scorecardresearch Skip to main content

On ‘smart guns,’ progress is thwarted by noxious politics

Imagine a gun that could never be turned against you by an intruder, a gun that would never go off in the hands of a child, a gun that would be useless as a paperweight if it were stolen. In fact, that technology is already here. From the German-made Armatix iP1, which only works if the shooter is wearing a special wristwatch, to the Utah-made Intelligun, which is unlocked by fingerprints, so-called “smart guns” or “personalized guns” are poised to transform the gun industry. Expect them to get even smarter in the years to come: Ron Conway, an angel investor in Google and Facebook, recently announced a $1 million prize for the best new safety technology.

Unfortunately, a technology that could significantly improve gun safety and prevent certain acts of violence has become caught up in a hopelessly polarized national gun debate. One might think gun-rights advocates would be eager to remove some of the most powerful arguments for limiting the sale of firearms. But they aren’t. The National Rifle Association plays up the fact that, for now, “smart guns” are less reliable and more expensive. Gun-rights advocates worry that the technology that renders a gun inoperable in the hands of thief could also allow the government to shut a gun down in the hands of a legitimate owner. But the biggest reason for the opposition to “smart guns” stems from the fear that they will prompt a ban on ordinary guns.


A well-meaning effort to promote smart guns has only inflamed the discussion. The state of New Jersey passed a law in 2002 that bans the sale of ordinary guns three years after the first smart gun is sold in America. California lawmakers have tried to pass a similar law. Last year, US Representative John Tierney, a Salem Democrat, introduced a measure that would require all guns made in America to incorporate such technology.

While these measures sound like common-sense gun control, they have actually made it harder for “smart gun” technology to spread. It’s an unfortunate reaction — but one that lawmakers probably should have predicted, given the vitriolic tone of the gun debate. Because of the New Jersey law, gun stores in Maryland and California received a flurry of death threats after stocking the Armatix iP1. Both stores quickly stopped selling it. Had the New Jersey law never been passed, “personalized guns” might be all the rage among technology-savvy gun owners. But now buying such a gun is viewed as a treasonous act among the most fervent gun-rights activists.


Giving gun owners the choice of purchasing smart guns or not, at least for the foreseeable future, would have achieved a better result than rushing to mandate this technology before gun owners even understand what it is. Cultural change takes time. No matter how superior smartphones are, any move to force the switch within three years would have ignited a similar backlash. Someday, smart gun technology will be the norm. But we aren’t there yet.