One of California’s largest firearm stores recently added a peculiar new gun to its shelves. It requires an accessory: a black waterproof watch.
The watch’s primary purpose is not to provide accurate time, though it does. The watch makes the gun think. Electronic chips inside the gun and the watch communicate with each other. If the watch is within close reach of the gun, a light on the grip turns green. Fire away. No watch means no green light. The gun becomes a paperweight.
A dream of gun-control advocates for decades, the Armatix iP1 is the country’s first smart gun. Its introduction is seen as a landmark in efforts to reduce gun violence, suicides and accidental shootings. Proponents compare smart guns to automobile air bags — a transformative add-on that gun owners will demand. But gun rights advocates are already balking, wondering what happens if the technology fails just as an intruder breaks in.
James Mitchell, the “extremely pro-gun” owner of the Oak Tree Gun Club, north of Los Angeles, isn’t one of the skeptics. His club’s firearms shop is the only outlet in the country selling the iP1. “It could revolutionize the gun industry,” Mitchell declared.
The implications of the iP1’s introduction are potentially enormous, both politically and economically. (And culturally — the gun that reads James Bond’s palm print in “Skyfall ” is no longer a futuristic plot twist.)
Lawmakers around the country have been intrigued by the possibilities. New Jersey passed a hotly contested law in 2002 requiring that only smart guns be sold in the state within three years of a smart gun being sold anywhere in the country. A similar measure made it through the California Senate last year, and at the federal level,Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.) also has introduced a mandate.
Although National Rifle Association officials did not respond to requests for comment about smart-gun technology, the group fiercely opposes “government mandates that require the use of expensive, unreliable features, such as grips that would read your fingerprints before the gun will fire,” according to the Web site of its lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action. “And NRA recognizes that the ‘smart guns’ issue clearly has the potential to mesh with the anti-gunner’s agenda, opening the door to a ban on all guns that do not possess the government-required technology.”
Even so, smart guns are potentially more palatable than other technological mandates, such as placing GPS tracking chips in guns, a controversial concept floated this session in the Maryland General Assembly.
The arrival of smart-gun technology comes amid a flurry of interest in the concept from investors who think the country — after the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and the brutal legislative battles that followed — is ready for new, innovative gun-control ideas. Last month, Ron Conway , a Silicon Valley titan and early investor in Google and Facebook, launched a $1 million X Prize-like contest for smart-gun technology.
“We need the iPhone of guns,” Conway said, noting how the new iPhone 5s can be unlocked quickly with a fingerprint. “The entrepreneur who does this right could be the Mark Zuckerberg of guns. Then the venture capitalists like me will dive in, give them capital, and we will build a multibillion-dollar gun company that makes safe, smart guns.”