The Washington Post

Maryland dealer, under pressure from gun-rights activists, drops plan to sell smart gun

A Rockville gun store owner who said he would sell the nation’s first smart gun — even after a California gun store removed the weapon from its shelves to placate angry gun-rights activists — backed down late Thursday night after enduring a day of protests and death threats.

Andy Raymond, the co-owner of Engage Armament, a store known for its custom assault rifles, had said earlier this week that offering the Armatix iP1 handgun was a “really tough decision” after what happened to the Oak Tree Gun Club near Los Angeles. Oak Tree was lambasted by gun owners and National Rifle Association members who fear the new technology will be mandated and will encroach on Second Amendment rights.

Electronic chips in the gun communicate with a watch that can be bought separately. The gun cannot be fired without the watch.

Oak Tree denied having anything to do with the weapon, despite pictures of the gun for sale in its shop and a special firing range built just for the weapon.

“If the same reaction happens here, we’ll be out of business,” Raymond had said in an interview. He had said he was willing to risk selling the gun because Maryland, with its strict gun-control laws, “has already essentially put us out of business.” He also believes that firearms such as Armatix’s will expand the market to people who want an ultra-safe gun.

Brutus, the shop dog at Engage Armaments, poses with the Armatix iP1, a .22 caliber smart gun that has a safety interlock along with Andy Raymond on Thursday in Rockville. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

But after hundreds of protests on his store’s Facebook page and online forums — a repeat of what Oak Tree faced — Raymond released a long video on the Facebook page saying he had received death threats and would not sell the gun. He apologized and took responsibility for the decision. He had sold none of the smart guns and would not, he said.

Earlier, Raymond had said he’s on the “right-wing vanguard of gun rights” but is vehemently opposed to gun rights activists arguing against the idea of a smart gun — or any gun.

“To me that is so fricking hypocritical,” Raymond had said. “That’s the antithesis of everything that we pro-gun, pro-Second Amendment people should be. You are not supposed to say a gun should be prohibited. Then you are being no different than the anti-gun people who say an AR-15 should be prohibited.”

After The Washington Post reported on Oak Tree in February, gun enthusiasts expressed their displeasure on Maryland Shooters, an online forum.

“Someone needs to make an iPhone app to jam” the technology on smart guns, one poster wrote. “Anyone who was even considering buying one would not if anyone with a smart phone could jam their gun. That should kill the market for them.”

Another wrote: “My watch has a dead battery . . . do I die in a gun fight?”

Besides reliability in the face of danger, the opponents’ most pressing fear is that sales of the iP1 will trigger a New Jersey law mandating that all handguns in the state be personalized within three years of a smart gun’s going on sale anywhere in the United States. Similar proposals have been introduced in California and Congress.

Raymond said he didn’t want the law to kick in and didn’t think he’d be responsible if it did, because Oak Tree already had the gun for sale. He said the law was not his problem or Armatix’s.

“This is not Armatix screwing over the people of New Jersey,” he said. “It’s the legislature screwing over the people of New Jersey. Bushmaster didn’t screw over the people of Newtown. Adam Lanza did. It’s just disgusting to me to see pro-gun people acting like anti-gunners. What is free if it’s not choice?”

But in his video Thursday, he apologized to the people of New Jersey.

The demand for smart guns is subject to debate. Gun rights advocates, including the National Shooting Sports Foundation, say there seems to be little desire for such weapons at the moment. They point to a survey the group commissioned last year showing that 14 percent of Americans would consider buying a smart gun.

“We think the market should decide,” Lawrence G. Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, told The Post this year.

Gun-control advocates believe that smart guns could reduce gun violence, suicides and accidental shootings. A dream of researchers and politicians for decades, the idea found renewed interest within the federal government following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. A group of Silicon Valley investors led by Ron Conway recently launched a $1 million contest to encourage smart-gun technology.

Numerous approaches are in development. Armatix uses RFID chips like those in anti-theft tags attached to clothing in stores. Other companies use a ring to enable the gun’s operation. Grips that recognize an owner are being tested, as are sensors to detect fingerprints and voices. The iP1, developed over a period of years by Armatix, a German firm, is the first smart gun to be marketed in the United States.

Raymond said he learned of the gun a few years ago from an Engage Armament client working as an attorney for the manufacturer. Raymond then helped the company import the gun for testing.

The ideal customer, he said, is probably a lawyer in Georgetown with a high income and young children who has been on the fence about getting a gun because of safety fears.

That’s also the kind of customer that the Violence Policy Center, which favors stronger gun regulations, worries will make his or her first gun purchase, thereby increasing the number of guns in society.

Increasing gun ownership is what Raymond said he was after in planning to sell the iP1.

“If this gets more people, especially those on the fence, to go out and enjoy their Second Amendment freedoms, to go sport shooting and realize how much fun it is, then I am all for it,” Raymond said before changing his mind. “This is really not a bad thing.”

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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