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Gun Lovers And Critics Agree: They're Not Sold On Smart Guns


I'm David Greene in Peoria, Ill., a state that has fiercely debated gun control. Chicago, especially, has fought to limit access to handguns. The Supreme Court struck down that city's gun ban a few years ago.


This next story is not about restricting access to guns. It's about restricting who can pull the trigger. There's a gun that only certain people can fire, but you can't buy one in the United States. Joel Rose of our Planet Money podcast reports who's against it.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: You know who you would expect to support a new, safer kind of gun - President Obama.


BARACK OBAMA: If we can set it up so that you can't unlock your phone unless you've got the right fingerprint, why can't we do the same thing for our guns?


ROSE: In other words, the president is asking, why can't we build a smart gun - like a smartphone but for guns - a firearm that only an authorized user can shoot? The reason Obama even has to make this plea is because lots of people hate the idea. It's actually one of the few things that gun lovers and gun-control advocates have agreed on. And to see why, you have to go back 20 years, to the last time American gun companies seriously tried to make smart guns.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Next on the CBS Evening News - why new gun-control measures could put millions more guns on the streets.

ROSE: Some gun-control advocates, like Josh Sugarmann from the Violence Policy Center, thought that a safer gun is still one more gun. Here he is on CBS in 2000.


JOSH SUGARMANN: One survey found that 35 percent of people who would never consider buying a handgun would consider buying a smart gun. What's happened is gun-control advocates have unwittingly helped the gun industry create a new market.

ROSE: It's easy to forget now, but in the 1990s, cities around the country were suing big gunmakers, trying to put them out of business. Gun-control advocates felt like they were winning, and some were saying, let's push to ban handguns altogether. They didn't want to settle for any half measures, like smart guns. Sugarmann declined to talk to us for this story, but he wasn't the only one who had doubts about whether smart guns would save lives.

JOSH HORWITZ: I wrestled with that a lot. You know, no one wants to inadvertently drive more gun sales.

ROSE: Josh Horwitz heads the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, where he's worked for more than 20 years. Back then, a few American gun companies thought they were on the brink of making a smart gun that worked. But they dropped that effort after a backlash from angry gun owners. Some gun-control advocates stood back and let it happen.

Do you have any regrets about how that played out?

HORWITZ: You know, I'm not sure what, at the time, we would have done differently to hasten the production of these things.

ROSE: Do you think that the movement could have been louder in support of that?

HORWITZ: I think that if the movement was louder about it, that would've made it less likely for it to occur.

ROSE: But now, in 2016, Horwitz says things have definitely changed.

HORWITZ: We're in record gun sale territory again this year, so guns are going off the shelves whether I want them to or not. And my feeling is that this technology is important, and if some firearms were equipped with it, it would save lives.

ROSE: Horowitz isn't saying smart guns would stop every mass shooting, but he does think they would cut down on accidents and suicides. The times have changed so much that gun-control advocates are willing to advocate for a gun - right up to the commander in chief.


OBAMA: If a child can't open a bottle of aspirin, we should make sure that they can't pull a trigger on a gun.


ROSE: Early this year, President Obama put out a call for the military, the Department of Justice and Homeland Security to sponsor research on smart guns and to consider using them. He's hoping the spending power of the federal government will kick-start demand because so far, nothing else has. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.