Makers of smart guns waiting to see if Obama will walk the talk

The president wants to make it possible for consumers to find and buy these new types of guns. It won't be easy going.

Terry Collins Staff Reporter, CNET News
Terry writes about social networking giants and legal issues in Silicon Valley for CNET News. He joined CNET News from the Associated Press, where he spent the six years covering major breaking news in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before the AP, Terry worked at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and the Kansas City Star. Terry's a native of Chicago.
Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Terry Collins
Ben Fox Rubin
4 min read

Jonathan Mossberg planned to listen closely to President Barack Obama's final State of the Union address Tuesday.

The Daytona Beach, Florida-based gun maker has much to gain from President Obama's recent call for more investment in the development of smart guns. His company, iGun Technology, spent more than a dozen years working on a "smart" pump-action shotgun, and he comes from a family regarded as America's oldest firearms manufacturer.

But for all of Obama's recent push toward gun technology, Mossberg has doubts.

"Let's just say I'm cautiously optimistic about the government looking into smart gun technology," Mossberg said. "Is this all talk, or will there really be some sort of action?"

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Smart-gun maker Jonathan Mossberg said he's "cautiously optimistic" about President Obama's calls for action on firearms technology.

R Wettish/Jonathan Mossberg

It's been a gruesome year in gun politics. Terror attacks have rocked cities large and small, ranging from Paris to San Bernardino, California. Protests have spread across the US following fatal police shootings of unarmed civilians. And that's just a small portion of the 30,000 Americans killed annually by guns, whether through mass shootings, suicides or by accident.

Obama said he's had enough. Last week, he passionately spoke out about what can be done to stem gun violence. He enacted new rules to strengthen background checks and treat mental disease. He also urged the Defense, Justice and Homeland Security departments to look into smart gun technology, such as fingerprint and radio-frequency identification (RFID). His hope is to prevent accidental gunfire, as well as to improve capabilities to track lost or stolen guns.

Will Obama's efforts make it possible for consumers to find -- and buy -- these new types of guns? Will his executive order on gun control actually prompt gun makers to develop firearms using smart technology?

Currently, no dealer in the US sells guns equipped with smart tech. The companies that actually make these guns are skeptical.

"It's wrapped in controversy," said Tom Lynch, CEO of Safe Gun Technology. His Georgia-based company makes fingerprint scanners that can be integrated into guns.

Politicians on both sides of the debate have dug in their heels, either demanding change or insisting any move to curb gun ownership is an affront to the US Constitution.

The National Rifle Association alone spent more than$2.6 million on lobbying for gun rights last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Amy Hunter, an NRA spokeswoman, said the organization "is not opposed to smart technology," but doesn't want the government mandating to consumers what firearms to buy.

"It should be up to consumers to decide. If they buy it, that's fine," she said. "We're not in the business of advocating for products."

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, which is holding its annual SHOT Show in Las Vegas next week, isn't as enthusiastic. The organization isn't opposed to smart gun technology but questions how government research would make it better.

Gun tech makers like Lynch have been caught in the middle.

No brothers-in-arms

There are several reasons traditional gun makers hesitate to jump on board with smart guns.

One issue is reliability. Pull the trigger on a traditional gun, and it'll usually fire. Pull the trigger on a smart gun, and it might not.

"Just like the fingerprint sensor on your iPhone doesn't always work," said Randy Barnett, a Georgetown University law professor. "These designs are not perfect."

If a smart gun doesn't work, manufacturers face the risk of being sued by customers for selling defective devices.

Expense is another concern. Higher-priced smart guns could price out lower-income buyers, experts say.

The biggest danger likely is becoming a political target. That's a lesson companies learned 16 years ago when Smith & Wesson cut a deal with the Clinton administration to accept a series of gun controls, including development of smart gun technology. The NRA boycotted the company, claiming it betrayed gun owners. Smith & Wesson ultimately backed out of the agreement.

Gun makers have been hesitant to adopt gun technology ever since. "The well is poisoned," said Nicholas Johnson, a Fordham University law professor.

Smith & Wesson and gun manufacturers Remington and Ruger didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

In the State of the Union address Tuesday evening, Obama made no specific reference to smart gun technology. He said only that his goals for his final year in office include "protecting our kids from gun violence."

Still, Silicon Valley has heard Obama's pleas. Margot Hirsch, president of The Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, hopes more venture capitalists will take an interest in the field. Only six gun tech companies received more than $110 million in venture funding over the last nine years, according to the National Venture Capital Association. By comparison, the cybersecurity industry has received $10 billion in venture funding since 2012, the association said.

Hirsch remains hopeful the money men who funded Facebook, Google and Apple will eventually step forward. "It's not only an opportunity for investors to make money," she said. "They can also play a critical role in helping solve an important social issue."