Missing from NRA plan: Smart gun technology

The political mood may be more favorable to smart gun safety technology

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Computerworld attempted to contact gun makers Colt, Smith & Wesson and Mossberg & Sons. Smith & Wesson officials did not return requests for comment, calls to Colt were not answered and an email would not go through to its customer service address. Mossberg declined to comment on the issue.

Both the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) and The Georgia Institute of Technology have developed smart gun technology, but they've also seen very little private or public support for their efforts.

"We're out of money," Donald H. Sebastian, NJIT's senior vice president for research and development, said this week. "We're able to keep things going for another semester or so, but we're looking at private investment and we'll see if the mood is changing. "...That may bring more investors out of the cold."

In 2003, the New Jersey Assembly passed a Childproof Handgun Bill requiring all pistols sold in the state to include smart gun features, as soon as the technology comes on the open market. But the technology efforts died and none came to market.

"Politics got involved and the gun companies came under pressure not to change," said Stephen Teret, founding director of The Johns Hopkins Center for Policy and Research. "CEOs of major gun companies were fired because it was believed they were bringing in safety technology."

Teret said conditions may be more conducive today for smart gun technology to gain ground. He compared smart gun technology to automobile air bags. While the technology was readily available decades ago, once the National Highway Safety Administration got involved and said it wanted all cars to have air bags, the auto industry fought them.

"The gun industry and user groups like the NRA don't want any regulation over guns," Teret said. "They put their foot on the neck of gun companies, saying, 'We don't want you to change the design of guns,' which in their mind would lead to the government stepping in. They're libertarians by philosophical choice."

But Americans may, in fact, be in favor of high tech smart guns. NJIT conducted a survey several years ago and found that about 75% of gun-owning respondents were in favor of weapons with smart gun technology.

"If we do this right, the market will drag this in. We know many in the gun-buying public want this without even knowing what it is," Sabastian said. "Nobody had to mandate the transition from vinyl albums to CDs, yet in the space of a year one disappeared after 70 years of commercial dominance because [the newer technology] offered a superior capability.

"We have to create that same kind of market pull for these safety technologies," he continued. "Part of this is getting past this [view] that says that in the end this is just a way to make guns more unreliable or unaffordable, because it's not."

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at  @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

See more by Lucas Mearian on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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