AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. We start this story with the story of how a law in New Jersey helped block the sales of smart guns in this country. That certainly wasn't the intention of the 12-year-old law. The smart gun only fires when being held by its owner, and you can already buy one overseas. NPR's Joel Rose explains what happened here.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: There is a lab at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark that's trying to build a gun that will read the grip of its owner.

BILL MARSHALL: This is a normal 9 mm Beretta pistol. These grips have little piezoelectric sensors in it.

ROSE: Bill Marshall is a former cop and brigadier general in the National Guard. He's now an assistant vice president at NJIT. The gun he's holding has been fitted with dozens of tiny sensors. Marshall hands the gun to me for a training simulation that's supposed to gather data about how I squeeze the trigger in a stressful situation.

(GUN SHOTS)

MARSHALL: Boom, and it's over just that quick.

ROSE: Eventually, Marshall hopes this information will lead to a gun that only fires for authorized users and not for their children.

MARSHALL: I know, had it been readily available for me back in the day, I would've been using it.

ROSE: But this is not as simple as adding a few electronic sensors to the grip of an existing gun. Donald Sebastian is vice president for research and development at NJIT. He says guns prevent unique engineering challenges.

DONALD SEBASTIAN: The pressure shock, the buildup of heat - all these things can be difficult, but not insurmountable.

ROSE: If all goes well, Sebastian thinks NJIT can solve the engineering problems within two years. But the political obstacles may be even harder to overcome. Just ask the German gun maker Armatix.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROSE: That's a video of the Armatix iP1 firing. It's a handgun that will only work if the owner is wearing a special watch. It's already on sale in Europe. But you can't buy one in the US. To understand why, you have to know about an obscure law that's been on the books in New Jersey since 2002. It was supposed to encourage the development of smart guns, but that is not what happened in practice. Basically the law says that once a smart gun is available anywhere in the country, all handguns sold in New Jersey must be smart guns within 30 months.

DAVID KOPEL: It actually doesn't matter if the gun has been sold.

ROSE: David Kopel is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute. He says New Jersey's law has had unintended consequences for the rest of the country.

KOPEL: The New Jersey law says if there's just one available for sale anywhere in the United States, then that triggers the handgun ban. So who would want to sell a smart gun knowing that by doing so, they'd be imposing a handgun ban on New Jersey?

ROSE: Well, a few gun retailers did try. One shop in California and another in Maryland each announced they would stock the Armatix iP1 earlier this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDY RAYMOND: I'm Andy from Engage Armament. I'm the co-owner here.

ROSE: Andy Raymond of Engage Armament in Maryland explained why he wanted to sell the gun in an unusually personally video message that he posted on Facebook in May.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAYMOND: I thought that if you got people who never wanted one or didn't want one in their house because their kids or something like that - kids getting at it, that if they bought a gun, that that's a good thing.

ROSE: The response was quick and intense. Raymond says he got a flood of angry messages from people who consider the New Jersey law an infringement of their Second Amendment rights. He says one of them even threatened to burn down his store. So Raymond stayed there all night. That's when he made the video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAYMOND: So anyway, obviously, I received numerous death threats today. I [bleep] really appreciate that. That's [bleep] classy. That's a great thing for gun rights, when you threaten to shoot somebody.

ROSE: But Raymond did change his mind about selling the Armatix smart gun. And he explicitly said he did not want to trigger New Jersey's law.

LAWRENCE KEANE: I don't think that the reaction was at all surprising because it's viewed as being a gun-control push.

ROSE: Lawrence Keane is with the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry's trade group. Keane says his organization does not oppose the development of smart guns.

KEANE: If people think that there's a market for these products, then the market should work, and people should be allowed to build what they think is a better mousetrap. The firearms industry has never been opposed to the research and development of this technology. We have always been opposed to mandates.

ROSE: Now even one of the New Jersey law's main sponsors is having second thoughts. State Senator Loretta Weinberg concedes that the law's mandate has become an impediment to the development of smart guns.

SENATOR LORETTA WEINBERG: That's the exact opposite of what we really intended to do. Now, if I'm willing to say, well, maybe we made a mistake here, we need to remove this, then I would expect that those who think we made a mistake will join in to say, hey, you're right. And now let's see the marketplace move ahead.

ROSE: Weinberg is offering to repeal New Jersey's smart gun mandate if the National Rifle Association will publicly agree not to stand in the way of the technology. Weinberg says she's gotten no reply from the NRA. The group did not respond to our request for comment either. But Lawrence Keane of the National Shooting Sports Foundation says he's still worried that the technology depends on batteries and other electronics that can fail.

KEANE: People use firearms for self-defense, and it's very, very important that they operate when it's a time of need in a highly stressful situation.

ROSE: But Donald Sebastian at the New Jersey Institute of Technology says reliability concerns will go away once smart guns are on the market.

SEBASTIAN: If we get law enforcement and military and other respected professionals to have experience with it, to show that it doesn't break and that it performs when it's supposed to, that's the way you start to break the logjam.

ROSE: But so far, no law enforcement agency has signed on to use smart guns. And there are plenty of consumers far beyond New Jersey who equate smart guns with gun control. Joel Rose, NPR News.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.