“Smart guns”

There’s been some more talk recently about so-called “smart guns” — personalized guns that couldn’t be fired by anyone who isn’t authorized to use them. Presumably they would check the user’s fingerprints, require the owner to wear a particular ring or some such identifying device, or use some similar technology. David has blogged about some of the legal issues involved in one current smart gun controversy, but let me step back and offer an economic perspective.

My sense is that gun manufacturers have extremely broad incentive to develop good smart gun technology if such a technology is feasible. If they aren’t developing it, that’s a pretty good sign that smart guns would either be prohibitively expensive or insufficiently reliable, at least without vast technological advances.

I say this because gun manufacturers face a rare problem: Many of their customers (the ones who aren’t gun collectors or otherwise gun enthusiasts) are going to give them nearly no repeat business. I have my Glock in my gun safe and it works just fine for me (that is to say, it would work fine if I could get it out of the safe in time, which I hope I could). It will probably work for decades if not centuries. Glock will get no more money out of me or many other people like me for a long time, precisely because it’s created such a reliable and long-lasting technology.

The only way they can sell more to people like me — people who have shown a willingness to buy guns, and therefore seem like a desirable market segment, but who have all the guns they need already — is by offering me something a lot better than the original. A gun that my kids can’t fire without my permission would qualify; I’d definitely buy it if it were affordable and reliable. I’d imagine that many gun owners who have children would do the same. Indeed, there may well be people who want to own guns but don’t own them because of their children, or because of their spouses who don’t want guns where the children might get them. They too are a part of this potential market.

Many police departments who are worried about criminals’ grabbing guns from a police officer in a scuffle — a serious problem for police officers — may want personalized guns, too. Whoever patents and develops such a workable, reliable, affordable technology (whether that’s an existing gun manufacturer, a start-up, or a company that’s in some other line of business, and whether here in the U.S. or abroad) could sell billions of dollars’ worth of guns in the span of only a few years, as many millions of gun-owning parents decide to upgrade to the safer versions.

To be sure, there is political opposition among many gun owners to smart guns, which has led some stores who abandon plans to sell some early versions. I take it the concern is that if smart guns become broadly available, ordinary guns would be banned. This is a sensible concern, partly because New Jersey already has such a law.

But while this may be something of a barrier, I think it would be very minor compared to the huge potential market that any smart gun manufacturer would be able to exploit. Maybe the manufacturer would have to avoid many existing gun stores. Maybe some gun enthusiasts would refuse to buy the guns as a matter of principle. But we’re still talking about a huge market, well worth the hassle of trying to satisfy — if you have the right product.

The trouble is that the gun has to be provably reliable. It can’t just be a .22 (as the currently talked-about gun, the Armatix iP1, seems to be). It probably can’t require that a person wear a wristwatch, since many people want a gun that they could easily fire when they are woken up in the night; sleeping wearing a wristwatch can be quite uncomfortable, and keeping the wristwatch on one’s night-stand would defeat the purpose. And it has to be fairly affordable; the reported price that I’ve seen is $1,800.

Which is all to say that, as with much technology (tablet computers, virtual reality headsets, electric cars) we can see that it’s doable, we can expect that it will at one point make it big, inventors and manufacturers have lots of incentive to make it work — but it takes time for it to develop to the point that it works for consumers.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy. Before coming to UCLA, he clerked for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the U.S. Supreme Court and for Judge Alex Kozinski on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Volokh is the author of the textbooks The First Amendment and Related Statutes (4th ed. 2011), The Religion Clauses and Related Statutes (2005), and Academic Legal Writing (4th ed. 2010), as well as over 70 law review articles. Volokh is also an Academic Affiliate for the Mayer Brown LLP law firm.
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Eugene Volokh | May 22