Though little understood and talked about in the context of the larger gun control debate, smart guns are an effective tool that should become part of the national conversation. Smart guns offer the possibility of lowering some of America’s most troubling gun death statistics while still allowing for the freedom to own guns. Though they will never be the one and only solution to America’s gun problem, their merits are worth some consideration.

What Are Smart Guns?

Smart guns are weapons that require some form of identification to fire in order to bar anyone who isn’t the owner of the weapon from use. These weapons accomplish this through the use of fingerprint scanners, radio-frequency identification (RFID), magnets, and biometric sensors (which unlock the weapon through a combination of grip style and the shape and size of a person’s hand).

The most well-known smart gun is the German-made Armatix iP1. Beyond the Armatix, two American companies have tried their hand at producing smart guns for the American market: In 1997, Colt was granted $500,000 by the DOJ for development of one such weapon and Smith and Wesson was given $3 million from 2000 to 2004 to develop smart guns for law enforcement. Neither company’s model ever made it to the American market, for reasons that will be elaborated on shortly.

What Problems Might Smart Guns Help Solve?

None of the technologies used to make smart guns work are foolproof (PoliceOne has their own reservations), but they have been tested and shown to work.

When they’re doing what they’re supposed to, smart guns can help reduce teen suicides, reduce the number of police shot on the job by their own weapon, and even reduce the number of violent crimes.

Steve Novick, a lawyer and policy consultant, cites the National Violent Injury Statistics System, the Injury Prevention Journal, and the University of Chicago Crime Lab Review in making his case for the use of smart guns.

According to Novick and the studies he cites, 82% of teen suicides used a firearm that belonged to a family member, 10% of police who were shot on the job were shot by their own weapon, and 40% of guns used in violent crimes were shared, borrowed, or being held by others. In theory, smart guns would help to counteract all of these problems.

Especially in the case of teen suicide, the merit of smart guns is irrefutable. Teens use guns to kill themselves because suicide is impulsive and guns are a quick and easy method that eliminates a lot of the thinking. With a smart gun in their hands instead, they might be incapable of using the weapon, or forced to take a few seconds to think about what they’re doing and suppress that impulsive moment.

The Merits for Both Sides

Regardless of the results that the sale of smart guns might help to produce, the weapons will never get off the ground if they can’t find their place within the broader debate about gun control. Fortunately, they can be positioned to answer some of each side’s biggest concerns.

To begin with, smart guns are an excellent answer to a lot of the debate over effective gun control. As touched on previously, smart guns work to address some of the most pressing gun death statistics. In another sense, though, they should become part of the conversation about mass shootings.

In nearly every recent mass shooting that America has endured, the story played out similarly: A radicalized young adult found easy access to weapons owned by a family member that were either improperly stored or too insecure to prevent misuse. The reasons for their radicalization do matter, and a true and comprehensive solution to mass shootings must and should involve a deep look at the systemic factors that lead to and allow for radicalization to occur. In the meantime, however, it might make sense to take a look at making these weapons more secure. With smart gun technology, it might be possible to lock potential shooters out from use, answering part of the call for greater security.

Staunch Second-Amendment supporters can also find their concerns answered. Smart guns offer the same utility and protection that another weapon might, just with an added safety feature. They still allow for the freedom and security that gun lovers prize. All gun owners are familiar with safety catches. Smart gun technology is functionally the same thing, but with an added safety net that can do even more to prevent tragedies.

Why Aren’t Smart Guns on the Market?

A huge part of the problem is the NRA.

In 2002, a New Jersey Mandate promised that traditional gun ownership would be phased out and banned within three years of smart guns becoming a widely available tool on the market. The NRA has been pushing to avoid their production ever since.

Remember those grants the DOJ gave Colt and Smith and Wesson? The NRA organized boycotts so vicious that Smith and Wesson had to lay off 15% of its staff in spite of the fact that the prototypes were finished and working.

The NRA helped to orchestrate a disinformation campaign that spread with furor among its supporters. In cases that are now infamous, gun retailers Engage Armament of Maryland and Oak Tree of California received death threats for their decisions to sell the weapons.

In the meantime, the NRA has worked to pressure its lawmakers to avoid any concessions on smart guns in spite of the fact that New Jersey State Senator Loretta Weinberg, the sponsor of the original New Jersey Mandate, has agreed to work to “defang” the bill if the NRA agrees to stop fighting smart gun technology. Unsurprisingly, the NRA won’t budge.

