We have smartphones and smartwatches. But now some are calling for guns to be smart too. In 2016, Obama called for the study and development of smart guns.

But what are they and why are they important?

What are smart guns?

Smart guns use technology to make guns operate only by their owner. In theory, these guns cannot be used by unauthorized users, such as children or criminals.

Some posit that companies could combine fingerprint technology with guns to ensure only a recognized user could ever fire them. They argue if we can use a fingerprint scan to unlock our phones, we should be able to incorporate similar technology into our guns.

It’s such a popular idea that it showed up in the James Bond film Skyfall (2012). In one scene, James Bond receives a (fictional) smart gun that reads his palmprint and can only be used by him.

Smart guns are an attempt to answer difficult questions in the gun debate:

  • How do we prevent accidental discharges?
  • How do we prevent criminals from using stolen guns?
  • How do we make guns safer?

Why smart guns are important?

Smart guns are important to a lot of groups – police officers, gun owners, the NRA, and gun control organizations. This new technology raises questions about the future of gun ownership, safety, and legislation.

Advocates for smart guns believe there would be fewer shootings – both intentional and accidental – if smart guns were on the market. Here are some potential examples:

  • A child could not accidentally discharge a parent’s smart gun
  • A criminal could not use a police officer’s smart gun against law enforcement
  • If a stranger stole a smart gun, they could not use it

On the other side, some individuals believe smart guns are not reliable for gun owners and would also open the door to further government regulation on guns. Here are some common concerns:

  • Will a smart gun always be reliable when a gun owner needs to use it, especially in a quick-response, emergency situation?
  • Will the government illegalize or penalize non-smart guns?
  • Can governments or organizations track or jam smart guns?

Some believe smart guns are the next advancement in gun development and will provide greater safety for society. Others believe smart guns won’t deliver on their promise of greater safety and will lead to more government regulation.

A brief history of smart guns

Historically speaking, advocates for gun rights have opposed the development and sale of smart guns while advocates for gun control have promoted them.

The Clinton Agreement

In March of 2000, gun giant Smith & Wesson made an agreement with President Bill Clinton. Smith & Wesson would develop a smart gun for the U.S. government and would receive a “preferred buying program.”

Additionally, Smith & Wesson agreed to a “code of conduct,” which included not selling guns to prohibited persons and anyone under the age of 18 without the presence of an adult.

Both the Clinton administration and Smith & Wesson anticipated a boycott from gun owners over the agreement, which is precisely what happened. The NRA organized a campaign against the agreement and thousands of retailers boycotted Smith & Wesson.

Smith & Wesson’s profits fell dramatically and they were forced to drop their plans for creating a smart gun. Ed Shultz, the CEO who negotiated the deal, was removed and the company slowly recovered.

But that wasn’t the last time we would hear of smart guns.

The New Jersey Mandate

On December 23, 2002, the New Jersey Childproof Handgun Law passed. With it enforced, the law will ban non-smart guns once a smart gun is introduced to the market. The legislation defines a smart gun as a gun that can “only be fired by an authorized or recognized user.”

As its title suggests, the purported purpose of the bill was to prevent accidental discharges by childproofing guns.

Even though smart guns are not on the market yet, the law provides a timetable for implementing this regulation:

“The amended bill specifies that three years after it is determined that personalized handguns are available for retail purposes, it will be illegal for any registered or licensed firearms manufacturer or dealer to transport, sell, expose for sale, possess for sale, assign or transfer any handgun unless that handgun is a personalized handgun.”

The proposed timeline looks like this:

  • A company designs and manufactures a decent smart gun
  • The State of New Jersey approves the smart gun
  • 3 years after this, it’s officially illegal to sell or manufacture non-smart guns

The bill was criticized for regulating a product that didn’t even exist yet, which is an unusual circumstance.

The Armatix iP1

Eventually, in early 2014 a German company named Armatix designed and produced a smart gun called the Armatix iP1. This rekindled debates about smart guns and whether or not they have a place in society.

The Armatix iP1 is a pistol and wristwatch combination. The pistol will only fire if the wristwatch is within one foot of the gun. If the gun is out of range of the wristwatch, it will not fire.

The Armatix iP1 was criticized for poor design. Some questioned the gun’s reliability in a time of crisis, asking questions such as:

  • What if the gun loses power to identify the watch?
  • What if the gun owner forgets the wristwatch in a time of need?
  • Will the gun or watch need regular updates?
  • Can rain short circuit the gun?

