Though the expanded use of background checks is the marquee provision of a package of anti-gun violence measures President Barack Obama unilaterally ordered Monday, some gun-safety advocates are celebrating less-heralded provisions relating to “smart gun” technologies.
Smart guns―also known as “authorized use” or “personalized” weapons―were the subject of a Fortune feature story last April and a 60 Minutes segment in November. They are firearms with technological features aimed at ensuring that they can only be fired by the weapon’s licensed owner or some other authorized person. Such features—currently, the most common employ RFID technology or fingerprint scanners—are aimed at, for instance, preventing children or thieves from using a gun, or protecting police officers from so-called “takeaway shootings,” in which an assailant wrestles away the officer’s own service firearm.
In a memo issued Monday to the Attorney General, the Secretary of Defense, and the Secretary of Homeland Security, President Obama ordered each to conduct further research into smart guns, monitor the state of the existing technologies, and “consider whether including such technology in specifications for acquisition of firearms would be consistent with operational needs.”
Since the federal government is “the single largest purchaser of firearms in the country,” as the memo also notes, a government requisition order seeking to buy such weapons could go a long way toward jump-starting the smart-gun industry.
(The President will be giving a live-streamed statement on his gun-related orders at 11:40 a.m. Monday.)
“This is the most exciting thing that has happened in the entire history of smart guns,” says Stephen Teret, the founding director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy and Research. “The President is talking about it, and telling three departments of government to do something about it.”
What’s been holding up the industry is that potential manufacturers have needed someone to commit to placing a large order, adds Teret, who has spent decades advocating for smarter guns. “This is the biggest possible order anyone can imagine.”
The Metro Areas Industrial Foundation, an activist group that has also been urging federal, state, and local police to arm themselves with smart guns, also hailed the move: “If the President is persistent and focused in implementing this approach, it will send a powerful signal to gun manufacturers: there is unmet demand for state-of-the-art gun safety technologies, and the companies that meet this demand will make money.”
Until now, American gun manufacturers and their trade group, the National Shooting Sports Federation, have maintained that there is little or no consumer demand for such weapons, which many gun owners perceive as less reliable and more expensive than conventional guns. Some Second Amendment advocates also have expressed fears that they are a disguised step toward gun control—and might even be susceptible to having the government or some other adversary switch off their guns remotely.
Emails to NSSF spokespeople seeking comment on the President’s action were not immediately returned. [After publication, the NSSF provided this statement regarding the White House package of orders. It asserts that the group does not oppose the development of smart-gun technologies, and opposes only mandating use of the technology, “particularly since there are well proven existing methods to secure firearms, and firearms accidents are at historic low levels.”]
All of the presidential orders taken yesterday and today, including those relating to smart guns, are unilateral executive branch actions, not requiring approval by Congress. As a consequence, they are all hedged, qualified, and restrained, lest they cross the line into illegality or unconstitutionality.
Accordingly, a National Rifle Association spokesperson mocked their weakness in statements published in the New York Times Tuesday, remarking: “This is it, really? . . . This is what they’ve been hyping for how long now? . . . They’re not really doing anything.”
The smart gun manufacturer that might be furthest along at the moment is Armatix, a German company, which just reemerged from insolvency proceedings last month. It markets a .22 caliber RFID-protected pistol, known as the iP1.
Although .22 caliber weapons are considered inappropriate for police work, the company has said it is developing a 9-millimeter pistol, suitable for police and military use, known as the iP9.