IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Can Smart Guns End the Gun Control Stalemate?

Probably not, but it adds fuel to an already intense, decades-long national debate.

If Sen. Ed Marke has his way, all guns in the U.S. will become smart guns. A bill proposed in February would require that within three years, all firearms manufactured, sold or imported to the U.S. would incorporate technology that only allows the weapon to be fired by its owner. The idea is that such technology could reduce police deaths, create accountability and reduce violence overall.

The bill has not been received favorably, even by gun-control advocates, and it appears unlikely to become law this time around. Forbes contributor Nish Acharya wrote in a recent editorial that he supports Marke’s efforts and gun control in general, but mandating technology is not the best way to make the public safer.

“This technology, like that of any other industry, needs to go through the innovation cycle and figure out its business model,” he said. “It needs to be tested in the market and gain traction before the government steps in.”

Bob Owens, the editor of, a firearms website that bears the tagline “Saving Liberty and Lives,” wrote an editorial in February agreeing that though the technology does exist, it is not yet ready. German gun maker Armatix sells the iP1 .22 caliber pistol, which requires its user to fire the gun within close proximity of a watch embedded with an RFID chip.

Firearm makers have been trying to make the technology work for 50 years, but there hasn’t been a commercial success yet, Owens wrote. The RFID bracelet implementation is the most promising version of this technology, but, he claimed, it still only works 90 percent of the time. If a 10 percent chance of the gun not firing wasn’t bad enough, he wrote, there are other problems.

“The ‘smart gun’ only works within very close proximity of the bracelet,” Owens noted. “If the shooter needs to transition to his opposite hand to take advantage of cover, or because of injury, the gun will not work. Even more disturbing is the fact that if the ‘bad guy’ manages to wrest control of gun in hand-to-hand proximity, the gun can still be used against its owner, defeating the very reason ‘smart gun’ technology was sought after in the first place.”

AmericanThinker contributor William Levinson would not be likely to accept such a high failure rate, as he recently wrote that “when national security or human safety depends on a product, that product has to work 100 percent of the time.”

Levinson titled his piece, Smart Guns: A Dumb Choice, and supported his stance by writing that “common sense says that smart guns, smart cars, smart phones and indeed anything else that relies on electronics can be disabled electronically. […] If smart gun technology were such a good idea, the police would be first in line to demand it.”

Reliable data on the number of police officers who have been killed or shot by their own weapons is unavailable. Two studies that are available vary widely. One survey showed that 43 percent of police officers killed on duty were killed by their own weapons. Another survey showed that figure to be 8 percent. One thing most people will agree on, however, is that it does happen, and when it does, it’s bad.

Lad Everitt, director of communications at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, blamed the gun industry. “The gun industry for decades has been willing to incorporate modern technology into their products to make their products more lethal, but they have never been willing to incorporate modern technology into their products to make them safer,” he said. “There will come a day in this country where they implement modern technology to make guns safer and to prevent children from shooting other children and themselves. The focus right now for our movement is on expanding background checks. That’s where you have to start. It’s hard to limit the damage done by guns when you’re still allowing people to buy guns with no accountability whatsoever.”

Many have disputed Everitt’s assumption that implementing new hoops for gun buyers to jump through has any reduction on gun violence, with the tautological explanation that criminals have a tendency to ignore such laws.

Economist Steven Levitt and Journalist Stephen Dubner, best known for writing the bestselling book Freakonomics, have posited on several occasions that gun control laws have not in the past had the desired effect -- and can sometimes have the opposite of the desired effect. Dubner expressed pessimism in an audio podcast last year. “I would just say that anyone with any sense looks at the current political climate, thinks about the kinds of proposals that are being made and accepts the fact that none of these proposals are going to have any real impact at all,” he said.

If history is taken to be a sign of things to come, then one piece of New Jersey legislation is particularly illustrative. A law passed in 2002 posed a similar requirement on all firearms sold in the state. Alan Boinus of USA Today wrote in opposition of the recent bill in an editorial.

“When New Jersey passed its mandate law, gun manufacturers interested in the technology for their own business pursuits abandoned the tech and business relationships with personalized gun innovators, fearing that such involvement might put their own conventional gun business out of business,” Boinus wrote. “Misinformation, skepticism and fear festered among gun advocates that such guns were just the stuff of movie fantasy, which in turn, caused investments, grants, partnerships and business opportunities to all but dry up – clearly the opposite intent of those pushing for personalized gun mandate legislation."

It is viable technology, he wrote, "but unless there are people willing to put their money down to buy the product – because they want to – not because of government mandates, it will never advance. That is called free markets. A lesson our politicians need to learn.”

Following New Jersey’s legislation in 2002, the founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, Stephen Teret, said he was very optimistic about the technology. “Who is going to want to buy an old stupid gun rather than a smart gun?” Teret asked.

In addition to his bill, Sen. Marke also asked the president to allocate federal funding to research gun violence, a request that was granted in the form of $10 million. The lack of specific direction on such research has led to further criticism, however. The research was explained in a single sentence that reads, “This amount includes $10 million to conduct research on the causes and prevention of gun violence, including investigating links between video games, media images and violence."

BostInno Staff Writer Nick DeLuca wrote that this description is too vague to inspire confidence, and instead suggested that instead of focusing the investigation into links between gun violence, video games and other interactive media devices, "perhaps the investigation should put an added emphasis on substance abuse, mental health and the socioeconomic disparities that produce gun offenders.”

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.