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Law Enforcement

Obama Counts on Law Enforcement to Popularize Smart Guns

The Justice Department will involve police in the development of new technology, with the ultimate aim of sparking consumer demand.

The Obama administration is asking law enforcement agencies to help develop standards for the next generation of smart guns, with the ultimate aim of demonstrating to a skeptical consumer market that firearms equipped with technology that guards against unauthorized use are safe and reliable.

A 16-page report released Friday morning outlines ways that the federal government can push smart guns to market, both by subsidizing research and using its own purchasing power. The report says the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security will form a working group, led by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), to actively partner with federal, state, and local police forces to develop a set of criteria for smart guns that would meet their high standards.

“As long as we’ve got the technology to prevent a criminal from stealing and using your smartphone, then we should be able to prevent the wrong person from pulling a trigger on a gun,” President Barack Obama wrote in a Facebook post.

Smart guns are weapons that utilize technology like fingerprint readers or RFID chips to prevent firing by anyone but authorized users. Prototypes have existed in one form or another for several decades, and several models have seemed to work. But the weapons have never been mass produced.

The strategy outlined in the report represents the most significant federal push for the technology by the White House since the last years of Bill Clinton’s presidency and a shift from past efforts, which sought to compel gun makers to supply the guns to a gun-consuming public that didn’t trust the technology. In May 2000, the Clinton administration brokered an agreement with Smith & Wesson to research smart guns, a move that enraged the National Rifle Association and led to a boycott. Smith & Wesson abandoned the project.

The new bet is that if law enforcement agencies are involved in the creation of smart guns, and then widely adopt the weapons, consumer demand will follow.

“This effort presents a unique opportunity for law enforcement agencies to improve their own operations and encourage the development of advanced gun safety technology,” the report reads.  

 

The working group expects to identify law enforcement requirements for advanced gun safety technology by October. The next step would then be for participating agencies to volunteer to test the technology in the field — while granting individual law enforcement officers discretion over whether to be involved with a pilot program. The report makes clear that any involvement would be completely voluntary.

The report does not reveal the cost of the program. In 2013, the NIJ said that the Department of Justice had issued at least $12.6 million in grants to support smart gun technology over the previous two decades.

In October 2015, the NIJ announced the “Gun Safety Technology Challenge,” a multi-stage evaluation of smart gun technology. In February, after reviewing submissions for months, the NIJ invited two firearm manufacturers, Armatix and Protobench, to test prototypes in stage 2. Armatix is the best-known smart gun company. Its former head of product development was Ernst Mauch, a lifelong gun designer and the former CEO of large German firearm maker Heckler & Koch. (Mauch recently left the company after a dispute over marketing.) Protobench is a relatively unknown company started by a group of engineering students in Wichita, Kansas, and it specializes in the 3-D printing of product prototypes.

Past government efforts to encourage or compel companies to introduce smart guns failed to generate demand — and even backfired. A 2002 New Jersey law requires that gun sellers in the state only stock smart guns, as soon as the technology becomes commercially available. The law had an unintended effect: Gun groups boycotted shops that planned to stock smart guns, so that the New Jersey law would not be triggered. Gun violence prevention groups have worked with the 2002 law’s sponsor to promote legislation, first vetoed by Governor Chris Christie in January but quickly reintroduced, that would amend the law to require New Jersey shops to stock smart guns — but not at the exclusion of all other firearms.

[Photo: Armatix]