At the heart of New Jersey's "smart gun" controversy is one indisputable fact: You cannot legislate innovation.
That's what New Jersey Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg tried to do in 2002, when she introduced a bill that said as soon as so-called smart gun technology is developed and approved by the state, all guns sold in New Jersey would have to be smart guns.
The problem? There's no consumer demand for smart guns, which means gun manufacturers haven't invested serious resources into perfecting the devices. As a result, the few existing models of smart guns aren't very smart, and fail to address major concerns about the technology.
To understand the debate, it's crucial to understand exactly what a smart gun is: The basic idea is to create a firearm that will only fire in the hands of the gun's registered and legal owner, not unlike weapons common in science fiction stories. There are a few ways designers can tether the weapons to their owners:
- Biometrics: Smart guns would include technology that can read the physical characteristics of the owner, like fingerprints. In the hands of anyone else, the gun would not fire.
- RFID (Radio-frequency identification) chips: In this iteration, the smart gun would be tethered to a piece of wearable tech, like a watch or bracelet. If the gun is too far from its countermeasure, it won't fire.
- Magnetic locks: The most low-tech of the smart gun options is based on an idea from the 1970s, which uses a magnet to prevent the trigger from returning to the firing position. The gun won't fire unless the user is wearing a ring to repel the trigger-blocking magnet.
The idea behind smart guns is admirable, and advocates say the weapons would prevent tragic deaths among children and the mentally ill who might attempt suicide using someone else's gun. In theory, some versions of the guns would also be useless if they fell into the hands of criminals, who won't be registered and thus wouldn't be able to activate biometric security.
In reality, adding new technology to guns creates an entirely new set of problems. Biometrics are imperfect, and they're still considered too unreliable for things like financial security, so gun-owners understandably aren't too keen on placing their lives in the hands of glitchy, imperfect software.
Biometrics are also notoriously slow. When the National Rifle Association tested the Armatix iP1 model smart gun in 2015, the weapon took 12 seconds to boot, requiring the user to enter seven commands on the paired wristwatch before the gun was ready to fire. For first-time users, the NRA found it would take at least 20 minutes to synchronize the gun with the watch.
Unless you're dealing with a gentlemanly robber or home invader who will halt and give you a few minutes to set up your smart gun, the whole thing defeats the purpose of having a weapon for self-defense.
RFID chips and biometrics also share security vulnerabilities. As security experts like to say, any system is hackable, and that certainly includes smart guns. More worryingly, RFID chips broadcast the presence of guns to anyone who knows how to tune in, potentially exposing undercover police officers and people with concealed carry permits.
As for the magnetic lock? It's a simple, elegant idea that doesn't require digital components, electricity, or unreliable biometrics. But it also does nothing to prevent criminals from using stolen guns.
Presumably for the above reasons, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie allowed Weinberg's smart gun bill to die with a pocket veto, a passive form of veto that happens when a governor simply decides not to act on a measure. Christie didn't comment on why he allowed the bill to die, but as a Republican presidential contender, the New Jersey governor is certainly mindful of opposition to smart guns by the NRA and other conservative groups.
Either way, Christie was right to veto the bill. Smart guns just aren't there yet, and a government-mandated switch to unproven technology would cause chaos.
As for Weinberg, if she wants to spur innovation in the smart gun technology field, she'd be better off looking to President Barack Obama for inspiration. The president, aware that carrots work better than sticks when it comes to technological innovation, has offered millions in grants to companies with promising smart gun breakthroughs. The way forward is through incentive, not imposition.