Will Obama's Action Create A Market For 'Smart' Guns?

Jan 5, 2016
Originally published on January 8, 2016 8:09 am

The notion of a gun smart enough to tell who's holding it isn't new.

Since the 1990s, inventors have been developing firearms geared with technologies that can authenticate their users — for instance by recognizing the fingerprint, the grip or an RFID chip — and stop working if held by the wrong hands.

Several manufacturers have tried to introduce Americans to the concept, but the market here has been less than friendly over concerns that they are unreliable and would lead to more gun control.

Supporters now hope that President Obama's new executive actions could turn things around.

In a series of measures aimed at reducing gun violence, Obama directed the Departments of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security to "conduct or sponsor research into gun safety technology that would reduce the frequency of accidental discharge or unauthorized use of firearms, and improve the tracing of lost or stolen guns."

In an address at the White House on Tuesday, Obama added:

"If we can set it up so you can't unlock your phone unless you've got the right fingerprint, why can't we do the same thing for our guns? If there's an app that can help us find a missing tablet ... there's no reason we can't do it with a stolen gun. If a child can't open a bottle of aspirin, we should make sure that they can't pull a trigger on a gun."

But to Stephen Teret, longtime proponent of smarter guns and founder of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, this could be the key element: Obama also directs the agencies to "explore potential ways to further" the use and development of smart gun technology as well as consult with other agencies that buy firearms to see if smart guns could be considered for acquisition and "consistent with operational needs."

Teret says smart, or personalized, guns have faced a stalemated kind of supply-demand: Manufacturers best-positioned to make and market these new guns don't want to go all-in on the idea without a reassurance of big orders, while no big buyer would put in such an order for an unestablished technology.

In simplest terms, if federal law enforcement and the military start buying lots of smart guns — and that's a big if — Teret thinks it would be just the incentive that manufacturers, venture capitalists and other investors need to consider such guns as a viable product.

"What today represents is blowing up the logjam that has been keeping us from moving forward," Teret says.

The impasse has a long history. A 2013 report from the Justice Department, solicited earlier by Obama, listed numerous corporate and research projects in the U.S., Europe and Australia that tried to develop smarter gun technology, including from established gun-makers like Colt's Manufacturing and Smith & Wesson.

Many of the projects fizzled out, facing numerous reservations both from gun control opponents and from proponents.

Will It Make Us Safer?

One of the biggest concerns from law enforcement officers cited by that 2013 DOJ report was reliability — the concern that a battery-powered or computer-chip-driven gun wouldn't fire when it should.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the main firearms industry trade association, in a statement, says it has never opposed development of smart gun technology, but adds: "How additional government research into this technology would advance it is unclear."

And the industry's big worry is that support for smart gun technology would turn into a mandate that all guns need to be smart.

In fact, New Jersey's 2002 "Childproof Handgun Law" has spurred much of the outcry over attempts to sell smart guns in the U.S., because it said that once "personalized handguns are available" anywhere in the country, all handguns sold in New Jersey must be smart guns within 30 months.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation also says there are "well-proven existing methods to secure firearms" and that firearm accidents are at an all-time low.

The National Rifle Association, in its statement criticizing Obama's executive actions, didn't comment on smart guns specifically but generally argued that the presidential action would not have prevented recent mass shootings.

The Violence Policy Center, which advocates for gun control, also has no specific position on personalized guns but has argued that research dollars would be better spent on things that prevent gun violence, like better injury and death measurements, youth programs and public education about risks.

Spokesman Avery Palmer referred NPR to the group's 2013 fact sheet on smart guns, which runs through a variety of reservations about their effectiveness, including the possibility that it may attract more, not fewer, people to gun ownership.

The fact sheet also says the group opposes the use of any federal tax dollars in support of smart gun research. Asked whether that meant the group also opposed Obama's smart gun initiative, Palmer said the center didn't yet have enough detail on the proposal to determine the group's position.

Teret at Johns Hopkins says that firearm accidents have indeed been declining and smart guns aren't a panacea to gun violence. He compares his current advocacy to his earlier work to get air bags installed in cars, despite concerns about their risk and effectiveness.

"No one can tell you with any level of certainty how many of the 33,000-plus [annual] gun deaths will be avoided by personalized guns," he says. "But I certainly have absolute confidence that it will be enough deaths that will be avoided that makes this worth it."

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There's been a debate over guns all this week. The topic came up again last night as President Obama held a town hall meeting. This follows the president's executive action to curb gun violence. The White House wants to spur investment in so-called smart guns - firearms that only work in the hands of their owners. But gun rights advocates see this technology as a backdoor to tighter gun controls. Here's NPR's Joel Rose.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The debate around smart guns has been going on for decades - longer than Kai Kloepfer has been alive. Kloepfer is a lanky 18-year-old from Boulder, Colo. Last year, he posted an online video about his attempt to build a smart gun.


KAI KLOEPFER: Smart firearms can only be fired by specific people. So that means that if a child finds a firearm, or if a police officer's disarmed, that firearm is completely useless.

ROSE: That video has been viewed more than 20 million times. Kloepfer started trying to build a smart gun after the shootings in Aurora, Colo. Now he's taking a year off before college to work on his idea.

KLOEPFER: The biggest challenge is not the engineering. It's not designing something reliable. It's talking with people - getting over those misconceptions about what smart-gun technology is. And the president is one of the most widely-heard voices in the world.

ROSE: Which is why Kloepfer and other smart-gun supporters were glad to hear President Obama talk about gun safety technology earlier this week.


BARACK OBAMA: If a child can't open a bottle of aspirin, we should make sure that they can't pull a trigger on a gun.

ROSE: But there's also a history of presidents and other elected officials trying to help get smart guns to market, and some of those efforts have backfired spectacularly - for example, the deal signed back in 2000 between President Bill Clinton and one of the nation's largest gunmakers.


BILL CLINTON: Earlier today, Smith & Wesson signed a landmark agreement.

ROSE: Smith & Wesson agreed, among other things, to put more effort into building a smart gun. But that deal was rejected by the gun lobby and millions of gun owners, who boycotted Smith & Wesson and nearly drove the company out of business.

RICHARD FELDMAN: The feeling was that rather than being promoted by gun owners, this was promoted by the anti-gun community.

ROSE: Richard Feldman is president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association. Feldman says a lot of gun owners don't like smart guns for two main reasons. One is technical - they don't believe these guns will work when they're needed most, despite the fact that a working smart gun is already on sale in Europe. But Feldman says the real problem is in technology, or even economics.

FELDMAN: The market, I think, has always been there, but because of the politics of this issue, it hasn't been about supply and demand. It's been about politics.

ROSE: Feldman says many gun owners think of smart guns as gun control by other means. They believe the real goal is to make all other kinds guns of illegal. And there is some evidence for that. A law on the books in New Jersey mandates that once a smart gun goes on sale anywhere in the U.S., all gun stores in the state have to sell only smart guns within three years. The result of all this mistrust is that no American gunmaker or dealer will touch smart guns. Still, President Obama's executive action this week has smart gun advocates feeling encouraged.

STEPHEN TERET: I'm extraordinarily optimistic that this will break through the logjam and we'll be able to now bring these guns to the marketplace.

ROSE: Stephen Teret teaches public health at Johns Hopkins University. And he's optimistic because the president directed three big agencies to look at how they could spend money on safer gun technology.

TERET: That's the purchase order that people who have been thinking about creating these guns have been waiting for.

ROSE: Smart gun advocates are hoping that a European company could fill that potential order, or maybe a startup, because no one expects an existing American gunmaker to take the risk. Joel Rose, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.