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NY lawmakers pressing for study of so-called ‘smart’ handgun technology

When New York lawmakers return to Albany next week for the 2024 session, gun safety will once again be on the agenda as the Democratic-controlled state Legislature continues searching for ways to regulate a firearms industry the U.S. Congress has largely steered clear of for years.

One bill asks the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services to study the possibility of equipping guns with technology to block unauthorized users from pulling the trigger.

If found viable, then firearm dealers in New York would have to offer at least one model of a so-called “smart” or personalized handgun, which only the legal owner or other authorized users would be able to shoot. Manufacturers would be required to equip them with technology that makes them “reasonably resistant” to firing by an unauthorized user, and the mechanism would have to be installed in a way that couldn’t be removed.

Proponents argue such technology could prevent accidental shootings. Children have unintentionally fired guns at least 377 times this year, causing 145 deaths and 247 injuries, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for stricter firearm laws.

The bill’s sponsors said equipping guns with smart technology would also stop people from using stolen guns to commit crimes. Researchers estimated that about 380,000 firearms are stolen annually.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms reported earlier this year that enough guns are stolen each year to arm every person who commits a homicide, assault or robbery with a gun.

“Given the very large scale of firearm thefts in the U.S., it seems likely that stolen firearms are a significant source of firearms to violent criminals,” the ATF wrote.

New Jersey has had its own “smart gun” laws on the books for years. In 2002, legislators approved the Childproof Handgun Law, which commissioned a study on the retail availability of firearms that block child users. If researchers identified childproof handguns on the market, then firearms dealers in the state would be barred from selling any handgun that wasn’t childproof, unless it was an antique.

Lawmakers later walked back that legislation. In 2019, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a new law that instead established a commission to set criteria for personalized handguns that could be sold in the state — like the measure now pending in New York. It also requires gun dealers to stock at least one personalized gun model in their stores.

New Jersey’s “smart gun” legislation has sparked criticism from the gun industry and from advocates for the technology who say the state’s requirements will actually make companies less interested in producing personalized firearms, the nonprofit newsroom The Trace has reported.

Even if New York lawmakers approve the new “smart gun” measure, firearm dealers will only be required to sell the weapons if the DCJS determines that they’re technologically viable. The agency is already a year behind for a similar study on technology called microstamping, which would allow guns to mark every bullet shell with a unique code when fired, making it easier for law enforcement to trace them to a gun when investigating a shooting.

The DCJS was supposed to publish that study by December 2022, but agency spokesperson Janine Kava said a working group is still exploring the technology’s viability. She said the state earmarked funding in this fiscal year’s budget that will allow the group to hire a firearm expert to help with the evaluation, including through live-fire testing of microstamped guns.

The agency said it expects to put out a request for an expert in the first quarter of next year. It’s still unclear how long it would take after that to complete the viability study.

Kava declined to comment on the personalized gun measure while it’s pending in the statehouse.

Jacob Rieper, former legislative director for the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, said he doesn’t expect either law to take effect. The technologies may sound good to lawmakers on paper, but they won’t actually work, he said.

Rieper said gun companies have tested various technologies over the past 50 years, without success. He also said adding extra parts to guns makes them less reliable — a tradeoff he doesn’t think most gun companies would be willing to stomach.

“Why would you want to make your product less reliable? Who would want to buy that?” Rieper said. “That’s not something you can sell.”

At least one personalized handgun is already on the market: the Biofire Smart Gun. The company that makes the gun claims on its website that it uses fingerprint and 3-D facial recognition technology to check a user’s identity. Only the firearm’s owner and those registered as authorized users can shoot the weapon. The guns are currently available for pre-order at between $1,499 and $1,899 each.

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