Smartguns and the Promise of Progress

With the recent Sandy Hook elementary school shooting (and the 44 school shootings since) still relatively fresh in our collective minds, and with Congress empirically unable to do anything to stop gun violence at all, it seems slowing, if not stopping, the gun violence epidemic has fallen on a strange coalition of gun manufacturers, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors. Their solution? A smartgun.

“We need the iPhone of guns,” said Silicon Valley investor Ron Conway to the Washington Post. It seems like a good bet we’ll get there. A multitude of gun manufacturers and research institutions have already begun work on smartguns, with one (German manufacturer Armatrix’s Armatrix iP1) already on shelves. The Armatrix iP1’s “smart”ness comes from a waterproof black watch that must be worn at the same time as using the gun. If the watch isn’t there, the gun becomes a $1,400 paperweight.

Other projects currently in development include guns from TriggerSmart, an Irish company working on a gun that uses similar technology to Armatrix’s gun, but with a ring rather than a watch; the New Jersey Institute of Technology, which is experimenting with sensors in the grip of the gun that can differentiate between users; Kodiak Arms, out of Utah, which is building a real-­life version of James Bond’s fingerprint­-scanner gun from Skyfall; and Yardarm, a California company, which is developing a smartphone app that tracks a gun’s location and can disable the gun remotely.

Last year, after the failure of Congress to push gun control measures through, Conway introduced a $1 million contest for smartgun technology, which has yet to be claimed. And there is, surprisingly, a fair amount of opposition to these advances. Predictably, the NRA isn’t happy, stating on their website that they oppose “government mandates that require the use of expensive, unreliable features, such as grips that would read your fingerprints before the gun will fire.” Opposition comes from the other side, too; the Violence Policy Center, a national educational organization that works to end death by violence, says it may not go far enough. “You’re really affecting a very small portion of the gun­-buying public,” said the group’s director Josh Sugarmann to the Washington Post.

States have been addressing smartguns as far back as 2002, when New Jersey passed a law requiring only smartguns be sold in the state within three years of a smartgun being sold in the US. (With the Armatrix iP1 being sold ­ albeit by one gun store in L.A.—it looks like New Jersey might be dumb-­gun free by 2017). A similar measure passed in California last year.

The real tipping point will be price. With the Armatrix iP1, the only smartgun currently on the market, coming in at about $1,400 (with an extra $400 for the accessory watch), these are absolutely luxury items. A Glock handgun goes for about $600, about 30% of the price; an AK­-47 goes for about $400 in California on the black market. I agree with Sugarmann ­technology alone can’t curb the violence. But hey, if private companies and investors want to work around lobbying for real gun regulations from the U.S. government by building guns that will make it harder to accidentally kill people (which accounted for around 760 of the 11,000 gun deaths in the US in 2010), let’s do it. Can’t be worse than whatever we’ve been doing previously.

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