Why are the NRA and far-right rallying against a so-called “smart gun” that is both a poor product and a dud among consumers? What are they so afraid of?
After 20-year-old Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School one cold December morning in 2012 and proceeded to slaughter 20 kindergarteners and six adults with a Bushmaster AR-15, the NRA and other gun rights activists said it was wrong to politicize the shooting. The slaughter of all those children wasn’t due to the fact that a madman had gotten hold of a deadly weapon laughably easily, said NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, it was because of gun-free school zones.
As always, gun rights advocates trotted out the tried, ever-so-subtle cliché that it is not guns that kill people, but people who kill people. Aside from the fact that it is difficult to kill so many innocent children with a breech-loading musket as quickly as Lanza did with his AR-15, the NRA has a point. Our focus, they say, should be on preventing criminals and crazy people from getting guns — though, of course, the NRA and their handmaidens in Congress and state legislatures work diligently to make that impossible— not on banning the actual weapons themselves.
No, guns should not be banned, they say, except guns that make it impossible for those who don’t own them to fire them, like the German-made Armatix iP1 pistol. No, those types of guns are apparently evil incarnate — though not for the reasons one might suspect. For the uninitiated, the Armatix iP1 is a .22-caliber, semi-automatic smart handgun designed to become inoperable if a receiver embedded in the handgun can not receive an electronic signal sent from an accompanying wristband sold with the gun.
Admittedly, there are problems with the gun that some may find objectionable. It is expensive, for example, and sells well above the price of its competitors. Second, it allegedly uses a type of .22 bullet that some in the gun lobby have called inappropriate for self-defense. Third, for those who forget to plug in their phones at night, it is conceivable that the battery in either the gun or the wristband could become degraded and, therefore, render the weapon useless. There is even the possibility that given strong enough interference — perhaps broadcast by CIA jamming beams emanating from your television — reception of the signal by the pistol could be lost.
So, it is not a perfect weapon by any stretch of the imagination. What’s more, an old New Jersey law from 2002 mandates that three years after the introduction of such a gun in the U.S. market, all pistols sold in the Garden State must include similar technology. Since this would impose a near monopoly on legal gun sales in the state and raise prices for those sold, one can see how activists of all types might be opposed to such a measure. At the moment, it is a bad law.
While New Jersey’s clumsy attempt at regulation might rightly concern some, this does not explain the vitriolic reaction elsewhere in the country toward the introduction of this gun in states with no such mandates. After all, if this poor, super-expensive weapon is such a bad deal, it will quickly fail in the marketplace. Consumer choice — a concept right-wingers religiously chant whenever market regulation is ever contemplated in this country — should ensure the gun’s failure to make much headway among firearms aficionados.
The American firearms industry, the gun lobby and Second Amendment types would thus seemingly have nothing to fear from the little old Armatix iP1 — especially in states that do not mandate smart gun adoption in any way, shape or form, e.g. nearly all of them. That, however, is not the case. Indeed, the vitriolic, near apoplectic reaction to the German smart gun showing up here in America is surprising only to those who don’t understand what the gun lobby is all about.
The NRA opposes the New Jersey law mandating the adoption of smart guns, but even if these weapons were available at decent prices it is not likely they would see much in the way of support from the likes of Wayne LaPierre. This is because the organization sees the technology as a potential chink in its rhetorical armor about gun safety and responsible gun use that could theoretically be used to thwart what they really want: guns everywhere, owned by everyone with a pulse.
The NRA is not really an organization that represents average gun owners, many of whom actually opposethe NRA’s far-right position on firearms access. In fact, the organization receives less than half its revenuefrom ordinary “Joe Shotgun” types who might have a hunting rifle at home or keep a handgun packed away in a closet somewhere for self-defense purposes. The NRA is increasingly reliant on big-money donations and gun-business schemes to funnel money to the organization in a way that puts a patriotic, freedom-loving veneer on economic interests.
But more importantly, the NRA and its associated gun-rights groups are also home to far-right personalities of every shape and variety who circulate in the closed loop ideological world of right-wing activism. As we now know so well, such groups often deliberately use cynicism and fear to manipulate their supporters in order to, as one former NRA operative put it, “wield power while relentlessly squeezing contributions from its members.” How else is somebody like Wayne LaPierre, who blames gun-free zones for the massacres of children, to receive a $1 million salary?
In turn, this explains the reaction smart guns have received from those among the right-wing hoi polloi. No sooner had word gotten out this spring that a Maryland gun shop had started to sell the gun — a big loser among the consumer, remember — than the owner began receiving death threats. Yes, that’s right: a legal product that everyone admits isn’t a very good one was deemed so threatening to the hegemony of the American gun movement that some cowardly, probably less-than-well-endowed pistoleros thought it a good idea to threaten the good shopkeeper’s life and — get this — even the life of the man’s dog.
What’s more, it worked. The scared shop owner withdrew the weapon from the shop’s offerings after being unable to withstand the nerve-wracking complaints. The same also happened to a store out in California, which faced a torrent of inchoate rage from customers and gun-rights netizens for daring to sell a crappy gun that no one was ever going to be forced to buy. Rather than take the tiniest risk that the gun might find a market, violence-tinged rage and paranoia from well-armed gun nuts ensured that the market never got a chance to give the weapon a failing grade.
Quite frankly, this is all very telling from both the political and psychological points of view. The slightest hint that such a gun might prove popular, however unlikely that might be, has to be actively squashed because it suggests that there might exist a cheap and easy way to practically limit firearms access to those not authorized — either through ownership or some other way — to use a gun. It suggests a world where free choice as expressed through the market — not the law and government coercion — acts to effectively negate the power of citizen gun wielders. Imagine, for example, if such technology caught on and got cheaper and more effective as time went on, as inevitably all technology does?
What if governments began giving tax breaks to those who bought such weapons, effectively subsidizing responsible gun ownership? As more people adopted such weapons and non-smart weapons began to diminish in number, think what might happen if jamming technology to make the gun inoperable spread into the hands of average consumers. What if businesses and organizations, for instance, could really impose “gun free” zones by installing jamming devices that interfered with smart gun signals?
Imagine whole neighborhoods where people elect to install such jammers — would they not become safer? The data clearly says so, and if the data is right, those places would instantly become desirable places to live. Insurers, for instance, might give customers a discount for living in such an area and property values there might rise. Slowly but surely, financial incentives would be built against living in non-jamming or against owning non-smart weapons, even as firearms ownership — already on the decline without this technology — decays into an anachronism as no one sees the need to keep and bear arms. Overnight, by historical standards, an entire industry and culture would be erased from American society without a single shot, so to speak, having been fired.
Thus, the right’s fear and loathing of the smart gun reveals what is really going on here. The NRA and its ilk are protecting their economic and political power from this type of scenario, while the slack-jawed yokels who derive their entire identity from being able to carry a loaded pistol into a post office or an AR-15 to a local PTA meeting are protecting their perceived cultural status in the wider community. They see clearly and fear what others — especially the anti-gun left — don’t seem to understand: the true threat to America’s gun culture is not that it will be crushed by government, but that people, if given the choice, will freely give it up if presented with a viable alternative.
To the NRA and the gun nuts, that’s exactly the wrong type of freedom Americans should have.