Also, advocates for gun rights have voiced concern that the approval of a smart gun would trigger undesirable regulations. If the Armatix iP1 met New Jersey’s standards, it would be mean non-smart guns would be illegal within three years.

However, in November of 2014, the Attorney General of New Jersey did not approve the Armatix iP1 as suitable to their standards. Therefore the mandate was not triggered.

Reception of smart guns

There is a wide range of opinions on smart guns. Here are some key voices in the debate:

The NRA’s reception

The NRA-ILA’s stance on smart guns is:

“The NRA doesn’t oppose the development of “smart” guns, nor the ability of Americans to voluntarily acquire them. However, NRA opposes any law prohibiting Americans from acquiring or possessing firearms that don’t possess “smart” gun technology.”

While the NRA is fine with the development and sale of smart guns, it opposes legislation that forbids non-smart guns.

The tricky issue with the New Jersey mandate is that both must exist at the same time. If a smart gun is approved for distribution, it also means within three years all guns must be smart guns.

Therefore, the NRA opposes the development and sale of smart guns, even though under different circumstances they would not. In a way, the New Jersey Mandate forces the NRA to oppose smart guns.

Law enforcement’s reception

Local and state law enforcement have voiced an interest in testing smart guns. In February of 2016, San Francisco Chief Police Greg Suhr said,

“Officer safety is huge, so you wouldn’t want to compel that upon officers. But we have so many officers who are so into technology, I am all but certain there are officers that would be willing to do such a pilot.”

Suhr stated that he wouldn’t “compel” officers to use smart guns, but he’s willing to allow officers to test the technology. Suhr went on to cite two recent examples of criminals who acquired police firearms and killed with them. Suhr also stated,

“If we in law enforcement had guns that were only of use to the officer identified with the gun, that would be a good thing. What if every gun that fell into the wrong hands was of no use to anybody?”

Other higher ups question the reliability of smart guns. The president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Richard Beary, stated that there are “plenty of agencies interested in beta testing the technology.”

However, Beary expresses concerns about the smart gun, saying, “It can’t be 99 percent accurate. It has to be 100 percent accurate. It has to work every single time.”

Law enforcement is trying desperately to prevent guns from falling into the hands of criminals and accidental discharges. Views on smart guns vary, but it seems they are willing to at least experiment with the technology.

Potential advantages

  • If a quality smart gun is developed, it may provide advantages that normal guns cannot. Examples include:
  • Smart guns could prevent accidental discharges at home by children and teenagers. While gun owners take measures to prevent these incidents, they do still happen. Smart guns have an additional layer of protection in that they will not recognize the teen or child as an authorized owner. Therefore they can’t hurt themselves.
  • Smart guns could prevent criminals from using a gun against its owner. This is particularly beneficial to law enforcement, who are regularly targeted by thieves and dangerous individuals. Or if an officer were to accidentally lose their weapon, it could not be used by someone with harmful intent.
  • Smart guns could also prevent some suicides if the individual tries to use a smart gun that they do not own. The gun would not recognize the person and would not function.

Potential disadvantages

Smart guns may also contain distinct disadvantages that regular guns do not have. Examples include:

  • Smart guns may have reduced reliability compared to traditional guns. If gun functionality depends on an electronic component, there is always the chance that the electronic component will not work. An unreliable smart gun may result in more deaths than a regular gun.
  • An expert demonstrates in a video that smart guns may have weaknesses since it’s possible to jam electronic signals. He also shows that an unauthorized user can fire the Armatix iP1 with simple and cheap magnets.
  • Smart guns may bring a new generation of government regulations and infringement on gun rights. As seen in the New Jersey Mandate, some politicians are interested in developing smart guns in order to illegalize other guns.

What the future holds

Smart guns are not here yet, but they could be in our lifetime.

Companies like Wesson & Smith and Armatix have the ability and ingenuity to create smart guns. And governments like the United States have voiced interest in their creation.

However, gun-advocate groups and the overall gun market demonstrate they are not interested in smart guns at this time.

Smart gun development may be more tolerable to gun owners if the New Jersey legislation didn’t exist. But since this bill promises to regulate guns after introducing a smart gun to the market, many gun advocates inherently oppose their development.

Some analysts suggest undoing the New Jersey legislation and allow the creation of smart guns to happen naturally, rather than forcing their development with government policies.

Either way, keep an eye on smart guns in the news. It’ll be interesting to watch how the issue develops.

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