POLITICS

Here's What Happens When You Try To Make Or Sell A 'Safer' Gun

Smart guns can only be fired by authorized users. Why aren't they more popular?

When Andy Raymond, co-owner of Engage Armament in Rockville, Maryland, announced that his store would sell the Armatix iP1 smart gun, he had no idea that he, his business and even his bulldog Brutus would end up in danger.

Smart guns like the iP1 can only be fired by an authorized user -- not by a five-year-old looking to play cops and robbers, not by a thief hoping to sell it on the street, and not by an anti-government patriot hoping to water the tree of liberty with his blood and brain matter.

Raymond, a self-proclaimed "huge Second Amendment guy," thought the gun might appeal to some of his younger customers who were into consumer electronics, the Los Angeles Times’ Melissa Healy reported.

Instead, gun enthusiasts threatened to ruin his business, burn down his store and shoot his dog.

Raymond’s story is an example of how promoting scientific advances that could reduce gun violence puts politicians, researchers and even gun dealers and manufacturers at odds with the gun lobby.

Efforts to make guns safer have a long history, but opposition to them is a relatively modern phenomenon. When Smith & Wesson introduced a "child-proof" gun in 1880, the public responded enthusiastically, buying more than half a million between 1886 and 1940. But when Smith & Wesson promised to give its new guns high-tech safety features in 2000, the company faced boycotts and dropped the initiative.  

Colt, the gun manufacturer that popularized the revolver, fared worse. In 1998, the company’s CEO, Ron Stewart, sparked outrage for implying that he supported a federal gun permit system, as well as required training for gun owners. So, when the company decided to develop its own smart gun prototype, it used a bit of subterfuge. Instead of developing the prototype under Colt manufacturing, it created a separate company, "iColt" -- not the most imaginative ruse.

Gun enthusiasts got wise and called for a boycott, and the gun never made it to market. Colt filed for bankruptcy this past June. Some analysts, including Richard Feldman of the Independent Firearm Owners Association, argued that the company's support for smart guns played a major role in its demise.

Early smart guns actually did not perform well. Sandia National Laboratories, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, conducted studies in both 1996 and 2001 that determined that law enforcement could not depend on smart guns to fire when necessary. And if Engage Armament had sold the iP1 smart gun, its retail price would have been $1,800, in a market where you can buy a gun for a fraction of that price.

All of this leads one to wonder why a boycott would even be necessary. If smart gun technology is unreliable or undesirable, why not let it fail on its own?

Gun lobbyists argue that the existence of a functional smart gun anywhere might lead to a mandate for smart guns everywhere. New Jersey, for example, passed a law in 2002 that established that once a smart gun was available for sale anywhere in the United States, all new hand guns in New Jersey three years thereafter must be smart guns.

The gun lobby has worked tirelessly to ensure that the market for guns is freer than most others, and state laws have played a key role in expanding those freedoms. Americans can buy guns, used or new, from licensed dealers and individuals, and from big box retailers or mom-and-pop shops. Only two states, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, mandate regular inspections of gun dealers, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission has no authority when it comes to firearms. A growing number of states now allow gun owners to carry concealed weapons in public places. In 1977, about one-fifth of states treated concealed carry favorably. Today, four-fifths of states do.

Recent assessments of smart gun technology have been promising. In 2013, the Justice Department found at least three models to be ready for commercial use. To the gun lobby, this is a problem -- not because it will trigger a government crackdown and a mandate against gun ownership, but because it might spark consumer demand or cooperation between the government, gun manufacturers and retailers.

After promoting the iP1 for less than 24 hours, Raymond removed it from his store's offerings and recorded a video (he’s since taken it down) that was simultaneously angry and apologetic. He speaks like a man who has suddenly awoken in another country and been deemed a traitor.

“If someone wants to buy a smart gun, that is fine, that is their right” he said. “When the law legislates it, that is a sin, that’s god-awful.”

Ultimately, though, Raymond told the Times he would rather be shot by a smart gun than try to sell another one. 

Shawn Hamilton is a New Jersey-based writer and filmmaker. He is currently producing a documentary called "Game Theory," which takes a critical look at college sports. He blogs at Dueling Interests.com and tweets @duelinginterest. He has also contributed to Salon.com, The Baffler, and The Society for U.S. Intellectual History.

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