Smart Guns, Guts, and the NRA: Shoot-Out at the Massachusetts Corral

America doesn't have a gun control issue. It has an impulse control issue.

Gun control advocates came to realize that if they couldn't push legislation through Congress in the wake of Newtown and Aurora, it wasn't going to happen anytime soon.

And yet, mass killings continue to haunt the headlines with no apparent way to curtail them. Except, possibly, for one approach: so-called Smart Guns.

Smart Guns are guns that are biometrically tied to the legitimate owner, so that no one else can accidentally fire them or steal them to commit mayhem. The technology takes guns out of the wrong hands, stopping accidental shootings in the home, criminals stealing guns to commit crime, and many other forms of preventable gun violence.

The NRA sees Smart Guns as a threat to Second Amendment rights and triggered (pun intended) a boycott of Smith & Wesson, after they worked to develop a Smart Gun in conjunction with the Clinton administration. The boycott nearly destroyed the fabled gunmaker in 2000.

No state has passed a law mandating the sale of Smart Guns, even though proponents claim that the technology exists to make them work right and save innocent lives. Which brings us to the fabled Commonwealth of Massachusetts, engine of social change, as evidenced by then-Governor Romney's embrace of government healthcare.

Now entering the Smart Gun battle: Warren Tolman, a Democratic candidate for State Attorney General, locked in a tight primary campaign to be decided Tuesday, September 9. In Democrat-heavy Massachusetts, the primary winner inevitably wins the prize in the November general election.

Tolman has taken the unique position that the Massachusetts Attorney General can use the authority granted by the state's consumer protection law, Chapter 93A, to promulgate regulations that mandate Smart Gun technology on all new guns sold in the Commonwealth.

His opponents beg to differ. Tolman's Democratic challenger, Maura Healey, a Harvard grad and a former assistant attorney general, has said, "I don't see the authority for that within the office. I do think it's something that the legislature could consider." She later told a debate audience: "It is safer to do by legislation than by regulation. It makes it less vulnerable to legal challenge in court."

If Tolman wins on Tuesday, he'll face Republican John Miller in November. Miller also believes that Tolman is overreaching. "The role of the attorney general," Miller told the State House News Service, "is to enforce the state's constitution and the laws passed and enacted by the legislature and governor. It is not the role of the Attorney General to bypass either."

Tolman's stand places him in the line of fire of the NRA, which claims not to oppose Smart Gun technology but disseminates its concerns about the constitutionality and safety of such weapons in gun owner discussion forums online. The primary election -- and perhaps even the general election -- may turn on Tolman's intent to make every gun in Massachusetts a Smart Gun.

If Tolman were to succeed, and if his approach passed the inevitable legal challenges, Massachusetts could be sounding the starting gun for Smart Gun legislation across the United States. New Jersey, for example, has already passed legislation declaring that as soon as some other state takes the lead and mandates Smart Guns, the Garden State will require Smart Gun sales three years later.

John Rosenthal, a gun owner and the founder of the gun control advocacy group Stop Handgun Violence, believes Tolman's effort to mandate Smart Gun technology is crucial to saving lives.

"Smart personalized guns are the single most effective way to stop preventable gun homicides, suicides and accidents without any inconvenience to law abiding gun owners," Rosenthal said. "Gun manufacturers could make them today and we simply need leaders like Warren Tolman to require and incentive them to do so."

It's a gutsy position for Tolman to take. He has far better name recognition than Healey and a six-point lead in the polls going into Labor Day weekend. Tolman is no stranger to controversy, though, once earning the sobriquet "anti-smoking Nazi" from Rush Limbaugh for his role in passing anti-Big Tobacco legislation in the Massachusetts State House. Tolman is also the author and guiding hand behind the last major campaign finance and ethics reform law to pass in Massachusetts, all the way back in 1994.

Tolman's opponents, seizing on the Smart Gun issue, are locked and loaded. But the former state legislator doesn't seem to mind the fight.

"There were more than 11,000 gun violence deaths in this country in 2010," Tolman told me. "And an additional 20,000 gun deaths came from accidents and suicides. If we wait for the legislature to do something, we'll be waiting a long time. How many more innocent people have to die because politicians are afraid of the gun lobby? My attitude is, let's make the change right now."