Smart guns could save lives. If only gun buy­ers were smart enough to want them

Obama’s re­form push won’t cre­ate de­mand overnight “Th­ese tech­nolo­gies aren’t ready for the mar­ket yet”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - CONTENTS - −Paul M. Bar­rett

“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?” That’s the rea­son­able-sound­ing ques­tion Pres­i­dent Obama asked dur­ing his Jan. 5 gun con­trol ad­dress from the White House. The an­swer is a lit­tle com­pli­cated: Even with pres­i­den­tial back­ing, it would be naive to ex­pect a mar­ket for so-called smart guns to spring to life any­time soon.

Dig­i­tally equipped firearms have been around since the mid-1990s. They’re de­signed to avoid mishaps and crim­i­nal­ity by work­ing only for au­tho­rized users. Smart guns typ­i­cally em­ploy ei­ther bio­met­ric tech­nol­ogy, like fin­ger­print scan­ners, or a ra­dio-fre­quency-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion de­vice (RFID), such as a ring or bracelet that sends a sig­nal to un­lock the weapon at a cer­tain prox­im­ity.

Hos­til­ity from gun rights ac­tivists has de­terred any ma­jor man­u­fac­turer from mar­ket­ing smart guns. Colt’s Man­u­fac­tur­ing, for ex­am­ple, dropped a smart-gun pro­ject in the late ’90s fol­low­ing a se­vere con­sumer back­lash. Re­tail­ers who’ve put star­tups’ prod­ucts on their shelves have like­wise faced fierce ide­o­log­i­cal protests.

To coun­ter­act such re­sis­tance, Obama in­cluded among the ex­ec­u­tive ac­tions an­nounced in early Jan­uary a di­rec­tive to the de­part­ments of De­fense, Jus­tice, and Home­land Se­cu­rity to con­duct or spon­sor re­search on dig­i­tal devices that would re­duce gun ac­ci­dents and unau­tho­rized use.

Smart-gun pro­po­nents ap­plauded. Mar­got Hirsch, pres­i­dent of the non­profit Smart Tech Chal­lenges Foun­da­tion, which has dis­trib­uted $1 mil­lion over two years to 15 en­trepreneurs work­ing on dig­i­tal-weapon projects, tried to lev­er­age the pres­i­dent’s an­nounce­ment in a fresh fundrais­ing ap­peal. “That the fed­eral govern­ment will work with the pri­vate sec­tor to pro­mote the de­vel­op­ment of smart-gun tech­nol­ogy comes as ex­cit­ing news to the in­no­va­tors who have been work­ing dili­gently to get prod­ucts to mar­ket,” Hirsch said in a mass e-mail. In a fol­low-up in­ter­view, she adds that “th­ese tech­nolo­gies aren’t ready for the mar­ket yet—they need more R&D—but the pres­i­dent’s ac­tion will jump-start the process.”

The re­sponse from one lead­ing in­no­va­tor was tepid at best. “I don’t know yet” whether the Obama ini­tia­tive will help, says Jonathan Moss­berg, a scion of the O.F. Moss­berg & Sons gun man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany. Fif­teen years ago, he spun off a tiny busi­ness called IGun Tech­nol­ogy and has since in­vested about $3 mil­lion in the ven­ture. It has pro­duced a

func­tion­ing pro­to­type 12-gauge shot­gun equipped with RFID tech­nol­ogy. Over the years, IGun has re­ceived $235,000 in Jus­tice Depart­ment grants as well as $100,000 from Hirsch’s foun­da­tion.

Moss­berg says he has a smart gun ready for the mar­ket­place but the mar­ket­place doesn’t seem ready for his prod­uct. “It should be a $1 bil­lion in­dus­try,” he says, cit­ing gun in­dus­try trade group sur­veys show­ing that 14 per­cent of Amer­i­cans say they’d con­sider buy­ing a com­mer­cially avail­able smart gun.

Gun whole­salers and re­tail­ers are un­der­stand­ably hes­i­tant to touch the Moss­berg IGun. One gun store owner, Andy Ray­mond of Rockville, Md., gained no­to­ri­ety for post­ing an In­ter­net video in 2014 de­scrib­ing how he’d re­ceived death threats af­ter try­ing to sell the Ar­matix iP1, a Ger­man-made pis­tol that fires only within range of an au­tho­rized user’s RFID-equipped wrist piece.

The Na­tional Shoot­ing Sports Foun­da­tion, the gun in­dus­try’s main trade group, hasn’t op­posed smart guns in prin­ci­ple, but it’s warned against any govern­ment at­tempt to man­date them. The NSSF points to a 2002 New Jersey law, the Child­proof Hand­gun Act, which says the state’s firearm re­tail­ers would be re­quired to sell only smart guns three years af­ter a “per­son­al­ized” firearm was of­fered for sale any­where in the U.S. Se­cond Amend­ment ad­vo­cates of­ten cite the state law as ev­i­dence that any govern­ment move fa­vor­ing smart guns is ac­tu­ally a first step to­ward ban­ning con­ven­tional ones. NSSF of­fi­cials didn’t re­spond to re­quests for com­ment for this ar­ti­cle.

Jonathan Moss­berg has an­other con­cern. “Now that the pres­i­dent has made this a pri­or­ity, the Jus­tice Depart­ment might start throw­ing money at peo­ple who re­ally don’t have the tech­nol­ogy or cred­i­bil­ity to get a smart gun to mar­ket,” he says. “That could un­der­mine those of us who’ve been work­ing in the area for years.” In other words, he’s not so ea­ger for new ri­vals in a mar­ket that so far has proved nonex­is­tent. The bot­tom line Mak­ers of bio­met­ric and RFID gun tech­nol­ogy are skep­ti­cal of govern­ment prom­ises given the hos­til­ity of their cus­tomer base.

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