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Smart Gun Technology and the Potential to Save Lives

By Elisabeth J. Ryan

In the 1970s, a California man designed a magnetic lock that could be installed in the revolvers used by law enforcement, rendering the gun inoperable unless the user was wearing a special ring with an opposing magnet.  This device, designed so that someone who grabbed a police officer’s gun would not be able to turn that gun back on the officer, represented the first “smart gun” technology (and can still be purchased today for a mere $420). Beginning in the 1990s, technology entrepreneurs and even gun manufacturers began to develop more sophisticated firearm technology designed to “prevent shootings, both intentional and unintentional, by children, thieves, and other unauthorized users.” But developers faced vehement opposition, not from anti-gun activists pursuing a once-vocal push for individual disarmament but from very loud and very angry gun rights activists. Technology development withered.  Both Colt and Smith & Wesson abandoned federal grants for such projects after suffering a “revenue-crushing boycott” from their customers because of the research. Of course, the mere fact that the federal government administered such grants led some to question whether the money for public safety technology improvement was really “a smoke screen to eventually take all handguns that are not smart guns out of the hands of law-abiding U.S. citizens...”  

Fifteen years and more than half a million American gun deaths later, the owner of Maryland gun shop “Engage Armament” planned to offer the Armatix iP1 for sale in 2014. This particular model looks a little sleek and futuristic, but otherwise seems like any other basic .22 LR caliber handgun with a 10 round magazine. But unlike all the other handguns on the Engage Armament shelves in May of 2014, the Armatix iP1 comes with a wristwatch. And unless the person who handles that firearm also wears the accompanying wristwatch, the weapon will not fire. The Armatix iP1 represents the first retail-ready “smart gun,” a term used to describe “firearms equipped with small embedded computers that are supposed to enhance safety by preventing anyone other than authorized parties from firing the weapons and, in some cases, by ensuring that the guns only fire when aimed at inanimate targets.” Engage Armament’s owner, Andy Raymond, thought that selling the Armatix “smart gun” would expand the firearms market to people otherwise unwilling to own or handle conventional guns.  He called the ideal new customer “a lawyer in Georgetown with a high income and young children who has been on the fence about getting a gun because of safety fears.” But before he could even stock the German pistol for sale, protesters bombarded his shop with complaints and even death threats. A California shop also endured a “furious backlash” when it (briefly) put Armatix models on its shelves. Both shops quickly reneged on their initial plans to sell Armatix guns.  

The fear that “smart guns” will replace all conventional handguns is actually somewhat based in reality.  In 2002, New Jersey passed the “Childproof Handgun Law,” which required that the state Attorney General determine annually whether “personalized handguns” are available for retail sales purposes… [meaning that] at least one manufacturer has delivered at least one production model of a personalized handgun to a registered or licensed wholesale or retail dealer in New Jersey or any other state.” And 2.5 years after that determination, New Jersey must prohibit the sale or transfer of any handgun other than a “personalized handgun or an antique handgun.” Originally, lawmakers intended to further “the development of personalized handgun technology and reduce[] preventable gun deaths.” But in 2002, “smart guns” were merely a conception, the niche of a small number of tech companies; in 2014, they were a reality.  And with that reality has come the heightened intense criticism.  Suddenly, this obscure state law was being viewed as an apparent “gun control push.” Curiously, the New Jersey AG has declared that the Armatix iP1 does not fit the law’s definition of a “personalized gun,” so its sale would not trigger the prohibitive law. 

Loretta Weinberg, the New Jersey state senator who sponsored the Childproof Handgun Law, now concedes that it has hindered rather than encouraged the development of “smart gun” technology. In 2014, Senator Weinberg offered to repeal the mandate if the National Rifle Association publicly agreed “not to stand in the way of the technology.” And though it didn’t happen immediately, the NRA has officially stated that it “doesn’t oppose the development of ‘smart’ guns...[but] opposes any law prohibiting Americans from acquiring or possessing firearms that don’t possess ‘smart’ gun technology.” True to her word, now-State Senate Majority Leader Weinberg filed a bill that removed the provision mandating “smart gun” sales only and instead mandated every dealer in the state to stock smart guns (once available) as part of their inventory. And though the bill passed both houses of the state legislature, Governor Chris Christie issued a “pocket veto” in January of 2016 by refusing to sign it. Though not unexpected because Christie was still in the midst of a failing presidential campaign, Weinberg nonetheless called the pocket veto “a little mystifying, because…he keeps the current law on the books, which is much more stringent.”  

In December 2015, a Johns Hopkins survey showed that 60% of Americans would be willing to buy a smart gun if they were in the market for a new handgun. One former San Francisco police chief declared that he wanted his officers to be able to carry smart guns and even offered up his department as a potential pilot site for using the technology. Some estimate that the market for smart guns could be worth $1 billion. Yet despite these potentially very lucrative new markets and the New Jersey AG’s declaration that the Armatix model will not trigger the maligned law, the opposition to (or fear of) selling smart guns seems to persist.  In March 2016, I enlisted the help of friends and family across the country to contact 35 (mostly randomly selected) gun shops in California, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington state. Not a single shop reported carrying Armatix models. One shop in Oregon offered to special order it, but warned that the price was “prohibitive.” A Connecticut gun shop passionately declared that it would “NEVER carry that type of gun… [and] that there are no smart guns.” A Washington state store “basically laughed [the caller] off the phone [and] made it clear she would not be carrying anything ‘like that’ in her store.” Another major national retailer in Connecticut stated flatly that it “won’t carry smart guns.” One retailer in Virginia told the caller that Armatix fires correctly “only 3 out of ten tries” and a Pennsylvania shop called the brand a “failed pipe dream.” Yet the Massachusetts Gun Control Advisory Board* certified the Armatix iP1 as meeting the state’s stringent statutory requirements, after an approved testing lab showed that the gun fired “the first 20 rounds without a malfunction [and] fire[d]…600 rounds with not more than six malfunctions.” Massachusetts has approved the model for sale in the Commonwealth, though apparently no dealers sell it.  Most retailers contacted indicated they had never heard of Armatix.

