What Obama means when he says the NRA has blocked “smart gun” technology

Some gun vendors in the US have received death threats for attempting to sell “smart guns.”
Some gun vendors in the US have received death threats for attempting to sell “smart guns.”
Image: Reuters/Michael Dalder
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At last night’s (Jan. 7) town hall meeting broadcast on CNN, Obama elaborated on one part of his planned gun control executive order—encouraging “smart gun” technology that would make guns safer to use.

Gun manufacturers have been trying to introduce it for years, he said.

“I don’t exactly understand this, and maybe there will be somebody in the audience who explains it to me,” Obama told CNN. “Back in 1997, the CEO of Colt said, you know, we can design or are starting to develop guns where you can only use it if you’ve got a chip. You know, you wear a band or a bracelet, and that then protects your 2-year-old or 3-year-old from picking up the gun and using it. And a boycott was called against them, and—and they had to back off of developing that technology.”

Obama is referring to an initiative promoted by Ronald L. Stewart, who served as the CEO of Colt’s Manufacturing from 1996 to 1998. During his tenure as head of the gun maker, Stewart wrote an editorial in American Firearms Industry magazine advocating national registration (paywall) for all gun owners, something the National Rifle Association continues to oppose to this day. He also advocated creating a chip-embedded gun, which only fires when it’s within very close range of a bracelet worn by the intended shooter.

The piece sparked a huge backlash against Stewart and Colt, from the NRA, other manufacturers, and gun owners. The company began developing the Z40 as the model’s prototype, but before it hit the mass market, Stewart was dropped as CEO and the project was killed.

Colt wasn’t the only mainstream gun maker to see its commitments to gun safety backfire. In 2001 Smith & Wesson signed an agreement with the US government promising to install locks on its guns and commit research funding to “smart gun” technology. The negative response from NRA and US gun owners was so fierce that sales dropped, causing the company to lay off 125 employees (paywall). Ultimately Smith & Wesson backed out of its promise. It was the only gun maker to make the deal with the US government to begin with.

Meanwhile, smaller gun companies that offer smart gun technology have also faced virulent criticism from the gun community. Germany’s Armatix developed the iP1, another gun that only fires when paired with a wristband. But in the past, whenever US retailers announce plans to sell the iP1, death threats have convinced them to pull back.

The NRA’s position on smart gun technology could be described as ambivalent at best, or hostile at worst. In a 2014 article on the hurdles smart gun technology faces in the US, Bloomberg Businessweek published this statement from the organization:

Failed attempts to develop and market ‘smart guns’ have been going on for years. NRA does not oppose new technological developments in firearms; however, we are opposed to government mandates that require the use of expensive, unreliable features, such as grips that would read your fingerprints before the gun will fire. And NRA recognizes that the ‘smart guns’ issue clearly has the potential to mesh with the anti-gunner’s agenda, opening the door to a ban on all guns that do not possess the government-required technology.

By conflating smart gun tech outright bans, the NRA has mobilized its supporters to be critical of smart gun technology—even though it could be safer for gun owners, and lucrative for gun retailers.