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The Business of Guns

Inside a Rabbi’s Plan to Get Cops to Make Smart Guns Kosher

Smart guns have been in development for decades, but the technology still has to overcome extreme skepticism from gun buyers—and law enforcement may be the key.

On May 21, several dozen officers from 10 New York–area law-enforcement agencies converged on the New Rochelle Police Department’s gun range for a small gun show highlighting some of the latest developments in firearms tech. As the officers took turns with a prototype shotgun developed by a scion of the Mossberg gun-making family, the show’s organizer looked on from the back of the range, bemused. Rabbi Joel Mosbacher of Mahwah, New Jersey, is not your typical gun impresario or champion of police firepower: In fact, he ended up putting this event together after years as an anti-gun-violence activist. “I thought I’d be making matches as a rabbi,” Mosbacher said later. “Just not between gun companies and police departments.”

Mosbacher convened the officers in New Rochelle to demonstrate not just any kind of guns, but specifically smart guns — so called for the safety measures that limit who can actually fire them. It was the first event of what he and his fellow activists hope will be an ongoing series organized for police departments around the country.

Advocates of smart guns see them as a way to reduce gun violence by making firearms harder for unauthorized individuals to use and for criminals to obtain. But smart guns have long been hard-to-find novelties, spurned by firearm enthusiasts and ignored by larger gunmakers for lack of demand. Mosbacher and his colleagues, disappointed by the failure of legislative action on gun violence after Newtown, decided to try popularizing smart-gun technology with police instead of contending with gridlocked legislatures and skeptical civilians. It’s a tried-and-true approach: Many of the biggest names in the civilian handgun market, like Glock and Smith & Wesson, first established their bona fides as cop guns. The activists’ hope is that once enough police express interest in smart guns, manufacturing will be spurred by demand from large municipal buyers, and eventually the gun-buying public will warm to these products.

Smart guns have been in development for decades, but the technology still has to overcome skepticism from many gun buyers. In 1975 the Magna-Trigger arrived, but the fact that it discharged only when the owner wore a magnetic ring on the firing hand raised doubts about its suitability for home defense: What if a spouse was in need of the gun while alone, without his or her ring-wearing partner? The ’90s brought models that were more technologically sophisticated  — utilizing fingerprint sensors on the grip, for example, or RFID transponders in bracelets that allowed the gun to fire only when close enough to the radio signal — but no less quickly dismissed. “How long would it be before the first ‘gangland geek’ came up with a device that would block the transponder of any nearby officer (or armed citizen), rendering the good guy’s weapon inoperable?” wrote internationally known firearms instructor Massad Ayoob in a 2000 Guns Magazine article.

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But the biggest reason the new technologies raised concern among gun enthusiasts was because of smart guns’ most enthusiastic boosters: politicians and activists trying to reduce gun violence. In the wake of Columbine, Andrew Cuomo, then HUD secretary, brokered a deal with Smith & Wesson to get it to invest more in research and safety, including smart guns. The agreement backfired as Smith & Wesson became an industry pariah for doing Democrats’ bidding, and other companies considering similar deals reversed course.

More recently, smart guns have been stymied by a 2002 New Jersey law that would actually require such technology in all guns sold in the state as soon as it was commercially available. Ever fearful of a “slippery slope” toward more government regulation, gun advocates around the country have directed vitriol toward stores carrying smart guns: California’s Oak Tree Gun Club, for example, drew their ire after stocking the Armatix iP1, a $1,800 futuristic-looking German-made .22-caliber pistol, because the gun’s availability in California could trigger enforcement of the New Jersey law. The New Jersey attorney general actually ruled that the iP1 does not, strictly speaking, meet the law’s standard for a perfectly personalized firearm, but that little-noticed determination hasn’t eased passionate gun advocates’ hatred of the weapon.

That’s why Mosbacher and his colleagues, operating through a national coalition of religious groups and community organizations called Metro IAF, are trying to generate market demand instead of government mandates. So far, manufacturers have been more receptive to this approach.

