So called "smart" guns that only fire when it detects its owner's fingerprints, or that only fire when it detects a chip embedded in its owner's arm, have been promised for more than a decade, but the technology remains elusive. Why? Because gun owners, manufacturers, and even anti-gun control groups don't think they'd be particularly effective at preventing gun violence.
"Many of the issues addressed by a smart gun can be addressed by a trigger lock," says Josh Sugarman, founder of the Violence Policy Center, which lobbies strongly for tighter gun control. "I think we have to be honest about what percent of gun violence this might affect—most homicides are committed with a person's own gun."
On that point, pro-gun organizations agree. Larry Keane, general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation says that Sugarman's organization "doesn't respect the Second Amendment," but agrees that new gun safety technologies are unreliable and unlikely to decrease gun violence.
Many companies—both gun manufacturers and startups trying to patent smart gun technology—have tried to design a gun that will only allow its owner to shoot it, but so far most have been unreliable. Guns that validate its shooter's fingerprints all rely on batteries to operate—so what should the gun do if the battery dies?
Keane explains that there are two answers with very opposite effects. If the "smart gun" won't fire with a dead battery, the gun won't help in an emergency.
But on the positive side, that powerless gun could prevent a child from firing it, Keane says.
"It's a legitimate, serious question—what's the failure mode?" he says. "There are product liability issues either way for a manufacturer. They're going to get sued either way."
Keane says the industry doesn't completely oppose new gun technologies, but they are reluctant to fund research and development on something he says gun owners aren't clamoring for.
Both Keane and Sugarman say that smart gun technology might even make owning a gun less safe, because owners might be less careful with their firearms.
"It could encourage individuals to leave firearms unattended, loaded, and relying upon this technology," Keane says.
Sugarman says the peace-of-mind offered by "safer guns" might be enough for some people who wouldn't normally own a gun to buy one.
"The industry is always looking for new ways to market guns to non gun owners—people who previously wouldn't own a gun might think about buying a smart gun," he says. "Instead of pinning our hopes on this technology, I think there are better ways to spend the millions of dollars it takes to develop this technology."
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