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"Smart" Guns

Thursday, January 27, 2000

FBI statistics show that during the decade 1987-1996, dozens of law enforcement officers in the United States were killed by criminals who wrested their firearms away and then shot them or other officers. To decrease the chances of officers being feloniously shot with their own guns in the future, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) funded a "Smart Gun Technology Project" in 1994.

The project`s ultimate goal was to identify a technology that could be integrated into a firearm to prevent it from functioning in the hands of an unauthorized user. Effort was made to identify the requirements that officers might have for such "smart" gun technology, to evaluate technologies that meet the officers` "smart" firearm needs and to develop models to demonstrate how "smart" gun technology might operate.

Technologies explored included: "Automatic Identification" (generally, an electronic device that allows a gun to fire when the device receives a code transmitted from a separate device worn by the authorized user of the firearm), "Biometric" (those that allow the firearm to function when they "read" the authorized user`s fingerprint or speech pattern, or detect some other identifiable human factor) and "Miscellaneous" (including devices, such as combination locks, that do not require electricity to operate).

In its 1996 report to the NIJ, the project managers stated that "there is no perfect technology: one that will meet all the officer`s requirements." The highest grade received by any of the prototypes was a "B." The four highest-ranked devices were radio frequency devices. Their downside: interference by electromagnetic currents can cause them to not operate as intended, and guns so equipped are useless if the officer forgets to wear the ring, watchband or other item containing the requisite transmitter. Also, devices that operate on batteries become useless when the batteries fail. Other technologies had a variety of advantages and disadvantages.

The project concluded: "It may take a generation of smart gun systems to come and go before a smart gun is not only common but is favored over a non-smart gun. . . . To accomplish this goal a great deal of time and resources will have to be expended for the smart gun application."

One world-renown firearm manufacturer, Beretta, whose gun-making roots wind back all the way to the year 1526, recently issued a statement on the "smart" gun technology issue, saying:

"Although the concept of a `smart gun` or `personalized gun` has received public attention recently, we believe that careful consideration has not been given to potentially dangerous risks associated with these concepts. In our opinion, such technology is undeveloped and unproven. In addition, Beretta strongly believes that "smart gun" technology or "personalized" guns (hereinafter also referred to as "smart gun" technology) could actually increase the number of fatal accidents involving handguns."

The fact that "smart gun" technology was developed for law enforcement use is significant because it is designed for a situation where the owner of the gun has a gun within their [sic] control and intends that it be loaded. Beretta has grave concerns about the suitability of such a device for home use for the simple reason that civilian owners of such guns, who would not currently do so, might believe that their weapon is now childproof and could leave their guns loaded and accessible to children, trusting the "smart gun" feature to prevent an accident.

The idea of a "smart gun" has appeal to the unwary and has been promoted by gun control advocates who have no technical understanding of firearms design nor, apparently, of the risks inherent in their proposals. Beretta trusts that politicians and voters who consider this issue carefully and objectively will agree that such devices should not be required in handguns.

"Smart" Gun and "Gun Control"

The so-called "Smart Gun Project" was concerned with developing technology for use by law enforcement officers. Gun control advocates, however, see "smart" gun technology as a way to force the price of guns beyond the budgets of many Americans. Indeed, Colt`s Manufacturing Company, which received $500,000 from the NIJ and spent millions of its own money to develop a "smart" gun prototype, estimates the technology would add $300 to $400 to the price of a gun.

Clearly, the "smart" guns issue has the potential to mesh with the anti-gun lobby`s agenda of banning affordable handguns and elevating the price of all others in order to reduce both the number of guns people can purchase and the number of people who can purchase guns. In November 1998, Handgun Control, Inc. announced support for legislation in New Jersey that would require that within three years all guns sold incorporate "smart" gun technology (which doesn`t exist in a production-ready form). HCI knows that if it can get a "smart" gun mandate passed anywhere, it can immediately start screaming to the press and pliable politicians about the supposed dangers posed by old technology (read: "dumb" guns). There will be calls to have such firearms destroyed or disabled or, at the very least, retrofitted with "smart" gun technology that many gun owners would be unable to afford.

New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial already has gone to court to penalize 15 manufactures and distributors, in essence, for not making guns "smarter." The suit alleges a gun manufacturer should make a gun that can only be fired by its owner. Mayor Morial, with the prodding of HCI lawyers, is unconcerned that the technology he seeks to punish gun makers for not using in the past has yet to come off the drawing board.

