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"We are very skeptical of what this technology can accomplish," said Josh Sugarmann, the organization’s executive director. "You’re really affecting a very small portion of the gun-buying public."
Proponents of smart guns dispute the criticism. They point to studies that hint at potentially significant reductions in gun deaths, particularly high-profile ones among children. In 2010, children accounted for 9 percent of the 606 unintentional or accidental gun deaths in the United States. A smart gun, proponents say, could prevent those deaths.
As for school shootings, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study in 2003 analyzing firearms used by students in 323 shootings on school campuses found that 37 percent of the guns came from the shooter’s home and 23 percent from a friend or relative. A smart gun, proponents say, could prevent those deaths.
"These guns are not going to rescue us from the 32,000 gun deaths a year," Teret said, "but they are going to materially reduce gun deaths in the United States."
The question is: How many people will buy smart guns?
There are dueling statistics on the issue. Teret and other smart-gun proponents point to a 1997 survey showing that 71 percent of Americans - 59 percent among gun owners - favored personalization of all new handguns. Guns-rights advocates, including the National Shooting Sports Foundation, point to a survey the group commissioned last year showing that only 14 percent of Americans would consider buying a smart gun.
Statistics, of course, can be interpreted many ways, and at least one smart-gun entrepreneur saw the 14 percent as a positive sign. "I thought that was actually a huge number," said Robert McNamara, co-founder of TriggerSmart, the Irish company using RFID chips. "There is no doubt that a lot of people would buy these guns if they are available."
The cost is high. Amatrix’s iP1, a .22-caliber pistol, is $1,399 - plus $399 for the watch. A .40-caliber Glock handgun can be had for about $600.
The chief concern for potential buyers is reliability, with 44 percent of those polled by the National Shooting Sports Foundation saying the technology would not be reliable. A commenter in an online Glock forum explained the concern this way: "They can’t even make a cellphone that works reliably when you need it, and some dumb (expletive) thinks he can make a reliable techno-gadget gun that is supposed to safeguard you in dire circumstances?"
Twenty minutes later someone responded: "You bet your life."
Teret and others point to now-commonplace safety enhancements that Americans were skeptical about at first: air bags and smoke detectors. "They thought the air bag would kill them," said Teret, who did early work on air-bag technology. "They thought it would shove them out the back window, that it would explode. It takes awhile to dispel these mythologies."
Some gun-rights champions are in surprising agreement with gun-control advocates on the technology’s future.
"We think the market should decide," said Lawrence Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Conway, out in Silicon Valley, said: "You let the free enterprise system take over. Just like everyone opted into the iPhone and abandoned the flip phone and BlackBerry, consumers will vote with their feet. We want gun owners to feel like they are dinosaurs if they aren’t using smart guns."
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