On balance, Americans like freedom, choices, and guns. It would seem to follow that Americans would support a free market that gives us an array of choices among guns. Yet some gun rights advocates are pressuring gun dealers not to sell so-called smart guns, which can “recognize” their owners and can only be fired by them.
Death threats to gun dealers. This Washington Post story recounts the experience of Andy Raymond, owner of Engage Armaments in Rockville, Maryland, after he agreed to sell the Armatix iP1 smart gun. The gun is a .22 caliber semi-automatic pistol that won’t shoot unless it is in proximity to a special watch worn by the owner. If the gun is stolen, or if a child somehow obtains the gun, it won’t fire. (It also won’t fire if the watch battery is dead or the owner forgot to wear the watch that day.) The story notes that Raymond “endured an outpouring of vitriol from gun rights activists who fear the technology will be used to curtail their Second Amendment rights by limiting the kinds of guns they can buy in the future.” Vitriol is an understatement. Raymond received death threats, as he explains in a short and emotional video linked to the article. He has changed course and will not sell the gun after all. A California gun dealer previously had a similar experience.
Not a smart choice for self-defense? It’s reasonable to argue that the current crop of smart guns aren’t the best choice for self-defense, because they are complex and potentially failure-prone. This Forbes piece makes that argument well. But Raymond’s viewpoint is that the consumer should be free to choose the mix of safety features, reliability, and stopping power that he or she prefers.
Worries about New Jersey’s smart gun law. Those who oppose the sale of smart guns sometimes cite the fear that the sale of such guns will trigger – so to speak – a 2002 New Jersey law that requires all handguns sold in the state to be smart guns within about three years after such guns first become “available for retail sales.” The law is here. It defines availability to mean that “at least one manufacturer has delivered at least one production model of a [smart gun] to a registered or licensed wholesale or retail dealer in New Jersey or any other state.” The state’s Attorney General is supposed to report to the legislature and the governor every six months regarding the availability of smart guns. (According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the required reporting is not happening.) Two years after availability, the Attorney General is supposed to instruct the Superintendent of State Police to draw up a list of smart guns. The Superintendent has six months to finish the list. Six months after the list is complete, the sale of handguns other than smart guns becomes a crime.
Worries about the New Jersey law are overblown. I doubt that worries about activating the law should keep gun rights advocates, or gun dealers, up at night, for two reasons. First, the availability threshold may already have been passed. Several manufacturers either offer such guns or are on the brink of offering them, according to this Department of Justice report. At least two dealers have briefly expressed a willingness to sell smart guns, though no actual dealer sales have been reported. (Another manufacturer sells an accessory for converting guns into smart guns.) Second, whether or not the tipping point has been reached, the law, which was written before the Supreme Court’s landmark Heller and McDonald cases regarding gun rights, is likely unconstitutional.
The broader context. The general concern that the availability of smart guns will result in calls for wider adoption of the technology may be well-founded, as this Christian Science Monitor article observes. Indeed, outside the gun context, safety features once viewed as complicated, unreliable, and intrusive – like seat belts and air bags – have become mandatory and accepted. Whatever the worries, though, I doubt that the technology can be suppressed in the long run. There is a market for the guns, with between 14 and 59 percent of gun owners, depending on the survey, expressing an interest. And this is America, where we like freedom, choices, guns . . . and technology.