Why the Left Should Re-Evaluate Its Approach to Smart Guns

Accidental shooting deaths are not nearly as common as one might think. In 2017, 486 people died from inadvertent shootings. To put that in perspective, consider that, in 2016, more than 10,000 people died in car accidents caused by alcohol-impaired drivers. That being said, the relative infrequency of accidental shooting deaths is in no way a sufficient reason to abstain from pursuing strategies that could make them even more infrequent. Any future reduction in that statistic which does not come at the expense of citizens’ constitutional rights would provide a cause for bipartisan celebration, and smart guns—firearms designed to be operable only by their owners—could provide us with just such an opportunity. 

Sadly, many gun rights advocates have not quite warmed up to the idea of smart guns, and a few of the extremists among them have even shown that they will happily cross certain ethical and legal lines to prevent smart weapons from hitting the market. In 2014, for instance, a Maryland gun store scuttled its plan to sell a .22-caliber smart gun after receiving a barrage of angry phone calls that included death threats and warnings that their shop would be burned down. 

One of the principal reasons for the resistance to smart gun technology is the 2002 New Jersey Childproof Handgun Law, which would effectively prohibit New Jersey gun dealers from selling conventional firearms once smart guns become commercially available in the United States. The state has just recently revisited that law and may swap it out for a new law that does not ban conventional firearms but does still require retailers to carry at least one smart gun model in their stores. 

While the short-sighted New Jersey law amplified gun owners’ concerns about the implications of smart technology, those concerns existed long before the law’s passage. In the late ‘90s, one of America’s most revered gun makers, Colt’s Manufacturing Company, revealed that it was trying to develop its first smart gun. The backlash was swift and severe. The firearms community feared that the introduction of smart guns would eventually lead to bans on conventional guns. Just a few years later, New Jersey passed its infamous smart gun law, and gun rights advocates’ abstract concern about “big government” morphed into legislative reality. 

American gun owners are not exactly chomping at the bit for smart guns, and understandably so; there are practical concerns the industry needs to address before consumers feel confident that the guns can’t be hacked, and that they will not malfunction when you are face to face with a home invader. And, of course, price is an issue as well. But numerous polls have shown that, on the whole, gun owners don’t object to the technology itself, nor do they object to smart guns being made commercially available in the United States. What they strenuously object to is any law at any level of government that prohibits retailers from selling ordinary guns that are not equipped with smart technology—and frankly, who can blame them? 

During a 2016 town hall on CNN, then-President Barack Obama referenced the backlash that Colt had to deal with when it began developing smart gun technology and explained that it made no sense to him. “If you are a gun owner, I would think that you would at least want a choice so that if you wanted to purchase a firearm that could only be used by you, in part to avoid accidents in your home, in part to make sure that if it's stolen, it's not used by a criminal, in part if there's an intruder, you pull the gun, but you -- somehow it gets wrested away from you, that gun can't be turned on you and used on you, I would think there might be a market for that.”

He then argued that smart gun technology “has not been developed, primarily because it's been blocked by either the NRA, which is -- are funded by gun manufacturers, or other reasons.” At no point did he acknowledge the impact that the aforementioned New Jersey law had on the discourse surrounding smart guns. 

Just last month, during the second Democratic presidential debate, Joe Biden delivered a double whammy when he not only blamed gun manufacturers for failing to deliver smart guns to the market but also decided it would be a good idea to double down on New Jersey’s approach to the issue by arguing in favor of a federal prohibition on firearms that don’t utilize smart technology. “No gun should be able to be sold unless your biometric measure could pull that trigger,” he declared. “It’s within our right to do that. We can do that. Our enemy is the gun manufacturers, not the NRA. The gun manufacturers.”

With all due respect to former Vice President Biden and former President Obama, these are the sorts of inane statements that engender enormous distrust between gun rights advocates and proponents of gun control. As I mentioned earlier, one of America’s most popular manufacturers already tried to blaze the smart gun trail, and it nearly bankrupted them. It would not make much business sense for them to expose themselves to another potential boycott, yet that appears to be precisely what Biden is demanding. And to top it off, he wants to take the New Jersey law and make it national? That’s just not feasible. He will never muster enough support to make it happen, and the mere suggestion of it only serves to inspire even more anti-government cynicism, so why even push for it?

In regards to President Obama’s previous claim, the NRA’s official stance is that they don’t oppose the development or sale of smart guns, but they do oppose efforts “to prohibit the sale of firearms that do not possess ‘smart’ technology, as a way to prohibit the manufacture of traditional handguns, raise the price of handguns that would be allowed to be sold and, presumably, to embed into handguns a device that would allow guns to be disabled remotely.”

The gun-control movement’s insistence on getting in its way on this issue is downright maddening, especially for moderate gun owners like myself who unapologetically support the right to keep and bear arms but also acknowledge the necessity of reform. Smart guns hold a great deal of promise to cut down on not just accidental shootings, but also suicides, mass shootings, and police shootings as well. If the Sandy Hook shooter’s mother had owned smart guns instead of conventional guns, there’s a reasonably good chance that her son would never have been able to fire the weapon that took the lives of twenty innocent children and six school staffers. And if former police officer Darren Wilson had been carrying a smart gun instead of a Sig Sauer handgun on August 9, 2014, he would not have had to worry about Michael Brown’s alleged attempt to wrestle the weapon away from Wilson when the two men encountered each other in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Swap out that Sig Sauer for a smart gun and that incident might have ended with Michael Brown’s arrest instead of Michael Brown’s death.

The enduring impasse that has kept smart guns out of American dealers’ shops and showrooms wasn’t created by gun owners, gun manufacturers, or even the NRA; it was forged in the halls of the New Jersey State House and has since been sustained by politicians and public figures who, like Joe Biden, exhibit an unmistakable taste for gun prohibitions. Smart guns hold a lot of promise, but there is no conceivable way they will ever catch on in America unless and until gun control activists agree to remove their collective fingers from the ban button. They need to temper their unrestrained enthusiasm for the elimination of conventional firearms and stop conflating compromise with surrender. There is an accessible middle ground on this issue, a middle ground where America’s free markets and innovative spirit are salivating at the opportunity to join forces and exploit the life-saving potential of smart gun technology. But to reach it, some very influential actors on the left side of the aisle are going to have to reevaluate their priorities. They can have smart guns, or they can have smart gun mandates, but they cannot have both. That is the choice they have to make, and it is the choice that will ultimately determine the fate of smart gun technology in the United States. 


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