“I’m dead set against any kind of mandate,” says Jonathan Mossberg, founder of iGun Technology Corp., which made the shotgun prototype demonstrated at the New Rochelle event. A member of the family long famed for its shotguns and hunting rifles, Mossberg came to the smart-gun world in the ’90s. He initially worked on a magnetic version, but it went nowhere and was quickly abandoned. Soon thereafter he read about the death of British publisher Robert Maxwell, who fell off a yacht late at night and was confirmed dead only when his body washed ashore; the story prompted Mossberg to look into RFID-tag technology as a means of automatically stopping a boat if someone goes missing. While the market for mogul-overboard systems ultimately proved niche, Mossberg realized the same technology could improve his smart gun. But “people didn’t have faith in the technology” back then, he says. “They didn’t want a circuit board in their gun.”

While Americans today have become accustomed to computers in every aspect of their lives, Mossberg remains measured in his outlook for smart guns. He foresees a market for very specific uses: school police, who have been known to misplace loaded weapons only to have them found by students, and prison guards. He is less optimistic that cops on the beat will be using his weapons — though he did note that 10 percent of officers killed in the line of duty had their own gun turned against them.

It’s hard to gauge the true market potential of smart guns for police. Mossberg says when he and Robert McNamara, founder of the similar RFID-based TriggerSmart, brought their products to New Rochelle, they found that “the people didn’t know this existed!” The officers who tried the iGun and TriggerSmart were full of questions: What would happen if an officer was shot in the hand wearing the RFID transmitter? Or the weapon left an officer’s hand during an altercation and was recovered by a partner — could the partner use the weapon? But most important to the officers was whether the technology could be integrated into a standard pistol sidearm instead of the less frequently used shotgun.

Making smart handguns isn’t difficult in and of itself. The challenge is forming strategic partnerships with larger gun companies to produce the volume of firearms that police departments would require. McNamara recounted a discussion with one gunmaker that hit a dead end when the latter said, “Show me a purchase order. Until we see that someone wants 1,000 of these …” Companies like iGun and TriggerSmart face a catch-22: Without larger partners to provide capital to get smart guns to market quickly, they’ll have trouble raising awareness of their product, but until there’s more awareness of smart guns among police, potential partners aren’t interested.

That’s where Mosbacher and members of the Metro IAF campaign Do Not Stand Idly By can lend a hand. In addition to organizing the New Rochelle event, they’ve met with state and local politicians as well as police chiefs to educate them about smart guns and, more importantly, to ask them to sign a letter to gun manufacturers requesting information on their smart-gun offerings. So far, representatives from 73 jurisdictions have signed, from the head of suburban New Rochelle’s police force to the governor of Connecticut to the mayor of Atlanta.

Among the most recent signees is Gregory Austin, chief of police for Rye Brook, New York, who attended the New Rochelle gun fair and came away impressed — especially with the iGun, the only fully working prototype available. Such a weapon, he said, could ease the mental and emotional strain of police work. “You worry about your weapon all the time, when you’re working or not working,” he explained. “You’ve got to make sure you retain it. We work on that from the first day in the police academy.” Still, Austin felt he’d need to see “100 percent reliability” before actually ordering smart guns. Plus, for his officers to hit the beat with smart guns, they would have to undergo extensive field testing of the sort beyond the resources of Rye Brook.

Ultimately, it will take interest from big-city or state police forces to nudge the smart gun from prototype to mass-produced product, which is why Metro IAF has made sign-ons from such jurisdictions a priority. In particular, it’s targeted New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio: Joe Morris, an organizer who’s worked with Mosbacher on the campaign, recently coauthored an op-ed in the New York Daily News calling on de Blasio to make good on the interest in smart guns he displayed as a candidate in 2013. The organization is also thinking big in planning future smart-gun fairs, which could include an expo this fall in Chicago — where, as it happens, the International Association of Chiefs of Police will be meeting at about the same time.

[Photo: Flickr user katie chao and ben muessig]