INNOVATION

10.26.15 5:00 AM ET

Give ‘Smart Guns’ a Chance to Save Lives

What if a gun could only be fired by its owner? Now they can—and that doesn’t please the gun lobby.

This month, a 6-year-old playing “cops and robbers” shot his 3-year-old brother in the face with a gun that his father kept wrapped in pajamas on top of the refrigerator. The boy died, one moe than 2,500 gunshot victims in Chicago so far this year, more than 415 of whom died. With Congress unwilling to act to curb gun violence, and state legislatures often acting like wholly owned subsidiaries of the gun lobby, safety advocates are turning to technology to save lives with a renewed push for so-called “smart guns” that can only be fired by their rightful owner.

If smart guns—which attempt to verify the ID of its user—became widespread, they could prevent most tragic accidents involving children, which now average one a week. They could also help prevent the almost 20,000 suicides each year carried out with guns belonging to other people, often a parent or grandparent, while also eliminating the danger law enforcement officials face of having their gun turned on them as they do their job.

How would the gun know who is using it? “A palm print, or a 5-digit pin number code, or a ring that you wear, a magnetic ring—we’re seeing this technology everywhere in our phones, but this industry (guns) is still in the era of black-and-white television,” says Jim Kessler with Third Way, a think tank that began as Americans for Gun Safety.

Activists say smart-gun development has been slow because the gun lobby doesn’t want it and stokes fears that creating safer guns could lead to government buy-backs of traditional firearms or even outright confiscation. Just as you can’t buy a car anymore that uses leaded gasoline, smart guns—also known as personalized guns or childproof guns—has Second Amendment enthusiasts worried that standard firearms would become obsolete.

Kessler calls those objections a symptom of “the irrational paranoia that fuels the gun rights lobby.”

Some gun-afety advocates point to a law enacted in New Jersey more than a decade ago as a key factor in stalling research and development. The New Jersey Smart Gun Mandate, passed in 2002, required the adoption of smart guns in New Jersey once they were available for sale anywhere in the country.

It was supposed to spur investment in new technology. Instead, the law appeared to have no effect until 2013 when a German firm, Armatix, tried to introduce a personalized handgun in two gun shops, one in California and the other in Maryland. There were angry protests at both locations, and the storeowners decided against selling the Armatix handgun.

Gun dealers across the country cited the Jersey law as reason to withhold selling smart guns, because that would trigger the mandate in New Jersey, and if there’s anything that’s anathema to gun owners, it’s a government mandate.

Getting rid of the mandate would be a game changer, says Ralph Fascitelli, board president of Washington CeaseFire, a Seattle gun-safety group. “No private investor is going to touch something as politically toxic as this,” he says, referring to the mandate. “If you take away that cloud, it’s a great new business opportunity.”

New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, the principal sponsor of the law, is expected to announce soon a compromise that will still mandate that New Jersey gun dealers carry smart guns—but along with and not instead of traditional firearms.

“In an era of legislation stagnation for the foreseeable future, smart guns represent our best path forward to reduce the almost 34,000 gun deaths and additional 65k gun injuries annually,” Fascitelli wrote in an email. He noted that the pro-gun culture is so powerful that even in a progressive state like Washington State, which has legalized marijuana, passed assisted suicide and sanctioned same-sex marriage, a background check bill for gun buyers favored by 87 percent of the electorate never got out of committee in the legislature.

He introduced me by phone to Ernst Mauch, the former CEO of Armatix, the smart-gun manufacturer, whose trip to the States he had helped arrange. When asked how it worked, Mauch said: “It’s easy, madam. You have to identify with a pin number, a 5-digit pin number, and the rest is integrated. If anyone takes the gun away from you, it doesn’t function in the hands of someone else.”

Actually, it’s not quite that simple, but Mauch has designed a gun suitable for law enforcement, and he tells stories of personally testing it in the humidity of Panama, the heat of Yuma, Arizona, and the cold of Alaska.

Mauch is renowned in the field of firearms. He designed the high-powered rifle that killed Osama bin Laden, and he is sometimes compared to Steve Jobs because of his singular determination to transform “dumb guns” into smart guns. A dozen years ago, he was deeply shaken when a 6-year-old boy accidentally shot a friend with a gun made by the company he was running. After four hours of questioning by the police, he realized he didn’t have answers to their questions about how this could have happened.

Mauch is convinced a U.S. market for smart guns will finally take hold, and that the gun he is promoting can be affordable. The first Armatix gun that he designed was priced at $1,800 for a .22-caliber versus $400 for a traditional firearm.

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“It’s beyond time for the technology to emerge,” says Stephen Teret, co-director of the Center for Law and the Public’s Health at Johns Hopkins University and an expert on gun policy. “I’ve been working on this for more than 30 years. What we need now are people willing to invest and bring to market these guns. Someone can make a lot of money off of smart guns if they do it right.”

The technology is there, and the politics have begun to shift with the leading Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, making gun safety a centerpiece of her campaign. In the 1990s after the Columbine school shooting, when Bill Clinton was president, Smith & Wesson, a leading gun manufacturer, said it would introduce safer firearms. Gun enthusiasts called for a boycott; the company was brought to its knees financially, and its president fired. All the gun companies remember that, and they’re fearful that will happen to them. “The NRA [National Rifle Association] and the NSSF [National Shooting Sports Foundation] rule this area with a mighty fist,” says Teret.

Guns made in the United States haven’t changed in a century, he says, and if the manufacturers don’t keep up with the rapidly advancing technology for safer firearms, “They’re at threat of becoming dinosaurs.” Younger people are attuned to having personalized electronics, so the trajectory is there for a new industry of smart guns to take off and salvage at least some lives from the carnage of gun violence that the politicians seem powerless to stop.