You wouldn't know it in the Ozarks but there is a battle going on in the U.S. over the development and sale of so-called "smart guns" — handguns that proponents say should improve safety and lower suicide rates because they can only be fired by owners.
Springfield gun-store owners say there is no market for such guns and that they have never had a single customer inquiry. In addition, some owners say, smart guns are too expensive, or the technology does not exist.
"I do not personally have any objections to having a gun that only operates when the owner fires it," says Nick Newman, 48, who for 20 years has owned Cherokee Firearms in Springfield. "But that is kind of like saying I would prefer flying my car to work."
National organizations like the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and the American Association of Suicidology support further development of smart guns and believe such firearms are ready to be brought to market.
An assortment of companies, mostly startups or ones based in Europe, are using various technologies — including the use of a radio-transmitting wristband worn by the owner that sends a signal to the gun — to try to make handguns safer.
The main opponent is the National Rifle Association. But it will not speak. The News-Leader left six messages on the phone and with a secretary over two weeks for the one spokesman designated to talk to the media, Andrew Arulanandam, in the national office in Virginia. He did not respond. Eventually, the newspaper requested someone — anyone — to send a statement on the group's position on smart guns. The organization did not reply.
Donald Sebastian has a doctorate in chemical engineering and is the senior vice president for research at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He has researched smart-gun technology since 1999. The NRA is the leading obstacle to bringing a smart gun to market, he says. And some would say, according to Sebastian, the NRA has legitimate concerns about a 2002 New Jersey law.
That law states that once there is a proven and reliable smart-gun technology — as determined by the New Jersey attorney general — that within three years all new model handguns sold in New Jersey must incorporate it. But in addition — and this is where the debate enters a Catch 22 loop — before the New Jersey attorney general will even make that determination, the smart gun must first be commercially available in the U.S. In other words, a gun cannot be deemed a "smart gun" until a licensed dealer is willing to sell it.
Sebastian says the NRA sees that mandate as a weakening of the Second Amendment and has used its influence to keep smart guns from consumers.
"The mandate in the law has become an impediment and we can't get out of this endless loop," he says. "For 15 years this debate has been going on."
"I got used ... "
Currently, there is not a gun dealer in the U.S. willing to offer a smart gun for sale. A company called Armatix, based in Germany with an office in California, this year had two gun dealers — one in Maryland and one in California — ready to offer its .22-caliber handgun. The safety measure is a stopwatch worn on the wrist that sends a radio transmission, with a range of 10 inches, to the gun. The radio transmission enables the gun to fire.
The company promoted the breakthrough, and the national media jumped on the news. As a result, the two gun-shop owners were thrust into the eye of a national storm. They caught overwhelming criticism from gun owners and Second Amendment proponents. Both backed down and decided not to sell the gun.
"I won't touch it again," says Andy Raymond, 34, who owns Engage Armament in Rockville, Md. He had agreed to sell the gun simply because he thought he could pick up a few more customers. But his life changed when Armatix put him front and center in a media campaign.
"I just wanted to do things quietly," he says. "But Armatix said, 'Let's put this guy in front of the microphone.' "
Soon after a story appeared in the Washington Post, he says, he received 4,000 hostile phone calls and emails.
One caller, he says, threatened to burn down his gun shop if he sold the smart gun. Another told Raymond that he was going "to get what he deserved."
"I told them that if they touch my girlfriend or touch my dog I'm going to kill them," he says.
"I thought people would be reasonable about it," he says. He had thought there might be a new market for people who were not traditional gun buyers.
People weren't reasonable, he says. But not one of his critics identified himself as being from the NRA.
"The NRA did not do anything," he says. Yet, it irritates him when people do not think for themselves.
"It's when people follow somebody — goose-stepping behind them — that gets me," he says. "And I don't care if it's Obama or the NRA. If you do that, you're an idiot."
Raymond doesn't understand the logic of gun rights supporters who oppose bringing any particular gun to market.
"How is that any different than the people who want to ban all guns?" he asks.
When he decided to sell the gun he was lambasted by Second Amendment advocates. When he backed down, he says, he was called a "coward" by what he refers to as liberals who don't even support guns.
