LAS VEGAS, NEVADA — The debate over integrating electronic locks into firearms is raging once again.
As a handful of new startups vie to bring a product to market first to media fanfare, one of them tried to wrangle distributors and retailers at the gun industry’s trade show in Las Vegas, Nevada this week. SmartGunz attempted to overcome a strong industry distrust of the products stemming from both mechanical and political concerns. The company’s appearance at SHOT Show 2022 marks a new era in the fight over “smart guns.”
“We believe there are consumers out there both in law enforcement and civilians that are going to welcome us with open arms,” Tom Holland, a Smartgunz co-founder, told The Reload. “I mean, we’re just providing an option.”
If the company or one of its competitors can bring a reliable “smart gun” to market, advocates argue it could reduce unauthorized access to firearms which will lead to fewer gun murders and suicides. Critics note the guns are inherently less reliable than traditional models and worry their introduction could reignite efforts to force Americans to purchase them.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, which hosts SHOT Show, said it is open to the development of “smart guns” but firmly opposes any government effort to force dealers to carry them or Americans to buy them.
“The concern is mandates surrounding the technology,” Mark Oliva, a spokesperson for the group, told The Reload. “We oppose mandates that would require this technology to be applied to firearms sold in the marketplace or would require firearm retailers to include firearms equipped with this technology.”
Those concerns stem from a history of gun-control advocates attempting to force the sale of guns with electronic locks or even GPS trackers. The Clinton Administration pressured Smith & Wesson into a deal where they would produce the products in exchange for liability protection against lawsuits over the criminal use of firearms. After backlash from the industry and consumers prompted the company to walk away, the deal fell through. Still, the idea of mandating “smart guns” lived on through the Obama Administration and President Joe Biden currently wants to require only “smart guns” be allowed for sale in the United States.
“Biden believes we should work to eventually require that 100% of firearms sold in the U.S. are smart guns. But, right now the NRA and gun manufacturers are bullying firearms dealers who try to sell these guns,” his campaign website said. “Biden will stand up against these bullying tactics and issue a call to action for gun manufacturers, dealers, and other public and private entities to take steps to accelerate our transition to smart guns.”
New Jersey has been especially aggressive. In 2000, the state passed a law requiring that once “smart handguns” are sold anywhere in the country, they will be the only handguns legal to sell in New Jersey. The specter of the Jersey ban has hung over the “smart gun” debate in America ever since, resulting in fierce opposition to any attempt to bring the devices to market.
“That New Jersey law was disastrous,” Holland said. “Our gun is presented as another option. That’s all it is.”
In 2019, New Jersey rescinded that requirement in favor of requiring dealers to sell them alongside traditional firearms. That may open up more of a window for companies like Smartgunz to offer the devices. However, Oliva said requiring dealers to stock “smart guns” with no evidence of demand is unacceptable.
“NSSF does not oppose the development of the technology but believes the marketplace should decide if this technology is truly ready for market,” he said. “If the customer demand is there, that should drive the decisions by firearm retailers to provide that to their customers.”
He also questioned the reliability of the currently-proposed designs and argued they’d been tried unsuccessfully in the past.
“We have seen iterations of this technology with claims that is ready for market, only to be proven that, in fact, it wasn’t,” Oliva said. “Firearms are tools that are used in the defense of someone’s life and must work as designed each and every time. There is no room for failure. Good engineering eliminates points of failure, and this type of technology introduces several points of failure that could be of concern, including security and electronic reliability. Additionally, there are liability concerns that if this technology would be required to be added, manufacturers could be held responsible for the technology not working when it is needed in a life and death situation.”
He noted safes are widely available, and gun locks are given out to consumers by the industry with every new firearm. He said the low-cost options are as good or better than many of the technologies utilized by “smart guns.”
However, biometric and radio-frequency locks have been implemented into gun safes commonly available on the market today. And some consumers prefer them.
The Smartgunz prototype pistol uses a battery-operated radio frequency reader integrated into its right grip panel to read a personalized signature emitted by a ring to unlock the gun and allow it to fire. The reader only turns on while the grip safety is depressed. That’s designed to preserve the life of the batteries integrated into the magazine’s baseplate–a strategy Holland said enables the gun to go for days or even weeks without charging.
The system is designed to ensure only an authorized user wearing a ring that is paired with the gun can fire it. However, the prototype on display at SHOT Show was not fully functional, and The Reload was not allowed to manipulate it. Holland said the company plans to post a demonstration video of the gun working to its website next month.
While “smart guns” may not be suitable for everyone, Holland believes there are circumstances where a gun like his could be appealing.
“We’re presenting this as an option to gun consumers,” he said. “This is in no way intended to compete against traditional firearm markets. My kids are out of my house now. I have traditional firearms in my home because I’m not concerned about a child getting into them. But, before, when my wife and I were raising her family, we didn’t want to have firearms in the house, at least not handguns, where little hands could get at them.”
He said there are several scenarios where law enforcement agencies might find them advantageous as well. He said some have already requested the guns and noted the company will start shipping to them next month, though he did not identify those agencies.
“We have identified specific use cases or situations where law enforcement has said we see value in the smart technology,” Holland said. “We’re not trying to replace a force’s Glocks or Sigs or Berettas. But, there are some specific instances like, say, for prisoner transfer transport situations, undercover agents’ work, security checkpoint crowd control. In all three of those situations, you’re going to either see a prisoner or somebody purposely trying to grab a weapon away from an officer or a third-party transporter and then turn and use that gun against those folks.”
The company plans to make the pistol available to consumers directly through its website two months later at just under $2,200. It hopes law enforcement officers’ experience with them will help identify any bugs and provide confidence for consumers.
“Law enforcement is also a way that we’ll validate to our consumer market because we’ve got purchases from them already,” Holland said. “They’re doing a proprietary evaluation, giving us feedback that we used to harden our product before we ship it out. It also tells consumers that ‘hey, if law enforcement feels comfortable enough with this technology, it’s good enough for me too.'”
Holland, a Democrat who currently serves in the Kansas State Senate, is bound to face intense skepticism from many gun owners and gun-rights activists alike over his political history. He received a zero percent rating from the National Rifle Association in 2020 and supported a 2016 bill allowing college campuses to ban concealed carry. However, he hasn’t dealt with “smart guns” as a politician and argued his gun company is not connected to his time in the statehouse.
“I’m a small business owner,” Holland said. “I am a serial entrepreneur. I run four different businesses, and I was a businessman long before I ever got into politics. This has nothing to do with politics.”
Holland said he understands he won’t be able to convince everyone of the technology or his intentions, but he believes there are Americans who want “smart guns.”
“Certain people are always gonna be skeptical no matter what you do,” Holland said. “And to the extent that I share information freely and let them know this is not threatening, that’s all I can do. My focus is on this whole other group of consumers who are now becoming comfortable with this technology. I mean, consumers today have smartphones; they have smart appliances. This is just another application of technology to be a smart gun. At the end of the day, for consumers, does it make sense? If it does, great. If it doesn’t, so be it. That’s our approach.”
Time will tell if that approach pays off.