Aside from the roadblocks that the NRA have presented, there are a few concerns that have helped to lock smart guns out of American markets.

One of the biggest concerns is how secure smart guns actually are. Recently, researchers have found a way to bypass the Armatix IP1’s security and fire the weapon while locked. Somewhat despairingly, it only took about “$15 worth of magnets”. This finding raises obvious security concerns about the weapons, but it shouldn’t take them out of consideration for several reasons.

First, the amount of research, forethought, and tinkering required to fire a locked smart gun is sufficient to ensure that tampering won’t occur in the kinds of situations that smart guns are intended to prevent. Most suicides, police shootings, and violent crimes are impulsive and unplanned. Gun violence is tragically unpredictable. The extra steps that smart guns put in place erect a barrier between a close-call and a tragedy.

Second, the technology is still developing. Calls to ban smart guns before they get trial runs echo the concerns over self-driving vehicles. When Uber’s self-driving car struck and killed a pedestrian, the whole concept itself seemed dead. Uber backed away from it, and trial runs ceased in other areas. In the aftermath, a lot was overlooked.

The Atlantic, however, posted an article that made a bit more sense of the tragedy: Uber’s technology didn’t malfunction, it was just bad. In the early stages of technology, bad prototypes are bound to emerge. That was clearly the case with Uber. Bad prototypes don’t, however, render a compelling idea invalid. Like self-driving cars, smart guns take time and trials to get right. If they’re never given the chance, how is it possible to know their worth?

Third, the cost of smart guns needs to be addressed. Currently, the cost of the weapons varies widely. The most inexpensive ones still retail at high costs (the cheapest on the market right now costs $1250). Most gun owners don’t want to shell out that much cash, especially for a pistol. This is certainly a legitimate concern.

There are a few answers, however. The cost of the weapons is steep because the technology is still in its infancy. Most will recall that black and white TVs used to retail for thousands of dollars, (2018 equivalent) yet 50” to 60” 4k resolution TVs can now be found for modest sums of a few hundred dollars. That endless cycle of innovation and price reduction has already begun in the smart gun market: The Philadelphia-based gun manufacturer LodeStar Firearms has just announced plans to retail a smart gun for roughly $750, or “about half the price of the Armatix iP1”.

As a final concern, gun manufacturers won’t take perceived threats to their profitability sitting down.

Currently, the patents for smart gun technology have all been developed outside of gun manufacturers, meaning manufacturers would need to license the technology in order to use it. That adds an element of cost that most won’t want to absorb.

Navigating this issue is tricky. One possible solution would be to look at the model the government used for solar energy, promising subsidies and tax breaks that turned an expensive and economically undesirable option into a clear favorite for consumers. The government might be resistant to this, given the degree of influence the NRA possesses, but the government could well come around given increasing pressure from Americans for sensible gun policy.

It is also possible to think that private insurance companies might reward gun owners for adopting smart gun technology. Many homeowner’s policies already reward gun owners for securing their guns in locked cabinets, and these insurance companies would have an interest in reducing the incidence and impact of home accidents.

In the meantime, consumers should support retailers that choose to sell the weapons and vote for candidates who promise to consider gun control measures. With a combination of those actions, it is possible to create a climate where smart guns are a fashionable and available solution.

Why Talk About This Now?

When confronting such a divisive issue as gun violence, it makes sense to try to find an aspect of an issue that both sides are capable of agreeing on.

Furthermore, people like smart guns. According to a 2015 poll taken from Mother Jones, 54% of gun owners under 45 years of age are willing to consider swapping out their conventional pistols for smart guns and 83% of gun owners want gun dealers to be able to sell the weapons.

The NRA may be a very loud and perpetually thorny organization, but it represents a tiny minority of American society. Its members comprise only 8% of all US gun owners. Americans in general don’t like them and the tide of public opinion has turned against them. Recent polls show, for the first time in two decades, that Americans hold a net unfavorable view of the organization.

With their popularity dimming, battles that were conceded long ago are once again on the table. In an age where gun violence has become an everyday occurrence, American citizens and politicians should put every option on the table to find solutions.

Maybe now is the time to finally give smart guns the trial they deserve.


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