DAVID GREENE, HOST:
There's been a debate over guns all this week. The topic came up again last night as President Obama held a town hall meeting. This follows the president's executive action to curb gun violence. The White House wants to spur investment in so-called smart guns - firearms that only work in the hands of their owners. But gun rights advocates see this technology as a backdoor to tighter gun controls. Here's NPR's Joel Rose.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The debate around smart guns has been going on for decades - longer than Kai Kloepfer has been alive. Kloepfer is a lanky 18-year-old from Boulder, Colo. Last year, he posted an online video about his attempt to build a smart gun.
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KAI KLOEPFER: Smart firearms can only be fired by specific people. So that means that if a child finds a firearm, or if a police officer's disarmed, that firearm is completely useless.
ROSE: That video has been viewed more than 20 million times. Kloepfer started trying to build a smart gun after the shootings in Aurora, Colo. Now he's taking a year off before college to work on his idea.
KLOEPFER: The biggest challenge is not the engineering. It's not designing something reliable. It's talking with people - getting over those misconceptions about what smart-gun technology is. And the president is one of the most widely-heard voices in the world.
ROSE: Which is why Kloepfer and other smart-gun supporters were glad to hear President Obama talk about gun safety technology earlier this week.
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BARACK OBAMA: If a child can't open a bottle of aspirin, we should make sure that they can't pull a trigger on a gun.
ROSE: But there's also a history of presidents and other elected officials trying to help get smart guns to market, and some of those efforts have backfired spectacularly - for example, the deal signed back in 2000 between President Bill Clinton and one of the nation's largest gunmakers.
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BILL CLINTON: Earlier today, Smith & Wesson signed a landmark agreement.
ROSE: Smith & Wesson agreed, among other things, to put more effort into building a smart gun. But that deal was rejected by the gun lobby and millions of gun owners, who boycotted Smith & Wesson and nearly drove the company out of business.
RICHARD FELDMAN: The feeling was that rather than being promoted by gun owners, this was promoted by the anti-gun community.
ROSE: Richard Feldman is president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association. Feldman says a lot of gun owners don't like smart guns for two main reasons. One is technical - they don't believe these guns will work when they're needed most, despite the fact that a working smart gun is already on sale in Europe. But Feldman says the real problem is in technology, or even economics.
FELDMAN: The market, I think, has always been there, but because of the politics of this issue, it hasn't been about supply and demand. It's been about politics.
ROSE: Feldman says many gun owners think of smart guns as gun control by other means. They believe the real goal is to make all other kinds guns of illegal. And there is some evidence for that. A law on the books in New Jersey mandates that once a smart gun goes on sale anywhere in the U.S., all gun stores in the state have to sell only smart guns within three years. The result of all this mistrust is that no American gunmaker or dealer will touch smart guns. Still, President Obama's executive action this week has smart gun advocates feeling encouraged.
STEPHEN TERET: I'm extraordinarily optimistic that this will break through the logjam and we'll be able to now bring these guns to the marketplace.
ROSE: Stephen Teret teaches public health at Johns Hopkins University. And he's optimistic because the president directed three big agencies to look at how they could spend money on safer gun technology.
TERET: That's the purchase order that people who have been thinking about creating these guns have been waiting for.
ROSE: Smart gun advocates are hoping that a European company could fill that potential order, or maybe a startup, because no one expects an existing American gunmaker to take the risk. Joel Rose, NPR News.
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