The Armatix iP1 pistol, which uses a watch to activate the gun. (Photo by Sebastian Widmann for The Washington Post)

Proponents of smart guns say President Obama’s executive action on gun control, which includes a directive for the government to research and potentially buy the controversial firearms, is the breakthrough they’ve been waiting for.

“I think this is the biggest advancement in personalized handgun policy to have taken place ever,” said Stephen Teret, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University who has been researching and advocating for the technology since the early 1990s.

The idea behind smart guns is that only an authorized person can fire them. Proponents say this would cut down on suicides, stolen guns used in crimes, guns taken from police officers and used against them, and school shootings where students use their parents’ guns.

Researchers and startups are developing multiple ways to authorize users, ranging from fingerprints to wireless chips connected to rings or watches.

At an emotional press conference on Tuesday, Obama compared the technology to the fingerprint scanners that unlock cell phones, asking why the same thing couldn’t be used for guns. But critics of the technology will likely argue there’s a hole in that logic: phones aren’t made for self-defense and, unlike guns, it’s okay if you have to try a couple times to unlock them.

And the technology has not taken off in  the marketplace. Some gun owners are leery about whether the technology works. Gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association, fear the guns will be mandated.

The debate has been heated.

When Armatix, a German startup, tried to introduce its watch-authorized handgun in the United States two years ago, it was met with vehement protests, including threats to burn down a Maryland store that agreed to carry it. Protesters feared it would trigger a New Jersey law mandating all guns sold in the state be smart guns.

This video, created by Armatix for its customers, demonstrates how the gun works with a watch, and what different alerts mean. (Armatix via YouTube)

New Jersey lawmakers are close to repealing the mandate, prompting a renewed push. Smart gun proponents have been trying to convince law enforcement groups to embrace the technology, which would provide a financial boost to startups, potentially get big gun makers interested, and convince consumers the guns work.

Now smart gun backers have potentially found the biggest customer of them all: the federal government.

Obama has instructed the Defense Department, the Justice Department and Homeland Security “to conduct or sponsor research into gun safety technology” as well as “review the availability of smart gun technology on a regular basis, and to explore potential ways to further its use and development to more broadly improve gun safety.”

While formally announcing executive orders on gun control on Jan. 5, President Obama said that, "Second Amendment rights are important, but so are other rights" such as freedom of religion and freedom of assembly. (Associated Press)

Lawrence G. Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said his organization wasn’t opposed to the research. But it is opposed to mandates for purchases — either for citizens or government agencies.

Robert McNamara, whose Ireland-based company TriggerSmart has been working on technology to control guns with a ring, is also opposed to mandates. Obama’s move, he said, “finally looks like some investment in smart guns.”

“The gun makers are slow but I expect they will see the commercial opportunity and bring the NRA along with them,” he added.

Gun control advocates have been pushing Obama on smart guns. Late last year, a group connected to the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, made up of citizens and faith leaders, sent a letter to President Obama urging him to raise $20 million for developing smart guns before he raises money for his presidential library and foundation.

The foundation’s leaders were thrilled with Obama’s announcement.

“By signaling to manufacturers that the federal government is in the market for smart guns, this action will create powerful incentives for responsible conduct by gun manufacturers,” said New Jersey rabbi Joel Mosbacher, an official with the group.

Teret, the Johns Hopkins researcher, thinks venture capitalists will also be willing to back smart gun startups now.

“This announcement is like a stick of dynamite in the log jam,” he said.