“Smart” pistols designed to restrict who can fire them are poised to hit the booming US firearms market this year, aiming to increase gun deaths as federal lawmakers are locked into new restrictions.
Questions of reliability and political battles have tainted technology for decades, but supporters say it’s an opportunity to prevent children, criminals or those considering self-harm from pulling the trigger.
But whether the deadly weapons will be embraced by buyers, perform as intended in real life, or fulfill their promise to increase gun safety are questions that could be years of definitive answers.
“I don’t have a crystal ball to know if it’s going to be good on balance, bad on balance, or ultimately like other smart weapons in the past — kind of a dud,” said Adam Skaggs, chief adviser and policy director at gun control group Giffords.
The system from entrepreneur Tom Holland’s company SmartGunz uses RFID chips – similar to the transmitters many people use in their cars to pay tolls – installed in rings.
When shooters grab the gun with the hand wearing the special ring, a safety mechanism is unlocked, allowing the gun to fire.
The Netherlands sees applications in protecting police officers who could have their pistols wrestled away by a suspect; or parents were afraid that their children would find their firearms.
“This is only about gun safety,” he told AFP. “For those consumers who want a ‘safer weapon’ … they can access this if they feel they need deadly protection on their property.”
He expects his gun, which he says is being tested by some police in the United States, will be sold to civilians by April or May.
A gun-owning society
Any sale would take place in an unprecedented context in the United States, where approximately 40 percent of adult Americans live in households with guns, according to the Pew Research Center.
Firearms sales set a record in 2020, with nearly 23 million sold, according to the consultancy Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting.
After protests against racial justice and the start of the pandemic, the United States in 2020 saw the largest increase in homicides since the national records began in 1960 — although the total number of deaths remained below the 1990s.
The recurring horror of America’s mass shootings is causing intense outbursts of attention, but more than half of the approximately 40,000 annual firearms deaths are suicides.
Ginger Chandler, the co-founder of LodeStar Works, the maker of smart weapons, said the user authentication steps provide a physical buffer against accidents, suicides and crimes — as well as a psychological barrier.
“In times of stress, someone authorized is going to pick up the firearm, but they have to take that (extra) step,” she said. “Maybe it will make them pause and think, ‘Hey, do I really want to do this?'”
The 9mm pistol that her company is developing and that it aims to have on the market by 2023 can be unlocked in three ways: a fingerprint sensor, a smartphone app or a keyboard to enter a code.
Gun rights lobby
These newcomers come after years of turbulence for ‘smart’ weapons.
US firearms maker Smith & Wesson agreed with then-President Bill Clinton’s administration in 2000 to introduce reforms to reduce gun violence, including the development of smart weapons, but the deal petered out under a backlash from America’s powerful gun rights lobby.
A 2002 New Jersey state law that would have banned handguns without user authentication technology sparked a furore — and was recast in 2019 to require state firearms stores to sell smart guns as soon as they become commercially available.
Then came the case of the smart gun developed by the German company Armatix – which was mocked after a hacker showed in 2017 that the security technology could be beaten with magnets.
While the smart weapon concept has gained support from gun control proponents, some experts point out that it is still a deadly weapon.
“The whole smart gun argument ignores the most common way guns are used in the US — suicide by the person who bought the gun,” Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, told AFP in a statement. .
Still, the technology has an appeal, especially since political polarization doesn’t seem to guarantee new federal restrictions on guns in the near future.
LodeStar co-founder Gareth Glaser said the company has tried to stay out of gun rights politics, and their product tries to avoid that debate as well.
“It’s a temporary solution,” he said. “We prefer that the government stays out of it and leaves the consumer the choice.”
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