The wristwatch is what makes Armatix's guns so smart. Photographer: Joerg Koch/AFP/Getty Images
The wristwatch is what makes Armatix's guns so smart. Photographer: Joerg Koch/AFP/Getty Images

Poor Ernst Mauch. The managing director of Armatix GmbH, a German firearms maker, appears to believe in "a market-driven approach to firearms safety." Unfortunately, the forces that shape the roughly $4 billion U.S. civilian guns and ammunition industry are increasingly political.

Armatix makes the iP1 "smart gun," which communicates with a wristwatch to identify its authorized user and makes it impossible for anyone but the gun's owner to fire it. Given that there are some 30,000 deaths by firearms every year in the U.S., it's pretty clear that gun safety could stand to be improved. Yet gun-rights activists have successfully intimidated stores in Maryland and California into not selling the iP1.

Americans and Their Guns

The gun-rights movement is treating the expansion of consumer choice not as free enterprise, but as treason. According to news reports, boycotts and death threats have followed. The proximate cause of agitation, in addition to inevitable worries about the reliability of early-stage technology, is a New Jersey law mandating that all guns sold in the state use smart-gun technology once it has been commercially available for three years.

It's unclear how New Jersey will react to the appearance of the iP1 and other smart guns under development. The reaction of the gun lobby, however, has been clarifying. Apart from individual threats of violence, the National Rifle Association has said it opposes not smart guns but "government mandates that require the use of expensive, unreliable features." The NRA has yet to address the intimidation of lawful gun sellers.

At any rate, the potential benefits of smart guns are many. They would make it less likely that children would kill themselves or others. They might similarly reduce suicides and homicides in households with guns, because only a gun's individual owner would be able to fire it. Moreover, once the technology gets smarter, its implications for everything from crime deterrence to crime detection are considerable.

Few industries need innovation as desperately as the gun trade. As Mauch writes in his essay, which appeared in the Washington Post, "Firearm safety has not meaningfully advanced in the past century." Automobile safety, by contrast, has progressed so significantly in that same period that guns are poised to pass auto accidents as a cause of death.

But the gun-rights movement can be relied on to resist any market innovation that doesn't serve its political agenda. And, to paraphrase a former U.S. secretary of defense, you devise public policy in light of the gun-rights movement you have, not the gun-rights movement you might want or wish to have. So maybe a compromise is in order: If New Jersey allows the marketplace to dictate the fate of smart guns, will the NRA and its followers be willing to do the same? That's a deal worth making.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.