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March 26, 2013

Newsflash: James Bond Has Some Pretty Advanced Gadgets


It’s time to set the record straight on the concept of “smart gun” technology. A New York Times op-ed published last weekend misses the mark on several points. Rather than doing the background research, the author chose to demonize the firearms industry and gun owners as technology-hating villains.

Let’s start at the beginning. An “authorized user recognition” firearm is a concept whereby a firearm would have some sort of technology built in it to recognize and only be capable of firing for an “authorized user.” This is not a new concept, although a recent report issued by President Obama has renewed interest in this topic. The concept has been discussed since the mid-1990s when it was conceived of as technological response to law enforcement officers being injured or killed when a criminal wrestles the officer’s firearm away and uses it against the officer. This concept is sometimes colloquially called “smart guns” or “personalized guns.”

The author correctly points out that there have been public and private efforts under way for decades to develop “gun personalization technology.” What he fails to note is that despite considerable research, including by firearms manufacturers, the concept has not been fully developed to the point where a safe and reliable product incorporating such a capability is available on the marketplace today. The technology remains in the prototype stage.

Contrary to false claims in the op-ed, the firearms industry is not opposed to the development of this technology. Ironically, there are gun-control groups that are opposed. What our industry is opposed to is legislation that would mandate the use of this technology, both because the technology is immature and because not all consumers need or would want this technology. Unfortunately, some states have unwisely and prematurely enacted laws mandating the use of this technology if and when it ever comes commercially available.

Why would the industry oppose a mandate to incorporate the conceptual technology? A firearm incorporating “authorized user only” recognition technology raises important design liability concerns for manufacturers. A “smart gun” must work as safely and as reliably as current technology. All concepts we are aware of involve the use of batteries. What is the default mode for the product when the battery fails? Does it default to a mode where the firearm cannot function at a time when the owner needs to use the firearm to save their life? Does it default to a mode where it can fire but an irresponsible owner leaves a loaded firearm accessible to an unauthorized user, such as a child, relying upon the technology that has failed? In both of these scenarios the manufacturer may well find themselves defending a product liability lawsuit.

If a manufacturer were to overcome the significant technological challenges inherent in developing a safe and equally reliable firearm incorporating “authorized user recognition” technology, would they be exposing themselves to product liability lawsuits alleging that all their other products that do not incorporate this technology are somehow “defectively designed,” or that their previously manufactured products are also “defectively designed” because they did not incorporate this feature soon enough? In our overly litigious society these are not merely theoretical liability concerns for product manufacturers.

Those interested in firearms safety should also be opposed to such a mandate. The advent of this technology may result in significant unintended consequences for firearms safety. Per the basic rules of safe firearms handling and storage, when a firearm is not in use it should be locked and made inaccessible to unauthorized users and the ammunition should stored separately. We are very concerned that consumers will leave loaded firearms accessible, relying upon the technology which can fail. The use of this technology may encourage unsafe storage practices. Nothing is more dangerous than calling a firearm “childproof.”

The good news is that while there are more firearms owners and firearms in the United States than ever before, fatal firearm accidents have fallen to near record lows since record keeping began in 1903; down over 57 percent in the past 20 years alone. This is a very encouraging trend and has occurred even without the introduction to the marketplace of “authorized user recognition technology.” Every firearm ever made is capable of being locked and made inaccessible to unauthorized users through such means as a gun lock, like the ones voluntarily provided by manufacturers today with every new firearm shipped from the factory. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF)’s award winning Project ChildSafe program has distributed over 35 million free firearm safety education kits including a gun lock throughout the United States.

The firearms industry is not opposed to efforts to develop “authorized user recognition technology” for firearms. We support grant funding from the federal government to support further research because the technological hurdles to make an “authorized user recognition” firearm that is as safe and as reliable as current firearms technology have not been overcome. We are, however, strongly opposed to “one size fights all” legislative mandates that have been proposed and enacted in some states.

One sure sign that there are steeper hurdles for this technology than the other products cited in the op-ed, like seatbelts and childproof bottle caps – the only user of this technology cited by the author was James Bond.

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