As of April 2015, only one person in the United States seemed to be selling Armatix: Doug, located somewhere in Nebraska, proprietor of “smartgunz.com.”  He wanted to keep his website, through which he legally sold Armatix models to other federally-licensed firearms dealers in other states, separate from his “brick and mortar business” and therefore declined to disclose his last name in the press.  But within hours, the pro-gun website “The Truth About Guns” outed Doug’s real identity and the name of his small shop, while simultaneously alluding to the “negative feedback” that the prior publicly-known Armatix sellers endured.  Smartgunz.com is now defunct.

Arizona, in April 2017, passed a law intended to preemptively ban a potential (albeit non-existent) “smart gun” mandate.  The state law prohibits requiring a person to use or be subject to “electronic firearm tracking technology,” defined as a device that uses “block chain” or a similar form of technology.  The sponsor of the bill explained that “he heard at a presentation at a conference that…the best way to regulate who can own and fire a gun is ‘block chain technology,’” so he wanted to ban it.  He claims the technology can “send out notifications if an unauthorized person tries to fire the weapon…’And that’s what I’m concerned about.’” While some have speculated that block chain technology – a sort of decentralized transactional system used primarily by digital currency companies like Bitcoin – could be utilized in smart guns, there is no evidence that any such product is even in development.  The fear that “smart guns” will one day mean the death of conventional firearms is so potent that Arizona enacted a law protecting itself against a non-existent mandate to use a non-existent technology.

Smart gun technology has not yet been perfected, due no doubt in part to the almost total lack of investment in the technology.  Recently, a hacker calling himself “Plore” succeeded in exposing security vulnerabilities of the Armatix model iP1 by extending the range of the watch’s radio signal and even disabling the locking mechanism with $15 worth of magnets. He went so far as to demonstrate exactly how to disable the safety features on a YouTube video, claiming that he isn’t opposed to smart gun technology, but that “If you buy one of these weapons thinking it’ll be safer, it should be… [The Armatix gun] really failed to live up to its side of the bargain.” 

Armatix has recently developed a prototype 9mm pistol – the iP9 – that can be activated with both the wristwatch and with an app, which would work at an unspecified “longer range” than the watch.  The model also provides an alternative unlocking model: the pistol grip acts as a sort of PIN pad. An authorized user “can unlock the gun by squeezing their fingers in sequences, which will enable the weapon to be fired until the same code is re-entered to turn it off.”  The company hopes that this model, more similar to what most law enforcement agencies already carry, will convince police and consumers who may have been skeptical of reliability to try the firearm. The company recognizes that getting law enforcement on board with using smart gun technology would likely lead the way to more widespread trust and interest. The company has also learned to emphasize that its products are “not here to replace other guns.” The Armatix iP9 was expected to be on the market sometime in 2017 but has not yet appeared.

The market does have some other “smart gun” technology available.  Kodiak Industries sells the “Intelligun,” which is not an independent firearm, but “a fingerprint-based locking system” that installs on any model 1911 handgun and will “unlock the firearm for operation immediately for authorized users.” iGun Technology Corporation has developed (though does not yet sell) a shotgun that operates only in the presence of a specially-equipped ring. Yet investment in these and other smart gun technology has remained virtually non-existent, even as the rest of technology has advanced exponentially since the 1990s.  The pro-gun lobby often espouses that smart gun technology is unproven yet it also opposes investment in research that could improve the technology.

In January 2016, President Barack Obama quipped that guns should have fingerprint recognition capability if his cell phone does and ordered federal government agencies to “conduct or sponsor research on digital devices that would reduce gun accidents and unauthorized use.” Three months later, the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Defense announced a partnership with numerous law enforcement agencies at all levels of government to create “baseline specifications” to “outline…a clear description of what law enforcement expects from smart gun technology, particularly with regards to reliability, durability, and accuracy.”  By recognizing that buy-in to smart gun technology from the law enforcement community was vital to its continued existence and development, the Obama administration made a bold step towards encouraging investment in safer gun technology.  In November 2016, the National Institute of Justice released the “Baseline Specifications for Law Enforcement Service Pistols with Security Technology,” which reflected law enforcement concerns about allowing security access by more than one person, not increasing the time required to draw and fire, and defaulting to a “fireable” state if the security device malfunctions.  Undoubtedly due in large part to releasing the report at the time when the Obama administration was giving way to the Trump administration, no action has come of the reports. Some technology innovators initially expressed skepticism about whether Obama’s directive would lead to a viable market, partly because their presumptive consumer base remained so vocally hostile to the idea. Now almost two years later, their skepticism seems justified.

Despite the current dearth of financial support for the “smart gun” industry, this advancing technology could hold promise in reducing the number of gun deaths – more than 33,000 in 2014 – in the United States.  As some critics are quick to point out, smart guns obviously are not a panacea for America’s grossly disproportionate gun deaths. But with improved technology, clarified laws, and an adjusted attitude that no longer treats smart guns as a potential “Trojan horse for gun grabbers,” “smart guns” could hold the potential to reduce at least some of these appallingly high rates of gun deaths in the U.S. 

*In the interest of full disclosure, I served as counsel to the Massachusetts Gun Control Advisory Board at the time the Armatix model was approved.  I was not a voting member and have never had any financial interest in Armatix or any other related entity.