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Why aren't smart guns catching on in the U.S.?

Once existing only in the distant future, or in James Bond films, guns that fire solely for verified users are now on the market. Despite the new technology, fierce backlash from pro-gun advocates has put the fate of these so-called smart guns in doubt.

Two major firearm manufacturers are offering smart guns for sale. The Kodiak Intelligun relies on fingerprint and hand grip verification while the Armatix iP1 only fires within 10 inches of a specific security watch worn by the shooter. And while the iP1 has sold well in Europe and Asia, both models have found the American market a much tougher sell.

In the past couple weeks, two different U.S. gun stores have announced the sale of the iP1 and then quickly reversed the decision after massive backlash from gun owners who see smart guns as a back-door form of gun control.

Engage Armament in Maryland received death threats after saying it would offer the gun and quickly posted a video on its Facebook page apologizing to its customers but questioning the harsh response.

“How can the NRA or people want to prohibit a gun when we’re supposed to be pro-gun? We’re supposed to say that any gun is good … That’s a great thing for gun rights, when you threaten to shoot somebody.” ​

Gun advocates worry that the advent of smart guns could mean tighter firearm restrictions. Also a concern are the glitches and bugs that might come with computerized guns.

“What happens when your gun doesn’t work when you need it? And that’s a pretty powerful argument. They don’t want to be in a situation where, ‘Oh no, someone’s coming through my front door, I’ve gotta reboot my gun.” (Via The Washington Post)

And activists are particularly worried about smart gun sales because of a somewhat obscure New Jersey law. Passed more than a decade ago, the law requires that once smart guns are sold anywhere in the country, only those smart guns could be sold in New Jersey three years later.

A public health expert at Johns Hopkins University tells The Washington Post that the law, ironically being used to squash smart gun sales, was a good idea at the time. “But a number of things have changed. Most importantly, the technology has improved. And number two, there’s a market demand for these kinds of guns. Given those changes, if  New Jersey wants to rely on market forces instead of legislation, that’s certainly a reasonable approach.”

And it could be those market forces that eventually bring the smart gun into wider use. With the NRA actively campaigning against smart guns, the New Jersey Senate majority leader says she would propose repealing the troublesome law if the gun lobby agrees to let smart guns stay on the market.

The NRA hasn't agreed to that deal. And that could spell trouble for both the Intelligun and iP1. As Businessweek says, “It’s not that small arms have to be dumb. [But] whether the marketplace under the watchful eye of the NRA would welcome a smart handgun is a very different matter.” 

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