Following a Reuters report touting “Smart guns finally arriving in U.S., seeking to shake up firearms market,” media coverage has exploded over the potential for new handgun prototypes to finally make ‘smart gun’ technology viable in the U.S. firearms market. But the history of the technology shows that its boosters will have to tread lightly if they want to make inroads with the gun community.
What is a ‘Smart Gun?’
The term ‘smart gun’ is generally used to refer to a firearm that restricts who can operate it by some method of individual authorization. The technology typically relies on one or more technologies to accomplish this, including magnets, radio-frequency identification, or fingerprint recognition.
Proponents of the concept see it as a way to ensure lost or stolen firearms cannot be used in crime or deadly accidents. Detractors have traditionally questioned the reliability and demand for such technology and see its promotion as a step toward governments mandating their sale in lieu of traditional firearms.
The History of ‘Smart Guns’ in the U.S.
The history of attempts to introduce ‘smart’ technology has been fraught with reliability issues and backlash toward looming government mandates.
In 2000, Smith & Wesson entered into an agreement with the Clinton Administration—in large part to avoid the liability lawsuits that plagued gun manufacturers before the passage of the PLCAA. The agreement stipulated that two percent of the company’s revenue would be dedicated to developing smart gun technology. It also mandated that the “technology will be included in all new firearm models within 36 months.”
As a result, gun owners engaged in a boycott against Smith & Wesson that nearly put the company out of business. That ended its “smart gun” efforts.
Just two years later, the state of New Jersey passed a law that added to concerns over ‘smart gun’ mandates. The Childproof Handgun Law of 2002 made it so that once ‘smart handgun’ technology became available anywhere in the U.S., no other new handgun would be legal to sell in the state.
The law has since been repealed and replaced with a 2019 law requiring all gun stores to sell and advertise ‘smart guns’ once they become available and approved by the state’s Attorney General. Though it is no longer the law, the 2002 law’s legacy still fuels mistrust among gun owners who worry that it could be repeated in other jurisdictions should ‘smart guns’ become widely available.
The Latest Models
The latest “smart gun” offerings come from the companies LodeStar Works and Smartgunz. Both claim to be coming to market this year.
Smartgunz showed off its modified 1911 pistol at SHOT Show, the gun industry’s trade show, this week. It relies on an internal lock opened by a ring that emits a specific radio frequency, according to a report from The Reload’s own Stephen Gutowski. The mechanism is powered by rechargeable batteries kept in the ammunition magazine’s baseplate.
According to Reuters, LodeStar’s handgun functions with an “integrated fingerprint reader and a near-field communication chip activated by a phone app, plus a PIN pad.” It said if the fingerprint scanner failed, the PIN pad would serve as a backup measure.
“The fingerprint reader unlocks the gun in microseconds, but since it may not work when wet or in other adverse conditions, the PIN pad is there as a backup,” the article said. “LodeStar did not demonstrate the near-field communication signal, but it would act as a secondary backup, enabling the gun as quickly as users can open the app on their phones.”
Early signs point to continued issues for “smart guns” when it comes to reliability.
Video of a LodeStar event last week raised questions. During a two-round live-fire demonstration, the pistol appears to malfunction preventing the second shot. The Smartgunz prototype available at SHOT Show was not functional and the company has not done a public demonstration at this point.
LodeStar acknowledges the fallibility of fingerprint technology, but a PIN pad is a less-than-optimal backup in a scenario in which an immediately functioning firearm is a necessity, such as in a defensive encounter. The same principle applies when requiring users to open a phone app in order to make the gun work.
Though, there may be lower-stake scenarios where guns integrated with smart locks could interest some consumers. After all, safes integrating similar biometric or radio-frequency-based technology have been available on the open market for years. They feature many of the same shortcomings but some people still buy them.
The new batch of “smart gun” companies have at least made public statements against mandates as well. Smartgunz co-founder Tom Holland told The Reload the New Jersey law was “disastrous” and his company opposed mandates.
“Our gun is presented as another option,” Holland said. “That’s all it is.”
LodeStar co-founder Gareth Glaser told Tech Xplore they “would really rather the government stay out of it and allow the consumer to make the choice.”
Still, “smart gun” makers should tread lightly as they begin to enter the market. Boosters in the media and advocacy circles should temper their expectations as well.
Until there’s definitive proof that the technology can compete with current firearms in terms of convenience, price point, and reliability, don’t expect widespread take-up among gun owners. And any attempt to mandate their ownership will only serve to sow distrust and galvanize further opposition to the technology.