guns? Because guns are exempt from most of the consumer safety laws that improved the rest of American life. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which was established in 1972, is charged with looking over thousands of different kinds of products. If you search its database for "guns," you'll find lots of recalls of defective air pistols and lead-covered toy guns but nothing about real firearms. That's because the safety commission is explicitly prohibited from regulating firearms. If you're injured by a gun, you can't even go to court. In 2005, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which immunizes gun makers against lawsuits resulting from "misuse" of the products. If they can't be sued and can't be regulated, gunmakers have no incentive to make smarter guns. It's the Pinto story in reverse.
The New Jersey Institute of Technology began working on its smart gun a decade ago, after the state passed a law mandating that all handguns sold in New Jersey carry smart triggers once the technology became widely available. Donald Sebastian, senior vice president for research and development at NJIT, says that until about 2007, researchers at the school worked to perfect a grip-recognition system that could identify a gun's rightful user. The system works with pressure-sensing transducers embedded in the gun's grip. Over a training period of about 50 shots, the system learns a user's grip "signature," the pattern by which his muscles exert pressure as he's firing. "We're better than a 99 percent false negative rate," Sebastian says. "An authorized user will be recognized 99 times out of a 100." (This does mean that one time out of 100, you'll go to fire your gun and it won't shoot -- though as Sebastian points out, guns often fail for mechanical reasons, so a 1 percent chance of failure wasn't considered a fatal flaw.)
The NJIT researchers believed that once they proved the viability of smart triggers, gun makers would commercialize their system. But "there was no interest," Sebastian says. "I can't speculate as to why, but there has not been any market pull for this technology." Engineers at the school have continued refining their smart guns despite companies' lack of interest. They now have several working models, and they've been putting them through field tests, including with the school's campus police.
This grip-recognition system is just one of several smart gun technologies being developed. An Irish company called TriggerSmart has created a gun lock that's activated by an RFID token. An authorized user would carry or wear the token (say, on his ring), and the gun would only fire when it was near that token. There are other systems that rely on fingerprint matching or passwords. But no matter how they work, all of these technologies have one thing in common: They've all been stalled due to lack of commercial interest. Sebastian says the New Jersey school hasn't decided what to do with its smart gun technology, but when I asked him if he expects his system to go to market anytime soon, he told me, "I can't say with any certainty."
It's unclear whether smart guns could prevent mass shootings like the one in Newtown, Conn. In theory, a smart trigger could have made it more difficult for Adam Lanza to carry out the massacre. Police say Lanza used his mother's weapons in the attack. If she'd been worried about her son's mental state and had set up those guns to fire only when she gripped them, he might have had to look elsewhere for weapons.
Sebastian, though, doubts it would have had much effect. Smart guns could be programmed to be used by multiple people. Reports also suggest that Nancy Lanza took her sons target shooting -- if she'd been using smart guns, that means she'd have had to authorize their use. What's more, as Sebastian points out, Adam Lanza was old enough to have legally purchased his own firearms -- and most mass shootings, including at Virginia Tech; Aurora, Colo.; and Tucson, Ariz., were carried out with legally purchased guns. (Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold acquired their guns from friends who'd purchased them legally; if smart guns were set to be used only by their legal owners, the system might have prevented the Columbine shooting.)
Smart gun technology is also not beloved by gun-control advocates, who tend to view the very idea of "safer guns" as oxymoronic. The Violence Policy Center, for instance, argues that smart guns would increase gun-ownership rates because some people would be attracted to the new guns' apparent safety. In this way, building a smart gun would "delay the implementation of truly effective solutions," the group says.
Still, there's relatively clear evidence that personalized triggers would prevent all manner of gun accidents and other unintended uses. Young children would not be able to use their parents' guns (either accidentally or to commit suicide), and officers' weapons could not be stolen and used against them. A 2003 study led by Jon Vernick, a public-health researcher at Johns Hopkins, estimated that more than 400 deaths per year could be prevented by a personalized trigger system.
A week before the Newtown massacre, Joseph Loughrey, a 44-year-old man in Mercer, Pa., was going to a gun store to sell some of his weapons. He had unloaded the magazine on his handgun, but he didn't know there was a still a round in the chamber. When he set the gun down on the center console of his truck, it went off. In the back seat, Loughrey's 7-year-old son, Craig, was buckling his safety belt. Craig was hit in the chest. He died on the scene.
The seat belt that Craig was buckling into was in Loughrey's truck because it had been mandated, over the course of decades, by a series of laws, regulations and lawsuits. A magazine safety would have prevented Loughrey's gun from going off after he'd removed the magazine. A smart trigger would have prevented the gun from firing without Loughrey's hand being on the grip. But Loughrey's gun lacked both those safety devices, because nobody has ever forced gun makers to live up to the same basic safety requirements as other American companies.
• Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology reporter and the author of "True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society."