On January 5, President Barack Obama unveiled an executive action instructing the Departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security to research smart gun technology. The president’s directive is a bid to overcome resistance in the private sector, where development of the technology has been severely stymied in recent years, mostly as the unintended result a decade-old New Jersey law that enraged gun rights advocates and paralyzed the marketplace.

Earlier this month, state lawmakers in Trenton passed legislation that would reform the existing measure in the hopes of easing the roadblocks it inadvertently created. Governor Chris Christie had until noon today to sign the fix into law before bills from the last legislative session expired. Once willing to risk the ire of pro-gun voters, Christie has increasingly sought their approval as he campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination. And so the deadline came and went without his signature. A press release from Christie’s office confirmed that though he was in the state capital to sign almost 100 other last-minute bills, he pocket vetoed the smart gun reform.

Smart guns are firearms with safety measures that ensure only designated users can fire them. Versions like the Armatix iP1, the best-known model, will only fire when an RFID bracelet is near the weapon. Other prototypes use fingerprint readers. The New Jersey bill, which was sent to Christie’s desk on January 11, the second-to-last day of the legislative session, would have revised a controversial 2002 law that required gun dealers in the state to stock only smart guns three years after such weapons became commercially available. The new bill would have instead mandated that gun dealers stock at least one smart gun alongside conventional firearms. State Senator Loretta Weinberg authored both the original legislation and the more recent tweak. She said she hoped the bill will “spur the technology.”

Weinberg will have to try again in the next two-year legislative session. Christie also allowed another gun bill to expire, one that would have prohibited those convicted of carjacking, gang criminality, racketeering, or making terroristic threats from purchasing a firearm.

New Jersey’s original smartgun law arguably did more to set the technology back than it did to popularize it. Gun rights activists around the country fed a backlash against the weapons, protesting those gun stores who considered stocking guns like the Armatix, which could have triggered New Jersey’s law. One Maryland gun store took the Armatix off shelves after its owner was barraged by death threats.

The New Jersey Attorney General later ruled the Armatix did not actually qualify as a smart gun under the law, but the ruling did not improve Armatix’s popularity with gun owners — which is why Christie’s decision to pocket veto the new bill will seriously restrict smart guns’ prospects beyond the Garden State.

Joelle Farrell, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, blamed the legislature’s timing for the bill’s demise. In a statement to The Trace, Farrell said the governor’s office had “nothing on the specific rationale for [the veto of] this bill other than with respect to the pocket veto period in general: Having the legislature pass more than 100 bills in such a hasty and scrambled way, praying for them to be rubber stamped, is never a good formula for effectively doing public business.”

Rutgers political scientist John Weingart sees a different rationale in the move by Christie, who needs to assert his Republican principles if he hopes to see his White House candidacy survive fast-approaching first round of primary votes.

“Gun control is one of the issues a significant number of potential primary voters use as a proxy for deciding whether or not a candidate is conservative enough to merit their vote, and that it is a yes-or-no issue without nuances,” Weingart said in an email to The Trace. “If gun control advocates support a bill — as they did in New Jersey — then it’s automatically suspect and, for a Republican presidential candidate, off the table.”

Correction: This post originally stated that Christie had until Monday, January 18 to sign the bill, when in fact he had a few hours longer — the cutoff was Tuesday, January 19 at noon.

[Photo: Flickr user Marc Nozell]