Threats against Maryland gun dealer raise doubts about future of smart guns

The latest skirmish over the nation’s first smart gun, marked this week by death threats against a Maryland gun dealer who wanted to sell the weapon, has raised doubts about its future and prompted some gun-control advocates to back away from legislative efforts to mandate the technology.

Engage Armament, a Rockville gun shop, endured an outpouring of vitriol from gun rights activists who fear the technology will be used to curtail their Second Amendment rights by limiting the kinds of guns they can buy in the future.

The protests echoed those against the Oak Tree Gun Club, a Los Angeles area store that offered to sell the smart gun and — like Engage Armament — quickly dropped the idea after opposition mounted. Electronic chips in the Armatix iP1 can communicate with a watch that can be bought separately. Then the gun cannot be fired without the watch.

Gun rights advocates are worried about a New Jersey law under which only smart handguns can be sold there within three years of being sold anywhere in the country. The law, they fear, will be replicated in other states. Similar proposals have been introduced in California and Congress.

On Friday, New Jersey’s Senate majority leader offered a compromise that might allay fears that smart gun technology will become a backdoor form of gun control. State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D),who sponsored the landmark 2002 law, said she would ask the legislature to drop the mandate if the National Rifle Association, a fierce critic of smart gun technology, promises not to stand in the way of the development and sale of the weapons.

“I’m willing to do this because eventually these are the kinds of guns people will want to buy,” Weinberg said.

In response to questions about Weinberg’s proposal, the NRA issued a terse statement from Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action. “The NRA is interested in a full repeal of New Jersey’s misguided law,” Cox said.

Stephen Teret, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University and smart gun proponent who helped with the New Jersey law, said “bullying” gun store owners was “reprehensible.” But he said it might be better for New Jersey to get rid of the mandate and let market forces dictate the future of smart guns.

“At the time, the New Jersey law made a great deal of sense,” he said. “But a number of things of have changed. Most importantly, the technology has improved. And number two, there’s a market demand for these kinds of guns. Given those changes, if New Jersey wants to rely on market forces instead of legislation, that’s certainly a reasonable approach.”

And given what happened in Maryland this week, it might be the only way to get the guns into buyers’ hands.

Andy Raymond, the co-owner of Engage Armament, had decided to offer the Armatix iP1 smart gun, despite the furor it had caused in California. He was fiercely opposed, he said, to banning the sale of any kind of gun and thought smart guns could expand the market for firearms to buyers concerned about safety.

But after word spread that he would sell the gun, vehement protests emerged online, with people calling him a traitor, a communist and various expletives. The protests were fueled, in part, by gun rights blogs alerting gun owners to Raymond’s plans. Although Raymond doesn’t think the NRA was behind the attacks, the organization later tweeted news that Raymond had backed down.

Belinda Padilla, chief executive of Armatix’s U.S. operations, had initially hailed Raymond for selling the weapon.

“He’s very knowledgeable about what happened in California,” she said. “But he is interested in providing a safer handgun for those that want one. He believes in the freedom of choice.” After he changed his mind, she did not respond to a request for comment.

During the blitz of calls and e-mails, someone told one of Raymond’s workers that the store wouldn’t sell the gun because there wouldn’t be a store; it would be burned down.

At another point, Raymond picked up the phone and said, “Hi, this is Andy. How can I help you?” The caller asked, “You’re the guys selling the smart gun?” Raymond tried to reason with him. But the caller said, “You’re going to get what’s coming to you, [expletive].”

Raymond took that as a death threat. Even his dog, Brutus, did not escape the vitriol.

Raymond was shaken, and late Thursday night — sitting at a table with a bottle of liquor, surrounded by assault rifles and puffing on a cigarette — Raymond recorded a video later posted to Facebook in which he vowed not sell the gun. He apologized for messing up and spoke directly to the people of New Jersey.

“I did not know I would be screwing you over,” Raymond said in the video. “I’m terribly sorry. . . . You don’t have anything to worry about from me.” He was furious about the death threats. “That’s a great thing for gun rights,” he said, “when you threaten to shoot somebody.”

At one point, he grew agitated and said that instead of shooting him, people should shoot the politicians who restrict gun rights. He took the video down from his store’s Facebook page Friday.

After finishing the video, Raymond feared what would happen to the store if he left. He slept there until until 3 a.m., then went home and returned at 6 a.m. to stand guard.

“I thought what I was doing was right,” he said. “I didn’t want my shop burned down.”

Raymond did receieve messages of support, with many people commenting online that it should be a buyer’s choice. Some gun owners denounced calls for violence against him.

“I have no doubt that the people who threatened Andy were gun owners,” someone wrote on MdShooters.com, an online forum. “People often say ‘We are all on the same side.’ No we are not. Only a complete idiot who hasn’t been around gun people would say such a moronic thing. Andy is seeing the real side of a section of gun owners.”

Meanwhile, gun-control advocates such as Teret were clearly disappointed and frustrated that protest had caused another potential seller to back off. Advocates think the technology will reduce gun violence, suicides and accidental shootings. While Armatix uses a watch to enable users to fire its smart gun, other companies are trying rings, grips, fingerprints and even voice recogintion.

“It makes no sense to me why gun rights people would say certain types of guns shouldn’t be purchased,” Teret said.

That was Raymond’s reasoning, too. And then the wrath unfolded. Told about the idea of doing away with the New Jersey mandate, Raymond said, “Well, yeah, that would be great.”

“But we still won’t carry it,” he said. “I just can’t.”

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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