Can 'Smart Gun' Technology Change the Stalemate Over Gun Violence?


Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak (left) and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter discussed gun control measures at John Jay College on May 15.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter issued a challenge to the gun industry Wednesday, arguing that the application of “smart gun” technology, designed to program firearms so that only their owners can fire them, could not only save lives but neutralize the concerns of gun rights advocates.

“Why don’t you at least try?” Nutter, who also serves as president of the U.S., Conference of Mayors, asked Joe Bartozzi, vice-president of the Connecticut-based firearms manufacturer O.F. Mossberg and Sons.

“Put one on the market and see what happens.”

But Bartozzi, speaking at a roundtable for newsroom editors and columnists at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, insisted it wouldn't work.

Bartozzi said Mossberg had already surveyed focus groups about some of the cutting-edge technology already available, such as personalized rings that could be digitally programmed to recognize the legitimate owner of a weapon.

The response, he said, was overwhelmingly negative. Customers who wanted guns to protect themselves and their families considered such technology too unreliable, he said.

“What if I have to hand the gun to my spouse in an emergency?” Bartozzi recalled a focus group member asking.

“It's hard to understand that it represents more than just a piece of steel or plastic. It represents personal security; it represents security when the police aren’t there. It represents even food when there’s no supermarket. It represents self-defense. It represents liberty and freedom for a lot of people,” Bartozzi said.

Wednesday's exchange underlined the continued wide gulf in the national debate over gun violence, in the shadow of both last December's Sandy Hook elementary school shootings and Congress' failure last month to pass meaningful gun legislation.

Nutter and fellow panelist Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak argued that finding technological solutions to the challenge of gun access represented a common sense approach to a problem both sides agreed was a key factor in reducing the kind of gun violence that has afflicted many U.S. cities: the easy access to guns–particularly those sold or trafficked on the black market—to youth gang members and others who otherwise could not get them legally.

Both mayors also discussed proposals to bring market pressure to bear on the gun industry, such as the “Sandy Hook Principles” adopted by Philadelphia this year, and deploying the buying power of municipalities who purchase a large percentage of the country's firearms for their own police departments.

“This is an opportunity to utilize our collective economic power to help companies understand that your product can cause death and destruction,” Nutter said.

“So any measures that you can take to make all of us safer are not only good for us, they're good for business.”

The Sandy Hook principles, which borrow from the 1980s campaign against South African apartheid, involve the threat of divestment by stockholders such as large municipal pension funds, against corporations with large investments in the gun industry unless manufacturers change their marketing or production lines to reflect concerns about gun safety and firearms responsibility.

The smart gun technology issue, ranging from biometrics to trigger locks, also reflects a wider challenge by gun safety advocates to treat guns as consumer products subject to national safety standards similar to seatbelts in cars or childproof medicine bottles.

Bartozzi, a member of the board of governors of the National Shooting Sports Foundation – the leading industry lobby group—insisted guns are unlike other consumer products subject to federal rules because they are protected by the Second Amendment.

“I think sometimes we confuse what our privileges and rights. Driving a car is a privilege. You have the right to own a gun,” he said.

Rybak and other speakers at Wednesday's “Under the Gun” roundtable charged that leading gun rights lobbies such as the National rifle Association (NRA) and the NSSF made it harder to reach any compromise because of their objections to both technological solutions and efforts to modernize even the current system for tracking guns used during crimes.

The lobbies' influence with both Republicans and Democrats from states with strong gun cultures had managed to block federal legislation that would enable law enforcement agencies to share information about firearms trace data, Rybak charged.

“We should have real-time information, computer-based—my God, this is the 21st century,” he said.

Bartozzi, however, rejected claims by the mayors and other speakers that the NRA effectively calls the shots for gun manufacturers—or vice versa.

“There seems to be some notion that the gun industry somehow controls the NRA, well that’s just not true, the NRA has five million members,” said Bartozzi, who is an NRA member.

He was backed up by Larry Keane, NSSF general counsel, who attended Wednesday's session as an observer. While the NSSF and NRA often take similar positions on gun-related issues, Keane noted that the NSSF is an industry trade association, as opposed to the NRA, which is primarily a gun owners group.

But one issue that the NRA and NSSF are in lockstep on is recent calls for universal background checks on gun purchases. They argued that the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is too unreliable to be mandated.

He noted that many states do not input mental health and criminal history records into the system, and that it often fails to provide a speedy response.

NICS, which is designed to contain records for every person barred from owning a gun, has experienced a few high-profile “outages” during periods of high demand for gun purchases — including during two of the last three “Black Fridays.”

But to Rybak, a slow system with insufficient data is better than no system at all.

“I’ve heard way too many eulogies for people I’ll never know for me to think that the status quo is acceptable,” he said.

Emotions flared at times as the two urban mayors pressed the gun company executive to concede failings in his industry.

Bartozzi said he's struggled with the torrent of criticism targeted at gun manufacturers since the Newtown CT shootings. Much of the national debate on gun control, he said, lacked civility.

“It has been pretty tough to look at the paper every day,” said Bartozzi. “I am seeing very nasty, derogatory reports, cartoons, editorials.”

But Rybak responded that Minneapolis' struggles with gun-related homicides and suicides make it hard for him to maintain civility.

“If you think this should be a reasonable discussion, then you haven’t been seeing the slow motion mass murder going on in this country,” he said.

Editor's note: For more of TCR's coverage of the Under the Gun Roundtable, including Connecticut Gov. Dannell Malloy's comments on how his state managed to pass some of the country's toughest gun laws, please click HERE.

Graham Kates is deputy managing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers. He can be found on Twitter, @GrahamKates.

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