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Traceable Cartridges Are More Important Than "Smart Guns." Too Bad the NRA Wants to Kill the Idea.


The Washington Post caused a stir Wednesday with a front-page story about the development of “smart guns”—“the iPhone of guns”—that will fire only if used by the gun’s owner. One German company’s smart gun is linked to an electronic chip in a watch: If the gun’s close to the watch—that is, if the gun’s owner is wearing the watch while holding the gun—the gun can be fired. If it’s not, it can’t. An Irish company has developed similar technology embedded in a ring (for those who prefer their wrists bare, presumably.) The Irish company has also developed technology that would “render guns inoperable if they approached electronic markers—for instance, near a school.” (Or a movie theater, or a university, or a shopping mall, or a subway, or a McDonalds, or an army base, or, or…)

The benefits are plain. Imagine if Adam Lanza’s AR-15 had shut down on him as he approached Sandy Hook Elementary! Heck, imagine if he couldn’t have used it at all if he didn’t have access to the ring or watch his mother used to activate her guns. Or think of all the accidental shootings we could prevent involving children who get their hands on guns in their homes. No watch or ring, and the guns become less dangerous than a rubber dart.

But of course there is a catch. As The Post writes:

Over the years, the idea of making guns smart waxed and waned, until a serious effort began in the early 1990s. Stephen Teret, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University, commissioned undergraduate engineering students to build what turned out to be a crude smart gun activated by a ring. Later in the decade, the federal government researched smart guns to protect police officers whose weapons were taken in struggles.

In 2000, after Colt quietly worked on smart-gun technology, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) tried and failed to pass legislation mandating smart guns in the state. His effort was lauded by President Bill Clinton, whose administration struck a deal with Smith & Wesson to research the technology. But the backlash by gun owners and the NRA against the company was brutal, and Smith & Wesson’s business tanked.

Turns out, a gun industry that trumpets every last advance in precision and firepower is less than enthusiastic about technological developments intended to increase the safe operation of guns. If that sounds like too harsh a characterization, consider what has been happening with another form of smart gun technology—engraving a gun’s serial number in its chamber so that the number is stamped on each cartridge as it is fired by the gun, thus allowing police to identify a gun used in a shooting via spent casings found at the scene.* This technology—dubbed “microstamping”—is meant to make it vastly easier for police to trace guns that have been used in crimes—in the hundreds of thousands of intentional shootings that vastly outnumber the accidental shootings the electronic chip technology is meant to prevent.

That is, unlike the electronic chip technology or even background checks for gun buyers, which under some scenario could conceivably cause a hassle for a gun owner (the watch malfunctions; the background check brings up a bogus criminal record, etc.) there is not the slightest chance that microstamping could hinder a law-abiding gun owner from obtaining or using his firearm—microstamping’s only purpose is tracking down perpetrators after a gun has been used. (As Rachel Maddow recently recounted, it was similar technology for Taser stun guns that allowed police to crack the case of the stolen 300-year-old Stradivarius violin.)

And yet the industry is now in the midst of a bitter fight against even this advance—a fight unmentioned in The Post's smart-gun article. Last month, California at long last put into effect a new law, signed in 2007 by Arnold Schwarzenegger, that requires that any new models of semi-automatic handguns sold in the state have microstamping capability. (The District of Columbia passed a similar law, and other states, most notably New York, have been seriously considering it.) The industry is refusing to comply. Not a single gun maker manufacturer has yet produced a compliant handgun for sale in California and Ruger and Smith & Wesson have announced they won’t sell new handguns in the state, period. Meanwhile, the National Shooting Sports Foundation—which is based, as you may recall, in Newtown, Conn.—has filed suit in Fresno County Superior Court, along with another trade association, to block the law. The San Francisco Chronicle reports:

They are not claiming that the law violates the right to bear arms—a difficult argument in a state with millions of legal firearms—but that compliance is impossible. "No semiautomatic pistol can be designed or equipped with a microscopic array of characters identifying (a gun's) make, model and serial number" that can be legibly and reliably transferred to the cartridge upon firing, the suit said.

That conflicts with [state Attorney General Kamala] Harris' conclusion last year after an investigation by her office. It's also inconsistent with a successful demonstration of the technology at the Los Angeles Police Academy in 2007, with dozens of officers in attendance, said former Democratic Assemblyman Mike Feuer, the author of the micro-stamping law. "This is part of a very cynical strategy by the gun lobby and the gun try to thwart what safety experts recognize is an innovation that will make all of us safer," Feuer, now the Los Angeles city attorney, said...

What could possibly be driving this? Well, engraving adds some cost to gun manufacture (though the inventor of the technology has agreed to release his patent on it, thus allaying costs). More than that, though, there is the industry’s and NRA’s longstanding resistance to measures that enhance our ability to keep track of guns. Tracing guns used in crimes raises the specter of the biggest bogeyman of all, gun registration, while also making it more likely that the public will get a clearer picture of the derivation of the guns used in crimes—a picture that will lay bare that more such guns derive from “law-abiding” owners or dealers than we now realize. This was the motivation behind the so-called Tiahrt Amendments, which severely constrained law enforcement agencies’ ability to trace guns used in crimes. Some of the amendments have since loosened, but several key constraints still remain: the Justice Department must still destroy the record of any gun buyer whose background check got approved within 24 hours; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms may not require dealers to do inventory checks to detect losses and thefts; and law enforcement agencies still face limits on how much they can use trace data to pursue law-breaking dealers and traffickers.

But underlying the gun makers’ fight against microstamping and its legal arguments in California, above all else, is its conviction that it is simply immune to any such meddling, period. “It is a case of an industry that is arguing that it can’t be regulated, essentially. The argument they’re making is: ‘You can’t regulate us for public safety. Go screw yourselves,’” said Ladd Everitt of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which has been leading the push for microstamping. “If they can continue to operate in laissez-faire model, they will continue to do that.”

So by all means, reporters and technology geeks, keep enthusing about the latest and greatest gizmos coming over the horizon to make deadly weaponry somewhat less deadly. But let’s always keep in mind that this is one industry where even the most advantageous technological advance won’t happen without old-fashioned political progress.

*This line initially described the microstamping technology imprecisely. It has been corrected.

Image via Shutterstock.