As the Obama administration lobbies for stricter gun laws in the wake of the Sandy Hook mass shooting, some industry analysts worry that any new ban on weapons or accessories could put U.S. law enforcement and military units at greater risk.
Firearms technology experts argue that the majority of safety and other innovations incorporated into the weapons used by soldiers, police and federal agents to defend themselves were developed for the civilian market first, and point to the 10-year assault weapons ban as a "dark time" for the safety of U.S. troops in the field.
"What the administration has embarked on here is wholly damaging to the security of the United States," says Paul Leitner-Wise, a Virginia-based gun maker who designs weapons components used by elite military units.
"Are we going to have a brain drain or a talent walk-out? Who will build the guns when you need them—and you will need them," he adds.
The Brady Campaign declined to comment on the issue, but Josh Sugarmann, Executive Director of the Violence Policy Center—a Washington, D.C.-based anti-gun group—rejected the idea that gun restrictions would hurt innovation.
"That's one of the most screwball arguments I've ever heard," he says. "The fact is that it works in the exact opposite way. Military innovation for military use is what gun manufacturers use to market to the civilian market."
For example, the military first developed the Internet, global positioning system satellites, and even duct tape.
But firearms experts contend the development of the M-16 and M-4 rifles—the military version of an AR-15 which was banned under the Clinton-era gun laws—stagnated in the 1990s, resulting in weapons and accessories that jammed during combat conditions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"A high-tech, strong, viable firearms industry means a high-tech, strong, viable small arms capability for the U.S. military and law enforcement," says Eric Graves, a former equipment buyer for military special operations units and a firearms industry analyst. "Innovation happens in industry not government."
Graves points to problems the Army had with the 30-round magazines it issued to troops fighting in the early years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The magazines were found to have a design flaw that caused the weapon to jam during combat.
It wasn't until 2009 that the service adopted a new magazine design similar to one developed for use by civilian shooters. Current gun-control efforts are attempting to ban 30-round magazines for civilians.
"The original Magpul polymer magazine was developed to provide a solution to a specific problem," says Duane Liptak of the Colorado-based Magpul Industries, which supplies U.S. military and law enforcement units with assault rifle accessories. The company designed an ammunition magazine widely adopted by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan that solved the problem with frequent jams in military M-4 and M-16 assault rifles.
"Without the civilian market, military equipment will not improve."
And the advances in military and law-enforcement weaponry didn't stop with just the magazines. More reliable rifle parts, more accurate sights and the ability to tailor the rifle to an individual shooter's abilities--things that help a soldier or FBI officer be more effective and safer on the job--all stemmed from the demands of a civilian market.
"If it wasn't for commercial firearms development, the U.S. military would not have been able to field any of the new capabilities that it has over the past few years," Graves says. "The Army's current rifle improvement program … relies completely on technologies developed for the civilian market."
In the end, most weapon manufacturers—especially those who build rifles—say they'll keep up gun making until it becomes illegal either through federal law, or local ones. And some argue they will move out of states that ban the kinds of weapons the companies build.