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White House wants to make it easier for law enforcement to use ‘smart guns’

President Obama speaks at the White House on April 28. The administration has announced new steps to curb gun violence, mainly by helping manufacturers understand what law enforcement agencies need from so-called smart guns. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

The White House issued a set of recommendations Friday aimed at curbing the illegal use of firearms by making it easier for federal, state and local agencies to purchase “smart guns” that would function only in the hands of specified users.

The measures include a proposed rule that would allow the Social Security Administration to report beneficiaries with mental health problems to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

While seemingly modest, the proposals came under fire from some police groups and gun rights organizations even before they were publicly unveiled. But anti-gun-violence activists and administration officials described the measures as prudent steps aimed at preventing firearms from getting into the wrong hands.

Speaking to reporters Friday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that the auto industry routinely innovates to make its vehicles safer and that gun manufacturers should consider following that lead.

“I think what is true is that I couldn’t think of another industry off the top my head that isn’t interested in looking at new technology to make their product safer,” he said. “It’s surprising to me that so many gun manufacturers shirk that responsibility.”

Under the measures, the government would define requirements that gunmakers need to meet for police departments to consider purchasing.

White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said that local governments could apply for grants for guns equipped with the new technology.

Although a German company tried to introduce a smart gun into the United States two years ago, most of the technology is at the prototype stage. The guns are designed to function only when used by those authorized to fire them. Manufacturers are pursuing a variety of authorization methods, such as fingerprints and wireless chips connected to rings or watches.

Can we develop the iPhone of guns?

Proponents argue that the technology would reduce suicides and cases in which stolen guns are used in crimes or in which guns taken from police officers are used against them. They also envision fewer school shootings by students using their parents’ guns. These advocates hope the president’s actions spur development of this technology by enticing manufacturers to enter the market and expanding private funding for smart-gun start-ups. Gun rights advocates have not supported the technology, worried that once it exists the government will mandate its use.

Gun-control advocates have been working for months to get police agencies around the country to commit to adopting smart guns — to prove they work and to create a sizable demand for them.

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, who co-chairs the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation’s Do Not Stand Idly By campaign, called the new actions “real” and “well thought through.”

“And we think they will send a clear signal to gun manufacturers that the largest gun purchaser in the nation — the federal government — is in the market for smarter, safer guns,” he said.

But some law enforcement groups, including the Fraternal Order of Police, have argued that it’s irresponsible to give these firearms to law enforcement agencies when they have not been fully tested.

James O. Pasco Jr., the FOP’s executive director, said in an interview Friday that he “doesn’t know anyone who has seen” a smart gun in commercial use.

"It's a concept more than it is a technology," said Pasco, whose group has received funding from the gun industry's National Shooting Sports Foundation. "To deploy an unproven concept or technology with law enforcement, using police officers as guinea pigs, is something that causes us great concern."

Lizzie Ulmer, press secretary for the gun-control group Everytown for Gun Safety, said the technology could ultimately protect police officers from having their own guns used against them. At least 228 law enforcement officers who were killed or assaulted between 1980 and 2014 were harmed by their own firearm, according to the FBI.

As part of Friday’s announcement, Jarrett said that the Pentagon will continue to help manufacturers test smart firearms under real-world conditions at the U.S. Army Aberdeen Test Center in Maryland and that manufacturers may be eligible for cash prizes as part of the program.

For Obama, gun violence remains an emotional issue

The White House will also bring together state and local elected officials from across the country to Washington next month to explore how these leaders can use their own executive authority to control gun violence.

Winnie Stachelberg, executive vice president at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, said in a statement that these officials can “take action now — without waiting for recalcitrant legislatures — to develop smart, effective approaches to reducing gun violence and saving lives.”

The rule the Social Security Administration published Friday, which allows the agency to report mentally ill beneficiaries to the FBI’s background checks system so they can be prevented from purchasing a firearm, will be subject to public comment for 60 days.

Earlier this month, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced a bill that would require a court or judicial officer to declare someone “mentally incompetent” before the SSA could report that individual to the FBI.