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December 2, 2013

America’s Love of Technology Meets Firearms in an Imperfect Union

“America may love apple pie and baseball, but technology would arguably rank a close third in our national affections,” wrote the editor of the RealClear Technology website. Many of us would agree. And because we live in a country, where thousands of people camp out overnight to buy the latest version of the iPhone, we can understand the desire on the part of well-intentioned people to want to marry up some kind of safety technology to firearms.

Despite what you may hear, the firearms industry is NOT opposed to the research and development of user-authorized recognition technology for firearms. So-called “smart guns,” if they work as hoped, would prevent all but a specific user(s) of a firearm from being able to fire it through the use of biometric or radio frequency identification (RFID) with an activation system that would rely on a battery. Although attempts to develop and market such technology have been discussed for decades, there is new-found interest in the topic aided by the latest James Bond movie, remarks from President Obama, and the urgings of some anti-gun groups.

But who among us has not experienced a drained smart phone battery or had some other piece of electronic gadgetry not work, even a flashlight, fail when we needed it. How many of us change smoke alarm batteries every year as advised? Most people can appreciate technology, while realizing it can let you down at the worst of times.

That sense of real-world understanding comes through loud and clear in the results of a national scientific poll that we commissioned and was carried out by McKeon & Associates in October. The chief survey finding is that Americans are extremely skeptical of smart gun technology. Some 74 percent of survey respondents said they thought these firearms either would not be reliable at all or very reliable. Only 16 percent thought “smart guns” would be very or somewhat reliable. Firearm owners overwhelmingly (84%) believed a smart gun would not be reliable, while a clear majority (60%) of non-gun owners also believed they would not be reliable.

In addition, an overwhelming 74 percent of respondents overall said that they would not buy or would not very likely buy such a firearm. Only 14 percent of those polled said that they were very or somewhat likely to purchase a “smart gun.”

Some 70 percent of the survey sample also said that did not believe that government should mandate that all firearms produced incorporate “smart gun” technology should it become commercially available. Only 17 percent approved of a mandate, while 13 percent didn’t know.

There are good reasons to be wary of technology as a way of enhancing public safety. Leaving an unattended firearm loaded, unsecured and accessible to children or an unstable person is never a good idea, even if it is a “smart gun.” What if the technology fails? If the gun then fires, the result could be tragic. If the technology is defeated, and that would not be difficult in the case of RFID technology that requires only the acquisition of the watch, bracelet or ring that activates the firing system, the sense of extra security was illusory all along.

Conversely, if the technology fails and fails to fire when a homeowner or store owner needs his firearm to safeguard his or her life or that of others, the result could again be tragic. This is the reason that you will not hear either law enforcement or the military asking for the development of authorized-user recognition technology for their sidearm. Their lives depend on the reliability of the firearms that our industry members build for them. They’re not likely to be willing to trust a battery-powered biometric chip with all the attendant electronic connections to work all the time given the dynamic forces at work in the functioning of a firearm. In fact, law enforcement officers told Sandia National laboratories researchers just that in the 1990s. Why should a civilian gun owner feel otherwise now?

We understand the motivation of those sincere proponents who seek technology to improve firearms safety. We will not oppose their research and development or any company’s marketing efforts should a smart gun be brought to market. If an individual decides that a smart gun is the right solution for their circumstances, he or she should have the option to purchase it. But that purchase should be their option and not a government mandate.

As Americans, we are appreciative of technology and what it can do for us, but we are wary enough to know that technology is not a panacea when human behavior is involved and, as our national poll shows, we also do not want to be governed by it.

Hearst Connecticut newspapers recently published a similar op-ed essay from Larry Keane.

Larry Keane is senior vice president and general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @lkeane 

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