President Barrack Obama’s call for tougher gun control this week quickly triggered rebuffs from GOP presidential candidates and gun enthusiasts. Consumers responded to the executive action by buying as many firearms as possible, causing gun manufacturer Smith and Wesson’s stocks to soar temporarily.
But there was more to the president’s emotional plea for more stringent background checks than a perceived threat to gun rights. For the gun tech industry, Obama’s executive action could signal that for the first time since prototypes debuted a decade ago, smart guns — or guns that only fire for the authorized user — could be mass produced in the near future.
Smart guns are equipped with technology that prevent loaded guns from firing in the wrong hands through analyzing the registered owner’s grip, biometrics such as fingerprints, RFID (radio frequency identification) technology that only allows a gun to fire when in close proximity to a programmed ring or wristband, or even an app.
But despite smart gun prototypes being prime for production since 2005, they still aren’t available to buy for law enforcement or civilian gun owners. The answer: politics.
Colt and Smith and Wesson suffered revenue-crushing boycotts after developing their government-sponsored smart gun prototypes. In the years since, gun dealers who have expressed interest in selling smart guns alongside traditional firearms have had to cancel their orders due to boycotts and fears of bankruptcy.
Andy Raymond, the co-owner of the Engage Armament in Rockville, Maryland, received violent threats after announcing in 2014 that his shop would add the Armatix’s iP1 .22-caliber pistol created by German firearm engineer Ernst Mauch, which uses an RFID chip in a watch to communicate with the gun, to his inventory. Selling the gun was an effort to expand the market to gun owners concerned about safety. The Oak Tree Gun Club in Newhall, California also endured protests when it tried to sell the iP1 pistol.
That worry stemmed from fear that smart guns would soon be the only guns people were allowed to buy, infringing on individual’s rights bear arms of their choosing. Those fears were fueled by a decade-old New Jersey mandate in 2002 that promised to phase out — and ban — traditional gun ownership within three years of smart guns hitting the market.
Passing that law, along with a wave of threats and boycotts to gun manufacturers and dealers, caused a chill across the gun industry and investment money dried up, said Ralph Fascitelli, president of Washington CeaseFire in Seattle.
“Existing firearm manufacturers aren’t going to get into this because there isn’t enough support on the right,” Fascitelli said. “It’s going to have to be an upstart…The caveat is that the technology is going to have to be accepted as reliable. You’re going to need a handgun to win over the right.”
Smart guns consistently make headlines for the promise of reducing the number of accidental shooting deaths and suicides. There are approximately 21,000 firearm suicides every year, with another 505 accidental gunshot deaths, according to 2013 data from the Centers for Disease Control.
Moreover, suicide tends to be an impulsive decision — 71 percent deciding to end their life in less than an hour, according to research collected by Harvard University’s School of Public Health. Firearm suicides are nearly always successful with 85 percent of all suicide attempts are fatal and completed with someone else’s gun: 82 percent of firearm suicides for teens are committed using a gun located in the home, according to a report from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
“This is a very complex problem and there is no one single solution,” said Margot Hirsch, president of the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, which funds the research and production of smart gun technologies. “Smart guns are one way to help decrease the number of gun-related injuries and fatalities.”
Gun control advocates carefully praised the White House’s smart gun push as necessary to reduce the death toll but shouldn’t be seen as a cure-all solution. “There hasn’t been a general awareness around these technologies until recently,” Hirsch said. “If there’s no awareness there’s no demand.”
Interest and excitement surrounding smart guns have long piqued the interest of gun dealers, manufacturers, and the government. Prior to Obama charging the Justice Department, Defense Department, and Homeland Security with researching smart gun tech, the government gave millions of dollars in grants to gun manufacturers to do the same thing.
The Justice Department gave Colt a $500,000 grant in 1997 under the Clinton Administration to complete development of a handgun that would work with RFID (radio frequency identification) via a wristband. Smith and Wesson received more than $3 million in DOJ grants between 2000 and 2004 to develop smart guns for law enforcement. The prototypes were completed but no one was using them and Smith & Wesson had to layoff 15 percent of its staff due to boycotts.
But there is significant support from gun owners overall: 66 percent of Americans believe smart guns should be for sale and 40 percent of gun owners say they would trade their current gun for a smart gun, according to a 2015 survey from Penn Schoen Berland research firm. The country is split on whether there should be a legislative mandate requiring only smart guns to be sold.
Some law enforcement officials have embraced the technology. San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr called smart guns a “no brainer” during a CBS 60 Minutes segment. “If you’re in plain-clothes, most officers don’t have safety holsters,” he said on the show. “If you had a gun that you were hands-on with a suspect and the suspect got your gun and you didn’t have to worry about it, that’d be nice.”
Amid growing support in law enforcement coupled with Obama’s executive action, smart gun developers are hoping the cold war on gun technology will subside, spurring investments and hopefully a giant purchase order from the U.S. government.
Robert McNamara, who developed TriggerSmart gun, spent the last five years patiently waiting for a time when his prototypes could go into production. “It’s only a matter of time,” said McNamara, who designed a smart gun that uses RFID technology. “In order for someone to make a smart gun, they need to make the best possible gun that they can make. It has to be something that an officer can depend on for his life every day. It would have to be the Rolls Royce of guns.”
With the millions of dollars needed in funding, a purchase order and spec sheet, McNamara said he and likely traditional gun manufacturers would be able to have guns ready in the next 12 to 18 months. “If [the government] actually puts out an order and a spec sheet for smart guns, then the gun manufacturers might come out their closets just for the work,” he said.