Will American gunowners ever buy a smart gun? The short answer appears to be "no." (Although the longer answer may be "maybe.")
In 2000, Smith & Wesson promised the Clinton Administration it would try to develop smart gun technology that would permit only a gun's owner to operate the firearm. It nearly sank the company. Last year, when Maryland gun store Engage Armament very publicly tried to offer Germany's Armatix iP1 smart gun for sale, it was similarly forced to backpedal. (And Armatix itself filed for bankruptcy protection in May.)
Media reports on these happenings quickly blamed the National Rifle Association and its members for smart guns' failure to sell, citing a 2002 New Jersey law that would forbid sale of non-smart guns in-state, once any other state in the Union begins selling smart guns. And yes, fears that smart gun sales elsewhere could trigger a ban on "dumb gun" sales in New Jersey is certainly part of the problem.
But it's not the whole problem.
When deciding whether to buy anything -- a smart gun, a smartphone, a pack of Smarties candy -- the first thing a consumer looks at is the price. And the price of Armatix's iP1 smart gun is a whopper.
Costing $1,798 for a package of one iP1 smart gun, and one RFID smartwatch (which must be worn to operate the gun), Armatix's smart gun costs more than four times Glock's new G43 concealed-carry handgun.
If you're concerned about gun safety and want to ensure your kids can't get their hands on your gun, there's a much more economical way to keep that from happening. Buy a G43 for $449. Put it in a GunVault NanoVault that costs $24, turn the key, and voila! For just $473 your gun is secure (and you just saved $1,325).
In short, if you want to keep your gun safe -- put it in a gun safe.
That brings us to the second big objection gun owners have against smart guns like the Armatix iP1 -- batteries. Critics have leveled many accusations at the iP1, arguing that, for example, you don't want to wake up in the middle of the night to hear a burglar breaking in, and have to remember where you left your smart gun... and then have to also remember where you left the smartwatch that you need to unlock your smart gun. It's much simpler to head straight to the gun safe and retrieve your gun.
Other critics wonder: How will a smart gun's sensitive electronics hold up under the regimen of cleaning and oiling necessary to keep a handgun in good working order? Could cellphone signals interfere with a smart gun's RFID signal, rendering it inoperable? And what if you forget the PIN code (which must be entered into the smartwatch to unlock the gun)?
One certain problem with the iP1 system is the fact that both the handgun and the smartwatch that unlocks it need batteries to operate. Should either of those batteries die at an inopportune moment, the iP1 would be useless -- an $1,800 "paperweight," unable to fire.
With a key or combination-lock gun safe or trigger lock, that's not an issue.
At least we can agree on something...
Whatever you think of smart gun prices, and smart gun utility, there's one thing most Americans agree on: No one wants to buy one.
In late 2014, U.K.-based market researcher YouGov.com conducted a poll that found a bare majority (51%) of Americans in general agreeing that smart guns are a "good idea." A 2013 poll conducted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, in contrast -- which better reflects the market for potential gun buyers in particular -- found widespread reluctance to even consider buying a smart gun.
In that latter poll, 74% of respondents worried that smart guns are either "not very reliable" or "not reliable at all." Eighty-one percent of those polled said they either were "not very likely" to ever buy a smart gun or just plain "would not buy" one, period. These numbers, showing a supermajority of potential firearms purchasers have little or no interest in buying a smart gun, suggest it will be very difficult to convince manufacturers to build, or gun store owners to sell, a smart gun in the near future.
Difficult, but not impossible
That seems to provide a pretty definitive answer to the question of whether American gun owners will ever buy a smart gun. But before we close, let me throw out one possible wild card for you.
If there is a chance for smart gun technology to succeed in the U.S., it probably lies with the major manufacturers of firearms -- handgun manufacturers like Smith & Wesson (albeit S&W may feel "once burnt, twice shy" on the subject), and Sturm, Ruger.
According to sales data from S&P Capital IQ, these two companies did nearly $1.1 billion in combined sales over the past year. So they're not exactly hurting for business as is. That said, stock analysts who follow the two companies see little chance either company will grow its profits at anything faster than a single-digit rate over the next five years. Analysts see growth rates of just 8.75% at S&W, and a mere 5% for Sturm, Ruger.
These companies grew accustomed to enjoying strong double-digit earnings growth over the past half-decade, and they may not be thrilled with the prospect of seeing profits stagnate going forward. Potentially, gunmakers might see the introduction of smart guns as a way to restart their growth engines. They might try to create a new market targeting safety-conscious gun owners with a smart gun product.
It didn't work for Smith & Wesson last time. It didn't work for Armatix, either. But don't be too surprised if some bright lad at Smith & Wesson or Sturm, Ruger wakes up one day and thinks: "Maybe third time's the charm?"
Rich Smith does not own shares of, nor is he short, any company named above. Neither does, or is, The Motley Fool. You can find Rich on Motley Fool CAPS, publicly posting his stock picks and pans under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 331 out of more than 75,000 rated members.
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