Smart guns are one of those issues that really divides opinion in the gun enthusiast community. Long held up by liberals as a way of making guns safer while still allowing citizens to carry them, smart guns remain hugely controversial.
I’ve been following the debate for a while, and have been surprised by the depth of feeling on both sides. Yet it seems that, at least at the moment, the primary reason why smart guns have not been successful has nothing to do with politics. Rather, many shooters who would otherwise have been interested in getting a smart gun have been put off by the lack of firepower offered by the current models available.
If you’re new to this debate, let’s take a look at what a smart gun is.
What Are Smart Guns?
The basic principle of a smart gun is that it requires some form of authentication in order to fire. There are several approaches to this. Some smart guns use an RFID chip that connects to a receiver built into a watch or wristband. Others require a PIN to be entered before they are unlocked.
The most recent developments in smart gun technology are aiming to use fingerprints, and this approach is gaining traction. Fingerprints are now used to unlock everything from iPhones to biometric gun safes, and so in principle there should be no problem with integrating this technology into firearms.
Though President Obama and several others are behind developing an “iPhone of guns”, the problem remains one of reliability. On the one hand, if you are in a dangerous situation you really don’t need your gun’s battery dying at the critical moment. In addition, IT-based solutions are potentially prone to software and hardware failures.
On the other hand, many smart gun designs are not as fool-proof as their advocates like to claim. We’ve previously written about how easy some smart guns are to hack using cheap magnets from any hardware store. And, of course, if a smart gun can be unlocked by an RFID wristband, it’s easy enough to steal both the gun and the wristband.
For these reasons, many people are against the idea of smart guns on principle. Adding an authentication process to a firearm makes it inherently less reliable, they claim, whilst not actually making it safer.
Why Aren’t Smart Guns Selling?
Gun manufacturers would love smart guns to become popular. In the context of gun sales declining since the election of Trump, some companies are investing significant funding into developing smart guns that people actually want to buy.
Leave the politics aside for a moment, though, and take a look at the smart guns currently available, and you’ll immediately see one major reason why nobody wants to buy them. They are underpowered.
It seems that the companies currently producing smart guns have forgotten about the most common reason why people carry handguns – self-defense. The smart gun that has gained the most press attention in recent years, the Armatix iP1, is a .22 pistol. I’ve spoken to plenty of people who carry a handgun for self-defense, and let me tell you that they want a lot more stopping power than a .22 cartridge provides.
This lack of power has also meant that no police department in the US has adopted smart guns. Those in charge of arming officers rightly claim that a .22 is totally inadequate to face the daily threats that law enforcement officers are exposed to. In addition, they object to the government using the police force as a “testing-ground” for unproven technology, no matter how much the government is willing to spend on it.
It seems that, finally, smart gun manufacturers are catching up. Armatix recently announced that it is developing the iP9, a 9mm version of its smart gun. 9mm is the most popular caliber for self-defense handguns, and by increasing the power of their weapon Armatix hope that they will finally convince people to buy it. Maybe.
Convincing Gun Owners
Maybe, because these guns face another huge obstacle to mass-market appeal: they are very expensive. The Armatix 9mm that I’ve mentioned retails for $1,365, which is more than twice the cost of a standard 9mm pistol. Police departments with huge budgets might not mind this, but I doubt that many consumers are going to pay double for a gun that is harder to use.
There is another reason why individual shooters will resist buying smart guns: they may end up limiting the rights of their friends and family to own traditional firearms. This is because a number of states have implemented laws that would ban the sale of traditional guns almost as soon as smart guns are commercially available. In New Jersey, for instance, as soon as the first smart gun is sold, a 30-month countdown would start. After this period, no traditional handguns can be sold.
If that sounds like a stupid law, it’s because it is, and it has led to some strange stories. When several gun stores in New Jersey said they would stock the Armatix iP1, they faced a backlash that almost shut down their businesses. In the end, the New Jersey attorney general was forced to “interpret” the law, finding that the iP1 was not in fact a “firearm”, and its sale would therefore not trigger the law.
They Are Here To Stay
It’s worth noting that Armatix themselves oppose laws like this, as any sensible person should. There is no problem with smart guns competing with traditional firearms, of course, and some people may prefer the extra security they claim to provide. However, at present smart guns seem to have become a victim of politics.
That said, it is expected that, as more manufacturers explore the possibilities of smart guns, laws such as that in New Jersey will eventually be repealed, under pressure from the gun lobby if no-one else. When that happens, we fully expect large gun manufacturers to start producing “smart” versions of popular weapons.
At that point, smart guns will be here to stay.