Personalized firearms offer essential, lifesaving protections against the unauthorized use of firearms. By requiring key-like items or a biometric match before a weapon can fire, “smart guns” save lives by keeping guns from being used by children, thieves, and others that the owner has not authorized. Yet the gun lobby has poured resources into fighting against the development of these potentially game-changing safety features.

Background

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“Smart guns,” also known as “personalized” firearms or “owner-authorized” guns, incorporate technology preventing their use except by authorized users. Personalized guns are designed to prevent shootings, both intentional and unintentional, by children, thieves, and other unauthorized users. A 2003 study analyzing data from seven years of unintended firearm deaths or deaths of undetermined intent found that 37% of the deaths could have been prevented by a smart gun.1 Personalized guns also render firearms useless to criminals who gain access to law enforcement weapons during the course of an arrest or other encounter.

For research and statistics regarding child and unauthorized access to guns, which would be prevented by personalized firearms, see our summary on Safe Storage & Gun Locks.

The technology incorporated into personalized firearms can generally be divided into two categories: token-based technologies and biometric technologies. Token-based technologies require the use of an additional item, like a ring or watch, to activate the firearm, and include radio frequency and magnetic identifiers. Biometric technologies utilize unique features of individuals to identify the user of a gun, including fingerprints and grip recognition.2

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“Commercializable” Firearms

In response to an order from President Obama, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) produced a report in June 2013 evaluating the readiness of personalized firearm technology. The report found that although personalized guns were not yet available commercially, numerous prototypes have been created, and at least three models of these firearms could be described as “commercializable,” or “production-ready.”3 At least one personalized handgun system entered the U.S. market in 2013: the Armatix iP1, which includes a handgun and a watch containing a radio frequency identifier that the user must wear to activate the handgun.4

Americans overwhelmingly support laws requiring that firearms incorporate user-recognition technology. A 2001 survey found that 73.6% of Americans favor a requirement that all new models of handguns be personalized.5

Summary of Federal Law

The Lack of Federal Standards

Federal law does not set any safety or design standards for domestically manufactured firearms. Most consumer products are regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which the Consumer Product Safety Act established in 1972. The statutory definition of the term “consumer product,” however, specifically excludes firearms and ammunition.6 Accordingly, the CPSC currently has no authority to require gun manufacturers to produce personalized guns or otherwise improve the safety of their products.

Actions Under President Obama

In April 2016, following the president’s directive that executive agencies lead the way in monitoring, developing, and encouraging the deployment of smart gun technology, the Departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security issued a report acknowledging that gun manufacturers need to be incentivized to develop personalization technologies and integrate them into their products.7

The April 2016 Report proposed that the government encourage investment in gun safety by partnering with state and local law enforcement agencies to draft specifications “establish[ing] the specific conditions under which they would consider purchasing firearms with advanced gun safety technology.” Consequently, on November 16, 2016, the Obama Administration released new baseline specifications for law enforcement service pistols, which includes personalization technology.8

Summary of State Law

Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey are the only states that have laws addressing personalized gun technology.

Maryland

A “personalized handgun” is defined under Maryland law as any handgun manufactured with technology incorporated into the design allowing the handgun to be fired only by a person who is the authorized user of the handgun, and preventing any of the handgun’s safety characteristics from being easily deactivated. Maryland’s Handgun Roster Board is required to review the status of personalized handgun technology and report its findings to the Governor and the General Assembly annually.9

New Jersey

In 2002, New Jersey adopted a law that will eventually require smart gun technology to be incorporated into all handguns sold in the state. New Jersey defines a “personalized handgun” as: “[A] handgun which incorporates within its design, and as part of its original manufacture, technology which automatically limits its operational use and which cannot be readily deactivated, so that it may only be fired by an authorized or recognized user.”10

Until the attorney general finds that personalized gun technology is available, he or she is required to report to the governor and the legislature every six months regarding the availability of personalized handguns for retail sales purposes.11

