Joe Nocera: The Messy World of Smart Guns

Syndicated columnistJuly 9, 2014 

The Andy Raymond rant is a thing to behold.

Raymond, the co-owner of Engage Armament in Montgomery County, Maryland, is one of the two gun dealers who, a few months ago, tried to sell the Armatix iP1 — aka, the first commercially available "smart gun" — to his customers. He thought that not only did he have every right to sell a smart gun, but that he was doing the gun world a favor by offering a gun that had the potential to expand the universe of gun owners.

Instead, both Engage Armament and Oak Tree, a California-based gun dealer, backed away after receiving a torrent of hate mail and death threats from gun-rights absolutists.

In the rant, which he posted on his Facebook page, Raymond is sitting in front of an array of semiautomatic weapons. He has a bottle of what appears to be whiskey next to him. He acknowledges that he's been drinking. From time to time, he takes a puff on a cigarette. (I don't have a Facebook page, so I relied on excerpts from the rant that were shown on Chris Hayes' MSNBC show, "All In.")

"How can the NRA want to prohibit a gun when we're supposed to be pro-gun?" he says. "How hypocritical is that?" Then, after an angry, expletive-filled shout-out to those who sent him death threats, he changes direction. He denies ever selling an Armatix pistol. And then he says, "I thought my principles were correct, but maybe I was wrong." And he apologizes. And with one last gulp of whiskey, he is done.

Which is to say, he epitomizes the state of smart guns right now. The whole thing is a bit of a mess.

I last looked into smart gun technology about a year and a half ago, and what I saw then was a lot of ferment — and genuine excitement about the potential of smart-gun technologies. I found people who had been working on smart guns for years, like Don Sebastian of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and newcomers to the field like Ron Conway, the Silicon Valley investor who was galvanized by the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, and began backing a smart-gun effort. It was also the first time I heard about a New Jersey law that said that if smart guns became commercially available anywhere in the country, New Jersey gun dealers would be required, within three years, to sell only guns that had smart-gun technology.

The idea, said Loretta Weinberg, the New Jersey Senate majority leader who sponsored the legislation 12 years ago, was partly to spur gun innovation. Instead, it held back innovation, as traditional gun manufacturers saw no incentive in investing in smart-gun technology. It was also vehemently opposed by the National Rifle Association, which viewed it, not incorrectly, as a gun control effort. Gun advocates mocked smart-gun technologies, claiming the "bad guys" with normal guns would have the advantage over the "good guys" with smart guns.

The New Jersey law was at the heart of the objections to Oak Tree and Engage Armament selling the Armatix smart gun. The fear of gun advocates is that if someone did start selling a commercialized smart gun, the three-year clock would start ticking in New Jersey.

When I spoke to smart-gun advocates this time around, I found a great deal of mixed emotions about the New Jersey law. Jonathan Mossberg, who runs something called the iGun Technology Corp. — and is an avowed gun advocate — told me that the New Jersey mandate "needs to be repealed."

Stephen Teret, the co-director of the Center for Law and the Public's Health at Johns Hopkins University — and an expert on smart-gun technology — said that he thought the law would soon be irrelevant. "There will be a personalized gun sold very soon," he told me. "It will be the Armatix gun that people are talking about." He wouldn't tell me who the seller would be, however.

Weinberg acknowledged that her bill may have become an impediment rather than a spur to gun safety.

There is still a lot going on in smart-gun technology. Sebastian continues to plug away at a technology that would recognize an owner's grip, and only allow that person to use the gun. Ron Conway's group, the Smart Tech Foundation, just awarded a total of $1 million to 15 grantees that are working on promising smart-gun technologies.

As for Weinberg, she told me that she had approached the NRA as recently as two weeks ago and said she would try to get her law repealed if the NRA would promise not to block smart-gun technology from reaching the marketplace. "I said we might have some common ground here." The NRA did not reply.

What a surprise.

THE NEW YORK TIMES

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