Store backs away from smart guns following outcry from 2nd Amendment activists

The California gun store that put the nation’s first smart gun on sale is facing a furious backlash from customers and gun rights advocates who fear the new technology will encroach on their Second Amendment rights if it becomes mandated.

Attacks in online forums and social networks against the Oak Tree Gun Club have prompted the store to back away from any association with the Armatix iP1 smart gun. The protests threaten the nascent smart-gun industry, which received a jolt of support recently when a group of Silicon Valley investors offered a $1 million prize for promising new technology.

The vitriol began almost immediately after The Washington Post reported last month that the Armatix iP1 smart gun was for sale at the pro shop. Electronic chips inside the gun communicate with a watch that can be bought with the gun, making it impossible to fire without the watch. Gun-control advocates, who believe smart guns could reduce gun violence, suicides and accidental shootings, marked the moment as a milestone.

“These people are anti-gunners,”­ someone said of Oak Tree on the store’s Facebook page, adding, “I will never step foot in this dump.” On Yelp, a user wrote, “If you care about the ability to exercise your [Second Amendment] rights, I would suggest that you do not continue to frequent this place.”

The protests are fueled by worry that being able to buy the iP1 will trigger a New Jersey law mandating that all handguns in the state be personalized within three years of a smart gun going on sale anywhere in the United States. Similar mandates have been introduced in California and in both chambers of Congress.

Smart guns, personalized weapons that only fired for authorized users, were once seen just in the movies. Today, after millions of dollars and more than 10 years of research, there are finally smart guns for the public. But there are only two viable systems available for people to buy. The Washington Post's Mike Rosenwald talks about the reason why and the future of the technology. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

A Facebook poster wrote that Oak Tree, which is outside of Los Angeles, owes New Jersey an apology.

The opposition has apparently shaken Oak Tree, one of the largest gun stores and shooting ranges­ in California.

Gun rights advocates and Arm­atix executives have been mystified by the store’s response, which has been to deny ever offering the gun and apologizing for any confusion in several places online, including to a gun rights advocate at Examiner.com.

The denials come despite Oak Tree owner James Mitchell’s extensive comments about why the gun was put on sale there. Arm­atix executives also provided The Post with two photos of the gun for sale in a gun cabinet at the facility, as well as multiple photos of customers shooting the iP1 at an event in a specially designed firing range with large Armatix signs.

Saying that “we’ve been helping the company get the gun introduced here out West,” Mitchell told The Post earlier this month: “I walk in a delicate line because I am an extremely pro-gun conservative type person. But I’m also logical, you know.” He said the technology, if accepted, could “revolutionize the gun industry” and provide a compromise between gun rights advocates and gun-control supporters.

Mitchell has apparently discovered that gun rights advocates have little appetite for smart-gun technology.

The protests echo what Smith & Wesson endured after it signed a landmark gun-control agreement with the Clinton administration in 2000 that called for the company to research and introduce smart guns. Boycotts of the company’s products nearly put it out of business.

Firearms manufacturers use digital technology to make guns safer.

“The minute you touch guns, you are going to get a huge response from the gun lobby,” said John Rosenthal, the founder of Stop Handgun Violence, a Boston area organization advocating for smart guns. “The concern of the gun industry is that if you personalize guns, then you are going to put a regulation on an industry that has none.”

Oak Tree executives did not respond to numerous requests for comments about the backlash and why they were now denying carrying the gun. Reached by phone, Mitchell said, “Not taking any phone calls. Thanks.” Then he hung up.

Belinda Padilla, president of Armatix’s U.S. operation, described a “mind-blowing” set of events following The Post’s original story. At first, she said Oak Tree officials, who lease her an office at the facility, were “ecstatic” with the coverage, telling her they needed more guns in the store because a TV news crew was coming to film a report.

But that tone quickly changed. Padilla said Mitchell told her that he had received phone calls from gun rights groups questioning the weapon’s sale and that he had canceled the TV interview.

The National Rifle Association, a fierce opponent of smart-gun technology, did not return several requests for comment on whether it called Oak Tree. The National Shooting Sports Foundation denied calling Oak Tree.

Mitchell “was clearly distraught,” Padilla said. “I told him, ‘It’s going to be okay. You’re doing the right thing.’ Then it just got worse.”

Padilla, whose company has a federal firearms license registered to Oak Tree’s address, soon discovered that Armatix hats and other merchandise were put away. The special firing range that she and Oak Tree outfitted, painted blue with a large Armatix sign, was repainted. When she took a client to buy the gun at the store, she was told there were “computer glitches.”

Although she said she is “disappointed, to say the least,” about Oak Tree’s reaction, Padilla also said she felt bad for Mitchell.

“It’s sad, because at the end of the day, he was trying to do something good, which is provide choice for those people that want safety,” Padilla said.

But many customers and gun rights advocates do not see it that way. Even though many smart-gun proponents, including the Silicon Valley group offering the $1 million prize, say the market should decide whether the technology is accepted, a fear of mandates looms.

“People have a reasonable suspicion that anti-gun governments will work toward mandating this unproven technology,” said Brandon Combs, president of the California Association of Federal Firearms Licensees, a Second Amendment advocacy group. Gun owners, he said, find it “purely offensive.”

And many Oak Tree customers have loudly made that known.

David Simantob, a member of the gun range, said in an e-mail: “Oak Tree’s association with Arm­atix the last year was never satisfactorily explained, and their recent back pedaling trying to explain it away has unfortunately created an even bigger problem for those of us who care about our Second Amendment rights.”

Michael Rosenwald is a reporter on the Post's local enterprise team. He writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture.
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