New Jersey Rekindles Smart Gun Conversation with New Law

Gun safety advocates have long imagined a world where only authorized users could fire a pistol or rifle, but firearm companies have not pursued the technology — fearing blanket bans on dumb guns.

by Matt Arco, NJ Advance Media Group / August 5, 2019
Armatix intended to produce the first smart gun for sale in the United States. flickr/Gafa Kassim

(TNS) — Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation last month that will eventually force New Jersey gun dealers to sell smart guns designed to be fired only by their owners.

There’s one problem: Nobody’s making them.

Margot Hirsch, the president of The Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, a group that supports smart guns, acknowledged that while the technology for the firearms exists, there are none currently on the market.

But she’s hopeful the new law Murphy signed will change that.

“We believe it was a very positive thing,” said Hirsch.

Supporters say the guns would be designed to be safer than typical handguns, using fingerprint and other identification technology to prevent accidental shootings. For instance, they could keep children from firing their parents’ guns. Supporters also stress stolen smart guns won’t be able to be fired.

The measure Murphy signed last month removed a 2002 state law that mandated gun dealers in the Garden State could only sell smart guns once they hit the market

Advocates for the technology said that law actually crushed development of smart guns. There’s evidence that’s true as gun rights supporters feared other blue states would do exactly what New Jersey tried: Outlaw everything except smart guns.

For example, gun rights supporters protested two major national gun manufacturers in 2000 after Colt and Smith & Wesson agreed to invest in the technology. The boycott of the companies reportedly took a financial toll on Smith & Wesson and spurred Colt to shut down its smart gun development.

And when a Maryland firearms dealer announced in 2014 he would be the first gun store in the nation to sell a German-made smart gun, he quickly shelved his plans after protests and death threats. The manufacturer of the guns the dealer planned to sell later fell into bankruptcy.

There’s now fresh hope among those who support the sales of smart guns that the law Murphy signed will boost innovation and development of the firearms.

“We have said this has been extremely detrimental to smart gun innovation," Hirsch said about the 2002 law.

“Smart gun innovators are passionate about the issue and are committed to developing and bringing to market a next generation gun that can save lives,” she said. “But when they’re talking to investors, the investors (have) concerns as they would when evaluating any investment. And one the concerns has been mandating it and this has removed that risk, so we believe that will help smart gun innovators raise money.”

Gun retailers, however, continue to resist the measure.

“I don’t think any private business likes to be told what to sell,” said Rick Friedman, who owns a gun range and a two shops, and who would be among the people forced to put a smart gun on his shelves.

“It’s nice to be able to offer something as an alternative. But it’s hard to be forced to offer something,” he said. “It’s not a free market. It’s basically the government mandating something.”

And gun rights advocates continue to oppose forcing retailers to sell them because they consider it a Trojan Horse.

"In 2002, the anti-gunners tipped their hand by passing a ban on everything other than a smart gun,” Scott Bach, the head of the Association of New Jersey Rifle & Pistol Clubs, told NJ Advance Media last month after Murphy signed the new law.

“Gun owners who are normally very interested in new technology, … (but) were basically tipped off," he said, adding, "They’re using (this) as a vehicle to ban everything else.”

Bach has also said personalized hand gun technology is still imperfect and hasn’t gained the trust of gun owners. His contention that Murphy would like a smart gun-only New Jersey was backed up by the governor, who recently told an audience in Mahwah: "Yes. I hope it does get to that.”

And that’s not lost on retailers.

“Do you really get behind something that can facilitate the end of your business?” Friedman said.

Hirsch, however, said that’s not the intent of smart-gun supporters.

“The smart gun developers have always believed smart guns should be a consumer choice and should not be mandated,” she said.

As of now, it’s unclear when dealers like Friedman will have to start purchasing smart guns since they’re not on the market. The law doesn’t kick in for retailers until a commission is formed and members vote on new rules for smart guns. The commission has at least six months to be formed.

Meanwhile, pro-smart gun advocates in New Jersey have another trick up their sleeves to put pressure on major gun manufacturers to invest in the technology: Stop agencies like the State Police from doing business with them unless they show signs they’re investing in smart guns.

“The most immediate way to change this behavior is if public entities, which generally are the top purchasers of firearms, band together as consumers and use purchase power to encourage industry change such as investment in smart gun technology," said Bill Castner, a senior adviser to Murphy on firearms.

“Public entities should be purchasing firearms from manufacturers and retailers who are engaging in efforts to reduce gun violence and make guns safer,” he said.

©2019 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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