It's late at night, your wife is home alone, when an intruder breaks into your home. She goes to the nightstand to retrieve your brand-new handgun, and as she pulls the trigger to defend herself when the intruder attacks, she hears... nothing. The gun didn't fire. It didn't recognize her fingerprint, so it wouldn't allow her to shoot.
Welcome to the world of so-called "smart guns," new technology that's promoted as leading to the next level of gun safety.
Recently, venture capitalist Ron Conway called for the industry to develop the "iPhone of guns," extolling how Apple's latest technology only unlocks the smartphone when it recognizes the fingerprint of its owner. Other companies are pursuing other technological advances such as the use of RFID chips that only allow a gun to fire when its owner is wearing a wristwatch or ring that's been embedded with a chip.
"Wait a minute, Mr. Burglar, while I go put my watch on so I can defend my family." Um, no.
Although smart guns appear to be the holy grail for gun safety advocates, it's a quixotic crusade that will likely fail if for no other reason than that the high cost will deter most gun owners from buying one. Armatix, a German gunmaker with an RFID chip-based model, sells the .22 LR caliber weapon for $1,399 plus another $399 for the wristwatch that makes it operational. Or I can buy .22 LR caliber handguns from Smith & Wesson (SWBI -0.64%) for around $300 or so and have a weapon that works whenever I or my family need it to.
But more than cost is the potential for technology failure to reduce your gun to something no more useful than a club. The Armatix wristwatch, for example, has a battery that needs to be recharged, which would be bad news for you if the battery is dead or is just insufficiently charged when you need it. As the gunmaker itself admits, the iP1 should not be relied upon for self-defense, which is arguably the primary reason the vast majority of gun owners buy a handgun.
Yardarm has developed technology to remotely disable your gun in the event you've detected unauthorized control of it (you can receive mobile alerts for this possibility), but there's nothing to suggest it can't be hacked to have someone disable your gun when you have it. As shotgun maker Mossberg readily admits, even with its own RFID technology that it's dabbled with in the past, it can't guarantee 100% reliability.
Although the gun safety crowd seemingly commands the high moral ground here, there's a sneaking suspicion among gun rights advocates that it's a backdoor attempt at further regulation. An RFID chip, after all, would allow for easier government tracking of lawfully purchased guns or even the aforementioned disabling of the weapon by the government. Perhaps it's a bit of conspiracy theory musing, but the gun control debate can get vitriolic and extreme at times, and it invites such thoughts.
Laregly it's because gun owners themselves are not the ones generally clamoring for these technological advances. It's typically been a push from outside the industry to impose such controls on the weapons. When Smith & Wesson signed an agreement in 2000 with the Clinton administration to explore smart gun technology, it faced a backlash by gun owners who boycotted the company. Colt Industries faced a similar boycott when it developed the Z-40 that contained an RFID chip and a wrist transponder.
Demand for guns is already at a fever pitch. Trailing revenues at Smith & Wesson jumped 25% year over year while Sturm, Ruger's (RGR -0.31%) revenues surged 46%. FBI background checks are at an all-time record high as well, with gunmakers of all stripes reporting backlog of orders at record levels, too. They have little need to produce a product for which their customers have expressed little desire and in fact may be hostile toward.
As much as I love my iPhone, there are limits to its usefulness and reliability to the extent that an "iPhone of guns" raises concerns about the ability to use the gun when and how it's needed. Proponents can promote such weapons as the next technological leap, but there's likely little market for them in reality, and gunmakers introduce them at their own peril.