The NJIT researchers believed that once they proved the viability of smart triggers, gun makers would commercialize their system. But “there was no interest,” Sebastian says. “I can’t speculate as to why, but there has not been any market pull for this technology.” Engineers at the school have continued refining their smart guns despite companies’ lack of interest. They now have several working models, and they’ve been putting them through field tests, including with the school’s campus police.
This grip-recognition system is just one of several smart gun technologies being developed. An Irish company called TriggerSmart has created a gun lock that’s activated by an RFID token. An authorized user would carry or wear the token (say, on his ring), and the gun would only fire when it was near that token. There are other systems that rely on fingerprint matching or passwords. But no matter how they work, all of these technologies have one thing in common: They’ve all been stalled due to lack of commercial interest. Sebastian says that school hasn’t decided what to do with its smart gun technology, but when I asked him if he expects his system to go to market anytime soon, he told me, “I can’t say with any certainty.”
It’s unclear whether smart guns could prevent mass shootings like the one in Newtown, Conn. In theory, a smart trigger could have made it more difficult for Adam Lanza to carry out the massacre. Police say Lanza used his mother’s weapons in the attack. If she’d been worried about her son’s mental state and had set up those guns to fire only when she gripped them, he might have had to look elsewhere for weapons.
Sebastian, though, doubts it would have had much effect. Smart guns could be programmed to be used by multiple people. Reports also suggest that Nancy Lanza took her sons target shooting—if she’d been using smart guns, that means she’d have had to authorize their use. What’s more, as Sebastian points out, Adam Lanza was old enough to have legally purchased his own firearms—and most mass shootings, including at Virginia Tech; Aurora, Colo.; and Tucson, Ariz.; were carried out with legally purchased guns. (Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold acquired their guns from friends who’d purchased them legally; if smart guns were set to be used only by their legal owners, the system might have prevented the Columbine shooting.)
Smart gun technology is also not beloved by gun-control advocates, who tend to view the very idea of “safer guns” as oxymoronic. The Violence Policy Center, for instance, argues that smart guns would increase gun-ownership rates because some people would be attracted to the new guns’ apparent safety. In this way, building a smart gun would “delay the implementation of truly effective solutions,” the group says.
Still, there’s relatively clear evidence that personalized triggers would prevent all manner of gun accidents and other unintended uses. Young children would not be able to use their parents’ guns (either accidentally or to commit suicide), and officers’ weapons could not be stolen and used against them. A 2003 study led by Jon Vernick, a public-health researcher at Johns Hopkins, estimated that more than 400 deaths per year could be prevented by a personalized trigger system.
A week before the Newtown massacre, Joseph Loughrey, a 44-year-old man in Mercer, Pa., was going to a gun store to sell some of his weapons. He had unloaded the magazine on his handgun, but he didn’t know there was a still a round in the chamber. When he set the gun down on the center console of his truck, it went off. In the back seat, Loughrey’s 7-year-old son, Craig, was buckling his safety belt. Craig was hit in the chest. He died on the scene.
The seat belt that Craig was buckling into was in Loughrey’s truck because it had been mandated, over the course of decades, by a series of laws, regulations, and lawsuits. A magazine safety would have prevented Loughrey’s gun from going off after he’d removed the magazine. A smart trigger would have prevented the gun from firing without Loughrey’s hand being on the grip. But Loughrey’s gun lacked both those safety devices, because nobody has ever forced gun makers to live up to the same basic safety requirements as other American companies.