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Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Swedish gun chef

Who will be the Volvo of the firearms industry?

Who will be the Volvo of the firearms industry? For four decades until 1999, the Swedish carmaker led the world in making safety a virtue of its products. Its efforts paid off handsomely as sales and market share climbed, Volvo charged a premium for its vehicles and the company was eventually sold for $6.5 billion. The same could be done with guns.

Volvo’s timing was good. From its introduction of a little invention that became the modern seatbelt in 1958 to its sale some 40 golden years later to Ford Motor, public consciousness in automotive safety blossomed. Volvo’s technological lead gave it an edge over rivals who showed less interest in protecting passengers than revving up horsepower.

Something similar could happen to gunsmiths following the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in December. After all, it took public outrage over horrific automobile fatalities, which peaked at around 55,000 in the early 1970s, to force legislative changes.

Yet innovations by the likes of Volvo showed that market forces could also play a role, not just in fostering good public policy but in creating lucrative businesses.

At present, most gun marketing in the United States is predicated on power and machismo. But what if the unique selling point of a weapon became safety features, like a trigger that only works in the hands of the gun’s owner? That, in a nutshell, is the aim of the Sandy Hook Promise Innovation Initiative, a program unveiled in San Francisco on Thursday.

The initiative will pull together leading lights from the technology and venture capital communities to form a Technology Committee to Reduce Gun Violence, which will work to identify, vet, and foster innovations in gun and school safety and mental health research. The group, which is working with Sandy Hook Promise - the non-profit group that I and other Newtown citizens created after the shootings of 20 schoolkids and six educators in our town - will solicit proposals for the best ideas and prototypes in these areas and award a prize to encourage the most promising innovations.

The point is that making firearms safer could help the nation to reduce the 30,000 gun deaths a year, including nearly 19,000 that are suicides. But if that isn’t incentive enough, there’s the money, and the Volvo lesson, to consider.

So let’s do a little drive into automotive history. In 1961, a few years after Volvo introduced the three-point seatbelt designed by inventor Nils Bohlin, the company sold around 13,000 cars in the United States. Over the next few years, Volvo added to its safety features, putting the same belts in back seats, and in 1968 head restraints. Within a decade, Volvo had quadrupled its American sales.

While all car sales decelerated during the 1970s oil embargo, the company kept on innovating and marketing itself as the safe carmaker. By the time the first mandatory seatbelt-use law was enacted in the state of New York in 1984, Volvo’s market share was approaching a peak. The 1990s were fruitful for Volvo, as a newfound awareness of the potential for technological advances to reduce car fatalities took hold.

In 1991, Volvo introduced a side-impact protection system. By 1995, every U.S. state but one made seatbelts compulsory. By 1998, dual airbags became standard for all passenger vehicles. All the while, Volvo’s U.S. sales surged above the 100,000 mark.

At what may have been a high point in automotive safety innovation - fatalities had fallen by a quarter from 1972 to around 41,000 in 1999 - Volvo sold itself to Ford for a cool $6.5 billion. But after that, rivals caught up as Ford faltered heavily even in the years before the financial crisis. Daimler’s Mercedes took the safety lead, and Volvo was sold in 2010 for $1.8 billion to China’s Zhejiang Geely.

Budding entrepreneurs in the gun world could become rich by emulating Volvo’s winning years. Weapons manufacturers could first and foremost tout their products’ safety features. And public policy could guide them along that path. New Jersey, for instance, has a law on the books that would require smart gun technology in all new handguns sold three years after the state’s attorney general determines a prototype is safe and commercially available. Other states are considering similar rules.

As the Volvo story underlines, however, government action isn’t the only way to reduce America’s gun fatalities, which have remained stubbornly high for decades. One thing that may be even more characteristically American than gun ownership is the impulse to create wealth in free and open markets. Let the innovation begin.

 

(Megan Miller contributed reporting and research to this column).

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