Why 'Smart' Guns Won't Transform the U.S. Firearm Industry

A mock-up of the Armatix iP1 pistol Photograph by Monica Almeida/The New York Times via Redux

Another company wants to manufacture a “smart gun” that can be fired only by an authorized user. Another company will fail. Why? Two reasons: The influential National Rifle Association sees smart guns as a step toward stricter gun control, and the people who actually buy firearms in the U.S. don’t really want smart guns. That’s what you call serious barriers to entry.

A California company called Armatix is trying to sell a .22 pistol dubbed the iP1, which received attention from the Washington Post in February and again today from the New York Times. The iP1 contains a computer chip that enables the pistol to work only if the user enters a five-digit PIN into a watch-like device that transmits a signal to the gun. The weapon will not fire if it’s more than 10 inches from the watch.

The NRA has opposed smart guns for many years on political grounds. The group argues that given the opportunity, gun-control advocates would mandate technologically personalized firearms that government overseers could track—and even disable. Here’s a taste of the NRA’s position:

“Failed attempts to develop and market ‘smart guns’ have been going on for years. NRA does not oppose new technological developments in firearms; however, we are opposed to government mandates that require the use of expensive, unreliable features, such as grips that would read your fingerprints before the gun will fire. And NRA recognizes that the ‘smart guns’ issue clearly has the potential to mesh with the anti-gunner’s agenda, opening the door to a ban on all guns that do not possess the government-required technology.”

As paranoid and conspiracy-minded as the NRA tends to be—and I’ve noted that penchant on many occasions—the group probably has a point. Gun-control advocates, given a chance, would almost certainly push for mandatory smart guns. New Jersey, where debate on the topic has gotten further than anywhere else, actually has a currently dormant statute on its books that would require that all guns sold in the state have “smart” technology, were the technology widely available and deemed to be effective.

Before even reaching the question of whether liberal gun foes would use personalization technology as a means of exerting tougher restrictions on firearm ownership and use, there’s the issue of reliability. Would a smart gun work in a pinch? In the case of the iP1, would the owner correctly enter her PIN number when she heard the burglar forcing open the kitchen door? And then would the watch-like thingee transmit its signal properly to the pistol and make it operable?

The hard truth is that past smart gun models haven’t always proved reliable. In 1999, my former reporting partner, Vanessa O’Connell, and I published a page-one article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Personal Weapon: How a Gun Company Tries to Propel Itself Into a Computer Age.” We described a visit to the headquarters of Colt’s Manufacturing, the firearm pioneer based in West Hartford, Conn. Colt’s was boasting about an innovative smart gun that was going to redefine the market. We wanted to see a demo. It didn’t go well:

“Steven M. Sliwa grips a black semiautomatic pistol—a prototype of his company’s controversial ‘smart gun.’ Colt’s Manufacturing Co. has spent six years and millions of dollars to develop this pistol, the chief executive explains.

“The Colt Z-40—a computer microchip embedded in its handle—is supposed to fire only when held by someone wearing a wristband that emits a coded radio signal. His wristlet in place, Mr. Sliwa pulls the trigger. Nothing. He tries again. It doesn’t budge. ‘For a while it worked fine,’ he says. This is the prospective wonder weapon that is roiling the firearm business.”

Colt’s never got the Z-40 right. Consumers showed absolutely no interest. Steve Sliwa left the company years ago. Smith & Wesson and other well-known manufacturers have experienced similar failures.

Digital technology has improved since 1999, of course. Maybe the folks at Armatix have figured out how to insulate their chip within a machine whose entire purpose is to host explosions that propel ammunition at lethal velocity. I’ve written about an Austin (Tex.) company called TrackingPoint that produces high-end, long-distance hunting rifles equipped with computer technology that allows a novice shooter to shoot accurately at moving targets five football fields away. The TrackingPoint rifles work, but they cost more than $20,000 each, meaning that they’re no threat to become a mass market item. Last time I checked with TrackingPoint, the company was trying to steer clear of the NRA by forgoing GPS technology in its weapons—a feature that would have allowed owners to locate stolen or misplaced firearms but might offend libertarians who fear the government being able to track their guns.

So it’s not that small arms have to be dumb. When it comes to targeting, they can be made plenty intelligent. Whether the marketplace under the watchful eye of the NRA would welcome a smart hand gun is a very different matter. Count me as skeptical.

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