Threats to Maryland dealer raise doubts about smart guns’ future
Published: May 3, 2014 09:11PM
Updated: May 3, 2014 09:11PM

Washington • The latest skirmish over the nation’s first smart gun, marked this week by death threats against a Maryland gun dealer who wanted to sell the weapon, has raised doubts about its future and prompted some gun-control advocates to back away from legislative efforts to mandate the technology.

Engage Armament, a Rockville gun shop, endured an outpouring of vitriol from gun rights activists who fear the technology will be used to curtail their Second Amendment rights by limiting what kinds of guns they can buy in the future.

The protests echoed those against the Oak Tree Gun Club, a Los Angeles area store that offered to sell the smart gun and - like Engage Armament - quickly dropped the idea after opposition mounted. Electronic chips in the Armatix iP1 can communicate with a watch that can be bought separately. Then the gun cannot be fired without the watch.

Gun rights advocates are worried about a New Jersey law under which only smart handguns can be sold there within three years of being sold anywhere in the country. The law, they fear, will be replicated in other states. Similar proposals have been introduced in California and Congress.

On Friday, New Jersey’s state Senate majority leader offered a compromise that might allay fears that smart gun technology will become a backdoor form of gun control. State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat who sponsored the landmark 2002 law, said she would ask the legislature to drop the mandate if the National Rifle Association, a fierce critic of smart gun technology, promises not to stand in the way of the development and sale of the weapons.

“‘I’m willing to do this because eventually these are the kinds of guns people will want to buy,” Weinberg said.

In response to questions about Weinberg’s proposal, the NRA issued a terse statement from Chris Cox, executive director NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action. “The NRA is interested in a full repeal of New Jersey’s misguided law,” Cox said.

Stephen Teret, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University and smart gun proponent who helped with the New Jersey law, said “bullying” gun store owners was “reprehensible.” But he said it might be better for New Jersey to get rid of the mandate and let market forces dictate the future of smart guns.

“At the time, the New Jersey law made a great deal of sense,” he said. “But a number of things of have changed. Most importantly the technology has improved. And number two, there’s a market demand for these kinds of guns. Given those changes, if New Jersey wants to rely on market forces instead of legislation, that’s certainly a reasonable approach.”

And given what happened in Maryland this week, it might be the only way to get the guns into buyers’ hands.

Andy Raymond, the co-owner of Engage Armament, had decided he would offer the Armatix iP1 smart gun, despite the furor it had caused in California. He was fiercely opposed, he said, to banning the sale of any kind of gun and thought smart guns could expand the market for firearms to buyers concerned about safety.

But after word spread that he would sell the gun, vehement protests emerged online, with people calling him a traitor, a communist and various expletives. The protests were fueled, in part, by gun rights blogs alerting gun owners to Raymond’s plans.