Back in September, the Sisters of the Holy Names and Jesus and Mary, backed by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility won what the media touted as a victory for smart guns. They offered up a resolution to shareholders of Smith & Wesson, rebranded American Outdoor Brands, forcing the company’s management to produce a report on the viability of smart guns.
Most everyone I know uses ID technology in some way, from thumbprints to cars that start without a key turn. Smart guns advocates hope technology could make guns harder for them to steal and harder for children to access.
But the industry, meaning traditional gun manufacturers and the groups that represent gun owners and manufacturers, has always opposed them. It’s something that has puzzled me, as a longtime business journalist, for the year I’ve been reporting on the business of guns. There seem pretty clear markets for guns equipped with such technology.
It increasingly is an issue to public and private watchdogs who reign in public company managements when they are not acting in the best interest of shareholders. In the case of Smith & Wesson, Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) and Glass Lewis sided with the nuns, as did the investment management giant. BlackRock also sided with the religious groups in a similar vote over at rival weapon-maker Sturm Ruger back in May, wrote David Meyer.
I asked two of my contacts in the gun industry to explain why they are so steadfastly opposed to smart guns. (The industry opposition also makes finding investors harder for smart gun startups, though two of them, Lodestar and iGun, continue to push ahead. ).
Why all the sturm and drang around smart guns? Why don’t gun manufacturers try them and let the market sort it out? If people want them, they’ll buy them; it not, the efforts will fizzle.
Last month, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, and Jeff Reh, the general counsel for Beretta, why they’ve taken the stands they have on smart guns. I was hoping talking to them would shed light on why so many gun companies, including public ones, have taken the stands they have on smart guns. Here’s my summary of the reasons.
Guns may be less reliable with chip or other technology.
“The firearms made by our member companies are designed to perform in austere and less-than-ideal conditions when lives are literally at stake,” wrote the NSSF spokesman. “To date, authorized-user technology developments have only introduced points of failure that could put the lives of lawful and authorized users at risk when they need those firearms to preserve lives.”
“The bottom line is the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry trade association, isn’t opposed to the research, development and market introduction of authorized-user technology. NSSF does oppose though, mandates of the use of this unproven and unreliable technology,” the spokesman wrote.
I asked iGun founder Jonathan Mossberg about how reliable the iGun is. He says the gun already passes military specification testing, including “a 3,000 round torture test including freezing and dropping.
“We have already built a personalized firearm that is more reliable than most commercial firearms available,” he wrote.
Based on conversations with companies and engineers developing military weapons with chip technology, reliability is a valid worry – but it’s an existing worry for every gun. Weapons without chips or ID technology fail now (we don’t know how often, but they do).
“The market should decide which technology and which product to buy based on its merits as the market does now,” Mossberg said.
It’s important to note that in the gun community, where the belief in the singular defensive power of guns is common, a higher risk of a gun failing means a higher risk of dying in a confrontation.
“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?” wrote the NSSF in a fact sheet about the technology.
The gun industry has more legal protection against liability than other industries after Congress, in 2005, passed a law aiming to protect manufacturers from lawsuits by people and organizations affected by gun violence. It is, however, liable for defective products, according to this NPR story.
They fear mandates.
In 2002, New Jersey passed a law saying that once “personalized handguns are available” anywhere in the country, all handguns sold in New Jersey must be smart guns within 30 months.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy recently said he would introduce new gun control bills, including one that would replace the mandate. The new legislation would require every New Jersey gun retailer to carry at least one smart gun.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the gun industry will trust that other states won’t pass mandates. “The gun control community has done disfavor to its objectives by lacking self-control in this area,” Reh wrote. “By immediately trying to convert what they tout as a safety feature into a mandate, they create not just the specter but also the actuality of a gun ban because the technology is not yet applicable (and may never be) to almost all models of firearms. For the firearms to which such a device could be applied, the purchaser then faces the problem of being required to buy only something that is less reliable and therefore less safe for self-defense purposes than what they can buy today.”
The market may be small.
The NSSF surveyed its members and found that 14% would be likely to buy a smart gun. In 2015, Penn Shoen Berland found 40% of Americans would consider swapping their current gun for a smart gun. The underlying data in the latter study suggests older gun owners are less likely to be interested in smart guns.
The technology may be hard.
For instance, said Reh, what do you do about batteries: “If a homeowner keeps a gun locked with the use of “smart gun” technology and stores the gun, perhaps in an accessible place in order to have quick access in the event of an emergency, but then in fact the gun is not used for months, maybe years, what is the failure mode when the battery or power source dies?”
I asked the spokesman and Reh by email why the market couldn’t be a solution to the question of how viable the technology is – consumers, after, accept risks that products will fail all the time. Neither answered the question directly.
It may well be that the technology is a bigger challenge than it appears from the outside. I recently interviewed executives of an Israeli tech company who have developed chip technology that works to count ammunition in weapons, but they spent six years doing so with top talent found in the Israeli startup scene.
That startup, Secubit, is hoping that one of the uses for a similar chip could be to help identify gun owners who are at risk of committing violence acts by revealing changes in their shooting behavior.
After my long exchanges with the two gun industry representatives, I didn’t feel I understood completely, though it did seem the technology is probably harder than outsiders know.
It’s also true that old industries get, well, blind. I once asked investor Mohamed El Erian why some industries don’t pursue opportunities. He was talking about finance, but it’s interesting to thing how it might apply to gun manufacturers.
First, he said, individuals working within an industry may have blind spots. They may not be able to see wealthy women as individuals, for instance. In the gun world, some people may not be able to believe that a gun control advocate could have a good idea.
Second, they reframe a problem, but in a familiar way: They may be aware that they need to serve women or people in debt, but they leap to obvious and ultimately counterproductive answers, like having cards made up in pink or charging ultra-high interest rates.
You can sort of see smart gun advocates being blind in this way, if they believe that ending the mandate in New Jersey will enable trust by gun manufacturers.
Or, El Erian said, sometimes a big company is just hidebound, like IBM building a bigger mainframe when what it really needed to do was build a PC.
“It’s like the American tourist in Paris who goes up to a French person to ask for help in English. The French person indicates that he doesn’t understand English. The tourist than says the same thing again in English, but louder.”
Sometimes, writing about guns makes me feel like the English person in that anecdote.