Congress shoots itself in the foot with misguided smart gun legislation

Sen. Edward MarkeyEd MarkeyHonor Frank Lautenberg by protecting our kids Sanders pans chemical safety reform deal Feds fault pipeline company in California oil spill MORE (D-Mass.) and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) recently announced that they are bringing back “smart gun mandate” legislation with their proposed, “Handgun Trigger Safety Act.”   The bill would mandate all guns manufactured in the U.S. incorporate smart gun technology within five years of the bill’s enactment and all guns distributed in commerce incorporate the technology (including retrofitting existing guns) after ten years of the bill’s enactment. 

Allied Biometrix (which has an option to commercialize NJIT biometrics gun technology) and the other companies developing “personalized” or “smart guns” share the goal of bringing reliable “smart gun” technology to market that can limit the function of firearms to authorized users.  Such guns hold considerable promise with the potential of dramatically curtailing gun accidents, particularly among children who end up victims from the unauthorized use of guns. However, this bill is flawed and counterproductive to the goals of improving gun safety.

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What is particularly confounding is why this bill was introduced in the first place, let alone, re-introduced.  While there are some aspects worth salvaging (such as R&D grants), the positive aspects are sadly undermined by the continual and misguided venture into mandates that has had the net effect of retarding tech development, subverting the markets and dissuading investment.
 
The bill is flawed because the premise is wrong:

“Personalizing handguns would prevent unauthorized users, whether children, criminals, or others, from misusing the weapons” and “Personalizing handguns would allow authorized users to continue to lawfully own and use their handguns more safely.”

These are faulty assumptions based on years of misunderstanding and misrepresenting the technology by both proponents and naysayers.  For instance, reliability of smart guns is market segment specific, e.g., the right tech for stopping hunting accidents is fundamentally different from preventing child or adolescent misuse of guns in the home.  Yet, bills like Markey-Maloney’s do not distinguish between such differences -- and the bill’s authors do not seem to know or bother knowing about the state-of-the-art of smart gun technology to be writing legislation about it.

But the politics is flawed.  I do not think there is one CEO in the smart gun industry that supports mandate legislation.

One would think that politicians learned the lesson of smart gun mandate legislation after the infamous and failed New Jersey “smart gun” mandate law became law in 2002.  That law mandates that all guns sold in New Jersey would have to be smart guns after three years of a smart gun becoming commercially available anywhere in the U.S.  The result has been nothing but disastrous for the smart gun industry.  New Jersey State Senator Loretta Weinberg (the author of the New Jersey smart gun mandate law) now recognizes that her bill “backfired” and has stymied research and investment in the technology.  Unfortunately, Markey-Maloney’s bill only serves to bolster the critics that this is a backdoor means to gun control.  It gives critics the opportunity to not only claim that the technology isn’t reliable, but will “never” be reliable.

But even if the technology were as reliable as turning on a light bulb, mandates still would be a bad idea. Mandating gun manufacturers without smart gun technology in their core competency (biometrics, radio frequency identification, electronics, battery storage) to now make smart guns or go out of business is akin to telling the automobile industry that all cars must be electric because Tesla is on the market.  And telling gun owners what guns they should buy causes them to fear being forced to own guns they don’t want and -- worse  –  fear that government would take away the guns they own or want.  This spirals into a vicious cycle of market resistance leading to investor resistance, lack of capital, unsubstantial marketing, limited sales, no capital improvements, that itself results in undesirable products and full-circle to market resistance – exactly the opposite effect that proponents of safer guns want.

Ultimately, superior products will displace inferior products, but nascent markets like this one do not have a chance to succeed if they are clouded by misinformation by those with political agendas, whether in support or opposition to the technology.

If we really want improved gun safety with smart guns, legislators must abandon mandates and find ways to incentivize their uptake in the marketplace.  Legislators should be thinking tax incentives to manufacturers, distributors and consumers and should look beyond grants for R&D, to grants for law enforcement and military for field testing and purchasing, which in turn should drive consumer confidence and market acceptance.  But mandates?  Lawmakers are shooting themselves in the foot.

Boinus is CEO of Allied Biometrix, a California start-up that has an option to license the commercial rights to firearms user-authenticating technology developed at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). 

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