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News and notes on guns in America

Gun Owners Support Smart Guns, But Few Want to Buy Them

The majority of gun owners support the sale of smart guns — but few will actually spend money on the weapons.

That’s the main finding of a new survey of more than 1,500 gun owners from the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, published this week in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The survey found that 79 percent of respondents supported firearm retailers stocking smart guns in addition to conventional weapons. But they expressed significant concerns over the devices’ cost and efficacy.

More than half of the respondents said they had reservations about the additional cost of smart gun technology. Only 19 percent of gun owners said they would be extremely likely or somewhat likely to pay an additional $300 on top of a standard weapon’s retail price for “smart” features. And 70 percent said they were very or somewhat concerned about the weapons’ reliability.

Moreover, gun owners who reported already having safe storage practices for their firearms were 50 percent more likely to purchase personalized guns, suggesting the products may have only a limited impact in those households.

“I would say I was disappointed with the results, but not surprised,” said Cassandra Crifasi, a Johns Hopkins public health professor who co-authored the study. “If we could wave a magic wand and replace all existing firearms with smart guns, we would see public health benefits. But as it stands, it would take a huge amount of time for these weapons to filter out into the market.”

Crifasi and her co-authors developed the survey questions by convening several focus groups with Texas gun owners on personalized weapons. The scholars drafted questions based on the open-ended discussions for use in a nationally representative online survey of nearly 1,500 gun owners.

A smart gun uses technology like a fingerprint reader or a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip to prevent anyone but authorized users from firing the weapon. The smart gun has been something of a white whale for some Democratic politicians and gun violence prevention advocates since at least the 1990s. But efforts to push mainstream gun companies to develop personalized weapons or to foster investment in smart gun start-ups have almost universally failed and face strong opposition from many gun rights activists.

The smart gun’s reputation was also harmed by the high-profile failure of the Armatix iP1. The .22-caliber pistol was the first smart gun to come to the market in the United States in 2014, but retailers quickly scrapped plans to sell it amid a major backlash from gun rights supporters. Critics considered the gun too small for self-defense and prohibitively expensive. And enterprising hackers showed they could overcome the gun’s security measures with just $15 worth of magnets. Despite the failure of the Armatix, a new crop of smart gun engineers and entrepreneurs are developing designs they hope will find more success, but none of the models have yet to launch.

There have been two other studies on consumer interest in smart guns, both of which indicated higher levels of demand. But the first was released in 2002, before the widespread adoption of technologies like fingerprint readers on smartphones or RFID-enabled keycards. A more recent study, from 2016, did not ask about cost and surveyed a panel representative of all Americans, not just gun buyers. Crifasi and her colleagues, by contrast, focused their survey on the attitudes of people who already own guns, the population that drives the vast majority of gun-buying. Because their study was also the first to ask about price, Crifasi said she believes the survey provides a more accurate picture of the demand for smart guns.

The study also found that the gun owners who did express interest in paying more for smart guns already engaged in safe storage practices, like keeping firearms in a safe. That suggests smart guns might have a limited effect on safety, since the people most likely to buy them have the least risk of letting their guns fall into the wrong hands. Meanwhile, those who might benefit the most — gun owners with less careful storage practices — expressed less interest in smart guns.

The results of the study suggested to Crifasi the need for advocates and policymakers to focus on other efforts to prevent gun violence with higher-risk gun owners, rather than looking for new technologies that primarily appeal to gun owners who already take great care to prevent unauthorized use of their weapons. “We need to focus more on strategies that we already know work for reducing gun deaths and injuries, like safe storage,” she said.