Renewed push for smart guns could trigger new furor over technology

UNTERFOEHRING, GERMANY - JULY 11: A person is holding an Armatix iP1-Pistole and wearing the watch to unlock the gun on July 11, 2014 at a shooting range at the headquarters of Armatix in Unterfoehring, near Munich, Germany. (Photo by Sebastian Widmann for The Washington Post)

After vehement protests helped block the nation’s first smart gun from entering the marketplace, proponents of the technology are gearing up for another fight, intent on capitalizing on renewed interest in gun safety following a spate of high-profile shootings.

Ernst Mauch, the renowned German firearms engineer who designed the gun but left its manufacturer, is in the United States this week exploring starting a company to build another smart gun, perhaps with one of his previous competitors.

Mauch wants to persuade police groups to back the technology, which allows only authorized users to fire guns, hoping that will assure Second Amendment advocates and consumers that smart guns should be embraced, not rejected. The head of the International Association of Chiefs of Police said this week that agencies are eager to test and perhaps adopt smart guns.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in New Jersey are considering doing away with a controversial law mandating that all firearms sold in the state be smart guns if one were sold anywhere in the United States. Gun industry groups, particularly the National Rifle Association, fiercely oppose the law. An announcement about the mandate is expected Monday.

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“I still want people to understand that there is a huge potential for this technology,” Mauch said in an interview at a Virginia hotel where he was holding meetings with possible partners. “The technology was never in question.”

Proponents of smart guns say the weapons can reduce street violence with stolen firearms, prevent children from using their parents’ guns in school shootings, stop accidents in homes with young children and eliminate thousands of suicides.

Mauch’s .22-caliber iP1, built by Armatix GmbH near Munich, has battery-powered electronic chips inside the gun that when activated communicate with a special watch worn by the gun’s user. If the watch is within close reach of the gun, a light on the grip turns green, and it can fire. Without the watch, it won’t fire.

Armatix introduced the gun in the United States in 2014, partnering with the Oak Tree Gun Club in California to market and sell it. But the store owners backed away following angry protests, even denying the gun was on sale despite photos of it on display.

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A few months later, Andy Raymond, a Maryland gun dealer, said he would sell the gun. He faced immediate protests, saying people threatened his life and his dog’s, too. He quickly dropped plans to sell the gun. “I thought I was doing right,” he later said.

The New Jersey mandate was cited in both protests, with fears that other states would follow, fundamentally altering the firearms industry. But now, New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D), the sponsor of the law, appears ready to remove the biggest obstacle in the marketplace.

Asked whether she would soon end the mandate, Weinberg said: “We haven’t finalized anything yet. I will be ready to make an announcement on Monday.”

Ralph Fascitelli, president of Washington CeaseFire, a prominent Seattle group working to reduce gun violence, said, “nobody is going to look at this again until the mandate is resolved.” And now that the mandate might be going away, Fascitelli is organizing a coalition of interested parties to make another run at bringing smart guns to market.

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Fascitelli helped set up Mauch’s trip to the United States, where he’s had several meetings, including with Robert McNamara, whose Ireland-based company TriggerSmart has been working on technology to control guns with a ring. Mauch and McNamara said they discussed forming a company together, with the goal of raising $5 million to produce a 9mm smart gun by 2017.

“I didn’t think this would be such a struggle,” McNamara said. “I thought this is such an issue, with massacres in the news so regularly, my idea was that people would be coming to me. So far I’ve found it’s a struggle to get funding.”

Mauch and McNamara think they can persuade investors to fund smart guns by getting police groups to adopt the technology, creating a huge market first in law enforcement, then with consumers. That wasn’t possible with Aramtix’s iP1 because it was a .22-caliber, not powerful enough for officers, who typically carry 9mm weapons.

Richard Beary, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said there would be “plenty of agencies interested in beta testing the technology.” Officers fear their weapons being turned against them, something that smart guns could stop. They are also desperate for innovative ways to stop street gun violence, as well as accidents in the home and suicides.

Earlier this week, an anti-gun-violence campaign sent a letter to President Obama urging him to raise $20 million for developing smart guns before he raises money for his presidential library and foundation. The group, which is connected to the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, says it has 80 law enforcement agencies interested in the technology.

The hurdle, Beary said, is that the guns have to perform at a high level to win support from rank-and-file officers, who may be skeptical. “It can’t be 99 percent accurate,” he said. “It has to be 100 percent accurate. It has to work every single time.”

Mauch said he’s already proven he can do that with his smart gun, which passed rigorous testing and certification in the United States. Smart gun proponents hope his background – he has designed some the world’s most high-powered weapons, including the rifle that reportedly killed Osama bin Laden – can sway any skeptics.

Winning over police groups, experts say, could then convince consumers that the technology is good enough for home protection. A poll earlier this year of gun owners by a market research firm showed that 40 percent would “swap” their guns for smart guns.

But a 2013 poll by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents gun manufacturers, showed that 81 percent of the more than 1,200 people polled said they wouldn’t buy a smart gun. The NRA has cited the poll in its critique of smart guns, saying it “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.”

The NRA did not return a request for comment. Lawrence G. Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said his organization was opposed only to mandates.

Mauch wants to reach out to the NSSF, the NRA and other gun industry groups to persuade them to get behind the technology. He said he wanted to while at Armatix, but other executives there wanted to fight them.

“That’s the reason why I resigned. I didn’t want to sue or attack them,” Mauch said. “That was not my way of life. We have to inform these people about today’s technology. I understand they are anxious about a battery, but times change. We made it happen with the .22. It’s operating perfectly.”

An attorney for Armatix said Mauch was dismissed “for internal reasons.” The company is currently undergoing a corporate restructuring, recording more than 14 million euros in losses since 2011, according to financial filings with German authorities.

As Mauch tries to get back into the smart gun business, inventors around the country are working on other solutions, buoyed by money from Ron Conway, a Silicon Valley titan and early investor in Google and Facebook, who funded a $1 million X Prize-like contest for smart gun technology.

One of the funding winners is a Florida company called GunGuardian, founded by two police officers who developed a trigger shield operated by fingerprint or short-access code. Conway said he’s going to invest in the company and recruit other Silicon Valley investors, too.

Tech moguls have been trying to get involved in gun control since the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

“We believe there has to be a technology approach to gun control,” Conway said.