Thus far, such lawsuits have been unsuccessful. In a high-profile case decided in November 1998 (Dix v. Beretta U.S.A., 750681-9, Cal. Super. Ct., Alameda County), a California jury found the manufacturer was not responsible for an accidental shooting which occurred with one of its handguns. Plaintiffs, supported by HCI`s legal arm, had alleged that the handgun should have been manufactured with a device designed to prevent unauthorized users from pulling the trigger—one of the commonly suggested forms of "smart" gun technology. The jury, however, voted 9-3 and 10-2 against the questions alleging negligence by the manufacturer. The jury found that the only significant cause of the death was the negligence of the gun owner and the person who pointed the gun at the victim and pulled the trigger, mistakenly believing it was unloaded.

"Smart" Guns and Firearm Safety for Kids

In their call for "smart" gun technology as the answer to accidental shootings of children, anti-gun groups often grossly exaggerate the number of such shootings. They commonly make references to accidental shootings in one breath and allege in the next that there are 5,000 children killed with guns each year. However, the number of children killed in firearm accidents each year is less than 200. According to the latest figures from the National Center for Health Statistics, in 1996, 138 children died in gun accidents, compared to 3,015 in car crashes and 966 in drownings. Fatal gun accidents accounted for 2.2% of the accidental deaths for children aged 15 and younger. The annual number of fatal firearm accidents among children has dropped 75% since 1975 and is now the lowest ever recorded. Firearm accidents have also decreased among the general population due to the same reason they have declined among children: education.

Prominent in Mayor Morial`s complaint are the deaths of three New Orleans children accidently killed with guns since 1992, but the mayor ignores the real question, raised by Beretta, that must be answered—will "smart" guns save lives or cost lives?

John R. Lott, Jr., a University of Chicago law professor, correctly framed the "smart" gun issue in a National Review article (Dec. 21, 1998). Prof. Lott wrote: "The futuristic guns advocated in the New Orleans suit, such as guns activated by a radio signal from a wristband, are far from reliable and will cost $900 when they are finally available." "The cost", Lott says, "will fall far more heavily on law-abiding citizens than on criminals—decreasing the number of innocent people who could use guns to protect themselves." The debate should be over how many of the accidental child deaths will be avoided versus how will such rules affect people`s ability to defend themselves and their children? "But this is a debate," Lott says, "that the city, with good reason, deliberately ignores."

Let the Issue be Decided in the Marketplace

There is at least one splinter anti-gun group—the Violence Policy Center—which opposes "smart" guns because, however "smart" they may be, they would still be "guns." The VPC`s stated goal is to ban all handguns and says "smart guns would only be effective if owners disposed of all other firearms." The VPC fears "smart" gun technology will cause gun sales to increase, an idea perhaps buttressed by a 1996 survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center which found that more than one-third of Americans said they would consider buying a "smart" gun.

With the possible exception of that one extremist group, no one believes that engineers should not experiment with ideas that have potentially beneficial uses. However, government should not require consumers to purchase products that they do not want or feel they do not need.

The jury is still out, and can be expected to remain so for a long time to come, on the merits of "smart" gun technology. There is, of course, no firearm in production that incorporates "smart" gun technology. "Smart" gun prototypes have not been tested for reliability and durability under conditions that officers would subject the firearm to in day-to-day use. And, thus far, "smart" gun research has been geared toward the narrow needs of law enforcement officers, not the many and diverse needs of the nation`s 60-65 million gun owners. Even if a "smart" gun could be developed for the police, it would almost assuredly not be something that every civilian gun owner would want.

In the meantime, it is certainly worth noting that the trend in law enforcement officers killed with their own firearms has been downward in the absence of "smart" gun technology. From a high of 19 officers in 1979 and 1981, there have been six per year, on average, during the 1990s, and four in 1996, the most recent year for which data have been reported by the FBI. The decline is primarily the result of significant improvements in officer training and tactics to deal with precisely this threat, together with officers` increased use of semi-automatic pistols (in place of revolvers), body armor (bullet-resistant vests) and improved holsters.

Overall, fatal firearms accidents are at an historic low. Their rate has declined 88% since the high in 1903 and 33% during the last decade. Fatal firearms accidents among children are also at an all-time low—down 75% since 1975. Today, fatal gun accidents account for only 1% of accidental deaths and only 0.05% of all deaths in the U.S.

This great progress has been made not because the government mandated how the firearms industry engineered its products or tried to dictate how Americans store their firearms in their homes. This safety success story is the direct result of voluntary firearms safety education, such as the training programs provided by NRA`s network of 46,000 certified instructors and coaches. And American children—more than 17 million youngsters in pre-K through 6th grade—are safer today because they have learned the message taught through the award-winning Eddie Eagle® Gun Safety Program.

For industry comment see Beretta Position Concerning "Smart Gun" Technology

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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.