Twenty-three months after the attorney general finds that smart handguns are available for retail sale, the attorney general and the superintendent of state police must begin the process of promulgating a list of such handguns that may be sold in New Jersey. This process must be completed within six months.12

Six months after the initial list of handguns is approved, it will be unlawful for any licensed manufacturer, wholesaler, or retail firearms dealer to transport into New Jersey, sell, expose for sale, possess with the intent of selling, assign, or otherwise transfer a handgun unless it is a personalized handgun (excluding antique handguns and handguns used by law enforcement or military officers).13

Massachusetts

Massachusetts mentions personalized gun technology as an alternative to locking devices in its requirement that any handgun or large capacity weapon be sold with a safety device designed to prevent the discharge of such weapon by unauthorized users and approved by the state police.14 The state police has not yet approved any form of personalized technology as sufficient to comply with this requirement.15

Key Legislative Elements

The features listed below are intended to provide a framework from which policy options may be considered. A jurisdiction considering new legislation should consult with counsel.

  • An authorized governmental or law enforcement body is charged with monitoring progress in developing personalized firearm technology and reporting regularly to the appropriate authorities (Maryland—annually), New Jersey—every six months)
  • When determined to be technologically feasible, personalized firearm technology is required for all handguns manufactured, sold, or transferred in the jurisdiction (New Jersey)
  • Standards are set for personalized firearms, and personalized firearms are tested and approved by a certified independent lab before they may be sold in the jurisdiction
Notes
  1. Jon S. Vernick et al., Unintentional and Undetermined Firearm Related Deaths: a Preventable Death Analysis for Three Safety Devices, 9 Inj. Prevention 307, 307-08 (2003) (analyzing data from Maryland and Milwaukee).  For additional background on personalized firearms, see Krista D. Robinson et al., Personalized Guns: Reducing Gun Deaths Through Design Changes (Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Pol’y & Res.) (Sept. 1996). ⤴︎
  2. National Institute of Justice, Dep’t of Justice, A Review of Gun Safety Technologies, National Institute of Justice Research Report 24-27 (June 2013), at https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/242500.pdf. ⤴︎
  3. Id. at 3. ⤴︎
  4. Michael S. Rosenwald, ‘We need the iPhone of guns’: Will smart guns transform the gun industry?, Wash. Post, Feb. 17, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/we-need-the-iphone-of-guns-will-smart-guns-transform-the-gun-industry/2014/02/17/6ebe76da-8f58-11e3-b227-12a45d109e03_story.html. ⤴︎
  5. Tom W. Smith, 2001 National Gun Policy Survey of the National Opinion Research Center: Research Findings (Dec. 2001), at http://www.norc.org/PDFs/publications/SmithT_Nat_Gun_Policy_2001.pdf. ⤴︎
  6. 15 U.S.C. § 2052(a)(1)(ii)(E). Note that locking devices for firearms are not, by themselves, exempt, and therefore the CPSC has the authority to adopt national safety standards for locking devices. It has not done so. Additional information about locking devices is contained in our summary on Safe Storage & Gun Locks. ⤴︎
  7. Departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security, Report to the President Outlining a Strategy to Expedite Deployment of Gun Safety Technology, April 2016, at https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/final_report-smart_gun_report.pdf. ⤴︎
  8. National Institute of Justice Report, Baseline Specifications for Law Enforcement Service Pistols with Security Technology, Nov. 2016, at https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/250377.pdf. ⤴︎
  9. Md. Code Ann., Pub. Safety § 5-132. ⤴︎
  10. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:39-1dd. ⤴︎
  11. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:58-2.3. ⤴︎
  12. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:58-2.4. ⤴︎
  13. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:58-2a(5)(e). ⤴︎
  14. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, §§ 131K. ⤴︎
  15. Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, Approved Firearm Safety/Locking Devices, at http://www.mass.gov/eopss/firearms-reg-and-laws/firearm-safety-locking-devices.html. ⤴︎