Forced by investors to consider the prospect of developing smart guns, two of the oldest gun companies in America have released reports rejecting the idea. Sturm, Ruger & Co. and American Outdoor Brands (AOBC), the parent company of Smith & Wesson, said in similar documents, both dated February 8, that they have no plans to develop weapons designed to fire only for authorized users.
“AOBC in its business judgment does not believe that current authorized user, or ‘smart gun’ technology, is reliable or has any significant consumer demand,” the company said in its report.
Soon after the Parkland shooting, Catholic social activists organized by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility bought shares in both companies. At their annual meetings, the activists managed to get proposals in front of rest of the shareholders to force the firms to report on reputational risks associated with shootings, and how smart guns might reduce that violence. Both companies’ boards of directors told their shareholders not to vote for the measures. The shareholders approved them anyway.
It wasn’t only activists who asked for these reports: Major institutional investors like BlackRock and Vanguard voted in favor of both referenda, despite the fact that the management of both gunmakers opposed the measures.
Smart gun advocates believe that the personalized weapons could prevent shootings in cases of theft or access by a child. As The Trace reported in its recent “Since Parkland” project, more than 80 infants and toddlers died from gunfire in the 12 months since February 2018. Many of those deaths occurred when a child found an adult’s unsecured, loaded firearm.
AOBC says it still regrets past flirtations with smart gun development. The company claimed in its report that the company’s reputation still suffers as a result of a 1999 deal Smith & Wesson made with the Clinton administration to invest in smart guns (among other efforts to reduce shootings). In the wake of that agreement, which was reached following the Columbine High School shooting, gun buyers boycotted Smith & Wesson and its then-owners sold the company at a discount. “The Company was on the cusp of failure,” the report claims.
The first smart guns were unreliable, hackable, and a bad fit for their intended customers. Now several upstart companies think they can learn from the mistakes of the past.
Both companies argued that these failures have discouraged them from pursuing smart guns. Prior attempts by smaller companies to bring them to market have uniformly failed, the companies argued (a number of newer companies believe they can avoid past pitfalls, as The Trace has reported). “The private sector and federal government have been struggling for over two decades to determine whether modern technology can be integrated into firearms without sacrificing the reliability and durability that owners demand from them,” Ruger said in its report.
The companies also dismissed activists’ concerns that associations with gun violence constituted a “reputational risk” that could ultimately harm shareholders should regulations cut into sales. “AOBC’s real reputational risk lies with its customers and other defenders of the Second Amendment,” the report read. “Even the perception among AOBC’s customers that AOBC is undermining their Second Amendment rights could cause immediate and possibly irreparable damage.” The boycott that followed the agreement with the Clinton administration was evidence that there is a very real risk of backlash.
The Catholic activists were not pleased with AOBC and Ruger’s statements. “Both reports signal [the companies’] entrenchment, and even doubling down, on the notion that gun safety innovation doesn’t merit their serious attention, and more concerning, that any meaningful attempts to improve gun safety will be seen as a sign of weakness by their customers,” said Josh Zinner, the chief executive of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, in an emailed statement. BlackStone and Vanguard declined to comment.