"I told them I'm not one of you (expletive) people," he says. "I'm pro gun.
"Dude, this whole thing was jacked up," he told the News-Leader. "I got used by everybody."
Brent Ball, 40, owns 417 Guns in Springfield. He is not fond of smart guns.
"I think it is the stupidest thing ever made," he says. "Nobody who is a gun person will ever ask for that. The only people pushing for this are the anti-gun people."
What would happen, he asks, if you pull your gun during a home invasion and you have a radio-transmitting band on your left wrist and you are shot in the left shoulder and can't fire the gun?
It is a mistake, he says, to rely on electronics and batteries to determine if a gun will fire in a crisis.
"What happens if we put computer chips in all these guns and Obama pushes a button and all these guns go down?" he asks.
Tammy Sapp, director of communications at Bass Pro Shops, says the company has no plans to sell smart guns. She declined to elaborate.
According to Newman, with Cherokee Firearms, the technology behind smart guns — if and when it becomes a reality — will drastically hike the cost to $10,000 to $20,000 per gun.
"Just not true"
Sebastian, the New Jersey researcher, says that's not accurate.
"That's the party line," he says. "It's just not true. I can guarantee you that it won't double the cost of a gun."
Sebastian says grant funding for his smart-gun research was drying up until the December 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Adam Lanza, 20, shot and killed his mother, 20 children and six staff members at the school. When police arrived, he killed himself.
After that tragedy, Sebastian said, he received funding from the Picatinny Arsenal, in New Jersey, which is owned by the federal government. It is home to the Joint Center of Excellence for Armaments and Munitions. The arsenal employs 5,000 people. Sebastian works cooperatively with Arsenal researchers.
The U.S. military, he says, is interested in developing weapons that cannot be easily used when they they fall into the hands of the enemy.
Sebastian's research focuses on a smart-gun technology called "dynamic grip recognition."
"While you are pulling the trigger on the gun you create a pressure on the grip," he says. Through various sensors, he says, the owner creates a unique pressure signature — made over a second or two — that enables the gun to fire.
Does this technology make it a "safe gun"?
He doesn't know yet. The Arsenal will conduct extensive tests on reliability in the fall.
Regardless, he says, the New Jersey attorney general, by law, will not be able to make a determination on safety and reliability until the gun is commercially available for sale.
"All we want in the end is for the truth to come out," Sebastian says. "It will either sell itself or it will die because no one wants it."
Smart guns & suicide
Michelle Cornette, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, supports smart guns. She believes the technology will lower the suicide rate by firearm, particularly among male teenagers.
"I think this is an exciting technology," she says.
She also supports gun locks and trigger locks.
Cornette is familiar with the argument that if one method of suicide is taken away, or made more difficult, the suicidal person will simply find another way.
Many do, she says. But some don't.
She draws a parallel between a safety measure approved in June for the Golden Gate Bridge and a smart gun that, for instance, could prevent a suicidal teen from firing his father's gun to take his own life.
After decades of debate, San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge Board of Directors voted to erect a 20-foot wide steel net to deter would-be jumpers. The bridge is the No. 1 spot in the U.S. for suicide. Since the bridge opened in 1937, an estimated 1,600 people have jumped to their deaths, with 46 doing so last year.
Proponents of the steel net cited a 1978 study by a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. It concluded that 90 percent of would-be jumpers dissuaded by police were still alive decades later.
At the very least, Cornette says, a suicidal person who can't fire a smart gun might live another day and, perhaps, get help or reconsider.
Ladd Everett, director of communications for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, says the NRA's political power has made the firearms industry the only one in America not regulated for health and safety.
"Any other industry in America, we are incorporating 21st century technology," Everett says. "When I was born in 1970, we did not have all the safety features that we now have in cars."
Mike Bazinet is the spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents the firearms and ammunition industry. It is not connected to the NRA.
"I think the technology can be problematic," he says of smart guns. "But we are not opposed to it, and it's not to say it is impossible. If the people want to buy it, they will be the best judge."
But if smart-gun technology works, he adds, New Jersey gun dealers should not be forced to sell only those new models equipped with safe technology.
Once again, he says, "Let the market decide."