In April, President Barack Obama called on law enforcement agencies to help develop the next generation of smart guns, weapons that use fingerprint readers or RFID chips to prevent anyone but authorized users from firing them. The bet behind the announcement is that if police embrace the new technology, civilian consumers will follow, overcoming decades of skepticism about the purpose and effectiveness of such firearms.
But the scene at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention last weekend in Louisville, Kentucky, makes clear just how far broad acceptance of smart gun technology is from reality.
Among the hundreds of vendor booths spread across the convention hall’s 11 acres, there wasn’t a single smart gun company. NRA members were instead bombarded with pitches for products designed to defend against a nightmare home invasion scenario. There was a firm that makes furnishings with hidden compartments for pistols, shotguns, and assault rifles, and a magnetic mount that holds handguns anywhere they might need to be stashed.
This crisis mindset precludes any consideration of smart guns. The weapons are designed to offer the same personal protection benefit as a standard firearm, with an added safety benefit: that unintended users, like children or criminals, cannot fire them.
NRA members who spoke with The Trace outside the convention hall said they worried that a smart gun would fail in a crucial moment, such as when fending off a criminal attacker, when a quick response could mean the difference between life and death. Many said the devices were simply not necessary.
“They’re a very bad idea,” says Daryl, an NRA member from North Carolina who declined to give his last name. “If I get into trouble, and I need my roommate’s help, or my family’s help, they couldn’t use my gun.” The fact that smart guns can be programmed to authorize multiple users didn’t assuage his fears. “I’m against smart guns in general,” he says.
Smart gun technology has existed for several decades, but the weapons have never been mass produced. Just two stores, one in Maryland and another in California, have stocked the Armatix, the only smart gun to make it past the prototype stage. Both stores were boycotted and their owners bombarded with threats by gun advocates, who said they feared the sales could trigger a controversial New Jersey law. That law states that as soon as smart guns are commercially available, all conventional weapons will be banned from being sold in the state.
Obama’s effort seeks to get law enforcement agencies to adopt the technology on a trial basis. Dave Barron, an Indiana police officer and NRA member, said he couldn’t imagine participating in such an effort. “If an officer’s gun malfunctions, it’s no use to him,” Barron said. “A non-smart gun can fail. Something electronic is even more prone to failure.”
Even those NRA members less reflexively hostile to smart guns had a hard time imagining that either police or the general public would accept them any time soon. Dave Hillier, a Detroit police officer, said he could imagine a useful smart gun, but said, “It’d have to be extensively tested. You’d need thousands of guns, thousands of users, different scenarios and conditions” to demonstrate it’s safe for police. He said he thought weapons training was a more useful way of preventing officers’ guns from falling into the wrong hands — either during confrontations or because of theft.
Only one NRA member who spoke to The Trace was said he would consider buying a smart gun. Mike, a Tennessee resident who preferred not to give his last name, noted that similar technologies are now ubiquitous in other products, such as RFID swipe cards in office buildings or biometric locks on smartphones. Gun owners, he adds, might embrace smart guns if they prove to be reliable. “People in the NRA want [guns] to be safer than most people think. We know what guns can do in the hands of the wrong person.”
But most NRA members The Trace spoke with said that the best safety measure is not technology that prevents an unauthorized person from firing a gun — it is laws and regulations that ensure that more people are armed, in more places.
The NRA declined to issue The Trace press credentials for its annual convention. Reporter Alex Yablon spoke with the group’s members outside the event in Louisville.