An Idaho nuclear research scientist, Veronica Rutledge, was killed Tuesday in a horrific accident where her 2-year-old son pulled a loaded handgun from her purse and shot her at a Wal-Mart. The gun was in the Christmas gift that Rutledge had received from her husband: a purse with a special pocket for a concealed weapon.
Rutledge, 29, worked at the Idaho National Laboratory and (like her husband) was a gun aficionado.
The loss in Idaho for this family is truly horrific. I do not believe (as some have suggested) that this tragedy is an indictment of gun ownership or even the expansion of concealed weapons permits. In Idaho, more than 85,000 people — 7 percent of the state population — are licensed to carry concealed weapons.
What I do believe that the tragedy shows is the still rudimentary state of firearm technology. We have previously discussed how the introduction of “smart guns” could eventually lead to product liability claims in cases of accidental discharges, particularly involving children. One of the most disturbing aspect of this accident is the ease with which a round can be discharged by a toddler. It is not clear if the safety was on the weapon, though as an experienced gun owner I assume that Rutledge had the safety on. However, it is not difficult for a child to switch of a safety. Many new guns will still not discharge without being held by the owner due to an activating ring or other recognition factor.
As noted earlier, there is a chance that “dumb” guns will be viewed as defective. At one time, seat belts and air bags were viewed as extravagances. Personalized guns, or smart guns, can use RFID chips or other proximity devices as well as fingerprint recognition or magnetic rings. Magnetic ring guns are already available. There are even new designs that would allow biometric sensors in the grip and trigger known as (DGR) Dynamic Grip Recognition, which the New Jersey Institute of Technology says can distinguish an owner with 90% accuracy.
Under the two basic tests for product defects such new designs can change the legal equation. Under the Second Restatement test of 402A, product design is defective is it is more dangerous than the expectations of the ordinary consumer. New technology can shape such expectations as smart guns become more prevalent. Under the Third Restatement, “a product is defective in design when the foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the adoption of a reasonable alternative design … and the omission of the alternative design renders the product not reasonably safe.” This could be claimed as such an alternative design if the costs come down and there is no real alteration in functionality.
While the public safety benefits are obvious, the NRA has generally opposed these guns as having the potential for gun control options in future legislation. In all honesty, it could. While the Supreme Court has recognized that individuals have Second Amendment rights to bear arms, it did not rule out reasonable limitations. Mandatory safety designs would likely pass muster in some cases. Torts and technology have long had a unique relationship in the law. This is one technology that may be coming not only to a store but a courtroom near you.
Rutledge was valedictorian of her high school class and graduated in 2010 from the University of Idaho with a chemistry degree. She published several articles, including one that analyzed a method to absorb toxic waste discharged by burning nuclear fuel.
Source: Washington Post