On a recent Thursday night, Maryland gun store owner Andy Raymond set up a video camera in front of a wall of rifles and sat down with a bottle of whiskey and a cigarette. He rested his tattooed arms on the glass counter, which contained more guns, and leaned toward the camera. It was time to undo the mess he’d made. “I’m Andy from Engage Armament,” he said, tapping his cigarette into a shot glass. “There’s been a lot of drama today here.”
The drama was over the Armatix iP1, a compact, .22 caliber, 10-round pistol made in Germany. The iP1 is a “smart” gun, meaning it only fires in the hands of its owner. Or rather, it only fires if it’s within 10 inches of its companion iW1 watch, which is presumably on the owner’s wrist. It can also be disabled with a timer or a PIN code.
Engage Armament announced it would start carrying the iP1 on May 1st. It backpedaled less than 24 hours later, after gun-rights advocates lashed out on Facebook and called the store, threatening to shoot Raymond, his girlfriend, and his dog.
There has been renewed interest in smart guns since the Newtown school shooting, which reinvigorated the gun-control debate. However, there is immense pressure not to be the first to sell them. That’s because of a New Jersey law passed in 2002 known as the Childproof Handgun Law, which says that all guns sold in New Jersey must be state-approved smart guns within three years of a smart gun being sold anywhere in the country. The goal was to make smart guns mandatory as soon as the technology existed. Officially, no smart gun has been sold in the US yet — meaning if Raymond had sold one, it would have triggered the clause in New Jersey.
"My apologies to the people of New Jersey," Raymond said in the video, which was posted to Facebook but has since been deleted. "I did not know that I would be screwing you over."
Smart guns, or personalized guns, are designed to be useless unless unlocked by radio signal or a biometric authenticator such as voice activation, fingerprints, or a retina scan. When New Jersey’s law was written, proponents thought smart guns were just around the corner. They were supposed to be here over a decade ago, but politics keeps getting in the way.
"We thought it would take, I don’t know, three or four years for some American manufacturer to get the nerve up to do what is really not rocket science," says Bryan Miller, a gun-control advocate who led the charge for the 2002 law. "The reason it hasn’t happened is very simply because the gun industry and its lobby have intimidated American companies from doing it."
The CEO of Colt wrote an editorial supporting smart guns in 1997; he was ousted the next year. Smith & Wesson started building one in 1999 as part of a government order; the National Rifle Association immediately organized a Smith & Wesson boycott. Last month, Oak Tree Gun Club in California briefly carried the iP1, but a fierce backlash prompted a swift retreat before any were sold. The store now denies it ever stocked the gun, even though photos show otherwise.
"We want gun owners to feel like they are dinosaurs if they aren’t using smart guns."
Smart-gun advocates say the technology will stop kids from shooting themselves with their parents’ guns, undermine the market for stolen guns, and protect law enforcement from having their guns used against them. "We need the iPhone of guns," said Ron Conway, a Silicon Valley investor, referring to the phone’s fingerprint unlock. Conway is backing a $1 million contest for smart-gun technology. "We want gun owners to feel like they are dinosaurs if they aren’t using smart guns," he told the Washington Post.
Opponents counter that the technology adds an unnecessary failure point — you don’t want to fumble with a fingerprint unlock if someone is breaking into your home. They also fear the spread of laws like New Jersey’s, since similar proposals have been introduced in other states and in Congress. "The NRA does not oppose new technological developments in firearms," the group writes on its website. "We are opposed to government mandates that require the use of expensive, unreliable features, such as grips that would read your fingerprints before the gun will fire."
Criticism also comes from a surprising place: The Violence Policy Center, a gun control advocacy group, which has a long list of objections to smart guns. "There is this idea that the smart gun is a catch-all solution," says director Josh Sugarman, but people use their own guns in murders and suicides most of the time anyway. "Even if every gun was a smart gun, it would affect a very small percentage of gun violence in this country."
The focus on smart guns cannibalizes funding and attention that should be put toward gun-violence research and the fight to stop military-grade weapons from being sold to civilians, Sugarman says. And while smart guns tend to grab headlines, there is little evidence that people actually want them.
Still, smart-gun development continues. After the Newtown shooting, the White House issued a call for gun-safety technologies, including smart-gun systems, for which the Justice Department will soon award $2 million in grants. In Silicon Valley, the $1 million Smart Tech for Firearms Challenge has received more than 200 entries. There are products already on the market, including two fingerprint-unlocking accessories and the iGun, a rifle that uses a system similar to the iP1 but unlocks with a ring instead of a watch.
Perhaps the longest-running smart-gun technology is being developed by the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). NJIT has been working on a "Dynamic Grip Recognition" system, which uses 32 sensors to measure pressure in a user’s unique grip, since the state passed its smart-gun law. The research group is now seeking private investment for a prototype gun.
"We have found overwhelming consumer acceptance for the idea," says Donald Sebastian, NJIT’s vice president of research and development. "What people say in a poll may not translate to what actually happens in the marketplace."
The fact that there are some products commercially available may be enough to trigger New Jersey’s law even if no smart guns have been sold. Acting attorney general John Hoffman also has the authority to certify that the technology is ready. "We anticipate, in the near future, initiating a firearm testing and evaluation procedure to determine whether the Armatix iP1 handgun meets these statutory criteria," he wrote in a March 4th letter to State Senator Loretta Weinberg.
Senator Weinberg was a leading proponent of the 2002 law, which took six years to pass. She’s ready to toss it out, however, now that it’s being used to stop smart guns from being sold anywhere. If the NRA will drop its resistance to smart guns, she says she will introduce a bill to repeal the law.
It seems inevitable that some store is going to start carrying smart guns soon, regardless of what happens in Jersey. "Intimidation can’t last forever," says Miller, the former Ceasefire NJ director who now leads the gun-control group Heeding God’s Call.
Smart guns still seem inevitable, no matter what happens in New Jersey
Many gun owners don’t object to smart guns, as long as they’re still allowed to buy regular guns. "If someone wants to buy a smart gun, that is fine," Raymond said in his Facebook address. "When the law legislates it, that is a sin." After the apology, he and his shop were flooded with supportive emails, calls, and visits. Members of the Maryland Shooters forum even rallied for a barbecue at Engage Armament. "It is only a matter of time before such guns are available. Acting like babies about it doesn't make things better," one user wrote. "Assuming of course there is an actual market for such a bad idea."