The National Rifle Association's Campaign To Stop Smart Guns

The National Rifle Association has used its media arm to dissuade gun owners from embracing “smart gun” technology through falsehoods and the promotion of conspiracy theories about the federal government.

Advances in technology that uses RFID chips, fingerprint identification, or other measures to ensure that a gun can only be fired by authorized users have been in the news following a Maryland gun store's failed attempt to bring a smart gun to market.

Engage Armament, a gun store in Rockville, MD, planned to begin sales of the Armatix iP1 handgun -- the first U.S. market-ready smart gun -- but later changed course and apologized for being involved with smart gun technology after receiving death threats from pro-gun activists. An earlier plan by a California gun store to offer the iP1 suffered a similar fate.

In a separate development, New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg has promised to repeal New Jersey's smart gun law -- which makes adoption of the technology mandatory once smart guns come to market -- if the NRA promises to not interfere with the retail sale of smart guns nor target manufacturers who develop smart gun technologies.

While Armatix produced the first smart gun ready for sale to the public, a 2013 Department of Justice report identified 13 entities -- including gun manufacturers, universities, and other research entities -- working to develop smart gun technology. In its 2015 budget request, DOJ asked for $2 million “to support the Administration's challenge to the private sector to develop innovative and cost-effective gun safety technology.” Ron Conway, a prominent Silicon Valley angel investor, has also announced a $1 million competition for the development of “technology that reliably authorizes approved use -- and blocks the unauthorized use -- of firearms.”

That the NRA is attacking smart gun technology -- and by doing so putting negative pressure on companies that would develop the technology with the hope of selling guns -- is ironic given the organization's philosophy on firearm sales. In an unhinged February 2013 op-ed that urged NRA members to “stand and fight” against gun safety measures proposed in the wake of the Newtown massacre, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre urged gun owners to “buy more guns than ever.” And during a paranoid 2014 address at the NRA annual meeting LaPierre said, “there is no greater freedom than the right to survive and protect our families with all the rifles, shotguns, and handguns we want.”

On its website, the NRA claims it has “never has opposed new technological developments in firearms,” adding the caveat that it is nonetheless “opposed to government mandates that require the use of these developments.” Inevitably, NRA News, aided by a cadre of anti-smart gun guests, has been working to hamstring smart gun tech on two fronts: fearmongering about the reliability and feasibility of the incipient technology while also giving a platform to baseless conspiracy theories that tie smart gun technology to government overreach.

NRA News Cheerleads Right-Wing Media's Conspiracy Theory About AG Holder And “Gun Tracking Bracelets”

After The Washington Free Beacon published an erroneous article claiming Attorney General Eric Holder expressed interest in “gun tracking bracelets” during an April congressional hearing on DOJ's budget, NRA News joined other right-wing media in advancing a conspiracy theory about government spying on gun owners. (Holder never said “gun tracking bracelet” in his testimony; instead he referenced a type of smart gun that can only be fired if the authorized user is wearing an RFID bracelet.)

One of the more conspiratorial takes on the Free Beacon's claims came from Townhall writer Michael Schaus, who claimed Holder advocated tracking gun owners “via Google-style technology.” Schaus' baseless claims were trumpeted on NRA social media and Schaus later appeared on NRA News where he claimed, “For some reason they feel like they need to keep an eye on where your gun is and where my gun is, and Eric Holder can do pretty much whatever he wants with government funds.”

A seemingly related conspiracy theory was promoted on May 7 when NRA News host Cam Edwards hosted National Review Online's Charles C.W. Cooke to discuss his article, “Smart Guns Are Dumb.” Edwards told viewers he was “not impressed by smart guns,” while Cooke claimed “there is so much wrong” with smart gun technology including his belief that the technology would mean the government would place “GPS tracking and disabling devices” in guns:

COOKE: The basic safety of a firearm is very clearly not the role of government. Especially when it comes to electronics and GPS tracking devices, and so on and so forth. I really struggle to imagine the Founding Fathers saying, yes, the federal government exists to put GPS tracking and disabling devices in the nation's firearms.

NRA News Rejects Technology That Hasn't Been Completed

In direct contradiction to the NRA's claims it “never has opposed new technological developments in firearms,” NRA News has offered continual negative -- and sometimes false -- coverage on the technology behind smart guns. This criticism fails to appreciate that the technology is currently being developed at different levels of sophistication by a variety of stakeholders.

During a May 7 discussion of the Armatrix iP1 on NRA News show Cam & Company, host Cam Edwards claimed that “right now, this firearm has a failure rate of about ten percent, which means in every ten-round magazine you're going to have one failure, right?”

In fact, in order to be eligible for sale in California, the iP1 underwent a testing process that required the firearm to discharge 600 rounds with less than six technological malfunctions, or in other words the gun had to possess a 99 percent success rate to be eligible for sale. While the iP1 uses RFID technology, success has also been shown with Dynamic Grip Recognition technology, which uses sensors to read biometric identifiers, such as fingerprints, on an authorized user's hand. According to its developers the New Jersey Institute of Technology, the grip recognition technology currently has a 99 percent success rate, with an "operational goal" of a one in 1,000 failure rate. As NJIT president Dr. Donald Sebastian noted, the operational failure rate will be “comparable to mechanical failure rate in many consumer side-arms.”

A recent article in NRA publication American Rifleman by editor-in-chief Mark Keefe questioned whether RFID technology in smart guns could lead to a scenario where “a criminal, a hacker or even a government agency could turn your gun on or off anytime they wanted.” The basis of Keefe's fearmongering is the theoretical possibility that criminals could use RFID scanners to steal information from some credit cards. But how would criminals or the government actually jam RFID technology in smart guns? As Keefe writes, “Not being a hacker or having access to an RFID-equipped firearm, I don't know.”

During an appearance on NRA News to promote his article, Keefe claimed that smart guns technology was really a ploy to ban handguns: “This technology, it's unproven, we don't know how well it works, we don't know how susceptible it is to hacking, we don't know whether it can be jammed, and you know you have politicians, let's be frank, who would just as soon ban all handguns.”

NRA News Provides A Platform For Generic Smart Gun Bashing

NRA News has promoted attacks on smart guns by pro-gun activists and conservative critics of the technology. The NRA News website features an article by gun blogger Robert Farago with the headline "'Smart' Guns, Dumb Idea":

The website also promotes a clip of conservative CNN host S.E. Cupp's claim that “the problem with gun technology is that it still requires the gun owner to register the weapon.” In fact, no aspect of smart gun technology would necessitate the registration of the firearm.

On May 7, Edwards hosted Dave Kopel of the NRA-funded Independence Institute to attack the technology. Echoing similar critiques on NRA News of smart gun technology, Kopel claimed the real reason smart guns are not being sold is because people “don't want to buy something that doesn't work.”