The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Smart guns

Placeholder while article actions load

“Smart guns” have been in the news recently. A gun store owner in Maryland abandoned plans to begin selling a German-made “smart gun” after protests–some of which included death threats. Such threats are crimes, and ought to be prosecuted, if the perpetrators can be identified.  However, lawful threats, such as boycotts, seem likely to deter gun stores from selling the product. Gun owner boycotts and the risk of such boycotts have historically a very powerful check on the actions of firearms businesses. A firearms business which is perceived as anti-Second Amendment is not going to stay in business very long.

Why the consumer backlash against the smart gun, which is also called a “personalized gun”? The answer can be found in a 2003 New Jersey law: N.J. Stats. sect. 2C:58–2.2 et seq. According to this statute, once “at least one manufacturer has delivered at least one production model of a personalized handgun to a registered or licensed wholesale or retail dealer in New Jersey or any other state,” a process in set in motion which, within 29 months or less, will outlaw the sale of all ordinary handguns in New Jersey. So Second Amendment supporters are certainly correct, in my view, to make it clear that they will boycott any store or wholesaler which carries a smart handgun, since such an action would trigger a handgun ban in New Jersey. Counting on courts to solve the problem would be reckless, especially given the Third Circuit’s poor record on right to carry litigation.

For nearly two decades, various governments have been dispensing corporate welfare in order to develop a “smart gun”–that is, a gun that can only be fired by the authorized user. The results so far have been meager. There is an inherent difficulty in making a computer chip, which is supposed to read a radio wave, a palmprint, or some other identifier, function with perfect reliability in an environment a few inches from frequent gunpowder explosions, along with gasses and particles of lead debris.

Persons who own firearms for self-defense (the core of the Second Amendment, according to Heller) would be especially wary, since a gun which works 99.5% of the time is not sufficiently reliable for self-defense. Most people who have experience with fingerprint readers, magnetic key cards, etc., know that these devices are often convenient, but they are not reliable enough to bet one’s life on them. This is one reason why there has been zero adoption of personalized guns by law enforcement, even though the initial impetus for personalized gun research was for law enforcement use. Indeed, the New Jersey law exempts law enforcement; the exemption is an admission that personalized guns are insufficiently reliable for lawful defense of self and others. A recent article on the website of American Rifleman (a NRA member publication) details some potential problems with hacking or jamming of computer-dependent guns.

That said, there is a legitimate market for personalized guns. People who own firearms purely for recreation (such as plinking at soda bottles) might not care too much if the gun does not always activate when it is supposed to. Such people might prefer the additional layer of security offered by a smart gun. Of course this security is somewhat short-term; if the gun is stolen, there are a variety of ways for the thief to deactivate the gun’s personalization, but these measures would take at least some time.

However, my hypothesis that there is a potential market is contradicted by actual consumer behavior. The New Jersey statute does not apply to long guns, so the only consumer resistance to smart long guns has been that consumers do not want them. Nobody has manufactured a smart long gun which had success in the American market.

Even so, repeal of the New Jersey statute would remove a major barrier to the introduction of smart handguns into the U.S. market. Given the current state of the technology, the number of such guns sold would be minuscule. In Europe, such guns exist, but they are uncommon and expensive. But if a few people want them, that’s their choice (as long as their choice doesn’t harm other people, which it does as long as the New Jersey statute is on the books).

More information about smart guns is available in my article Smart Guns/Foolish Legislators, Finding the Right Public Safety Laws, and Avoiding the Wrong Ones, 34 Connecticut L. Rev. 157 (2001). My co-authors on the article were Cynthia Leonardatos (FBI agent, and a former student of mine at NYU) and Dr. Paul Blackman (now retired from his position as Research Coordinator at NRA, and a frequent co-author of mine before his retirement). Of course nothing in the article represents the official position of either organization. Advocacy for smart guns can be found in the chapter by Stephen P. Teret & Adam D. Mernit in the 2013 book Reducing Gun Violence. A 2013 monograph from the National Institute of Justice, titled A Review of Gun Safety Technologies, details the various subsidies and programs which have attempted to develop commercially viable smart guns over the past decades.