Personalized firearms use technology like radio frequency identification (RFID) chips, fingerprint readers, or other biometric sensors to prevent access by unauthorized users and verify a user’s identity before a gun can be fired. Despite the potential of smart guns to save lives by preventing the unauthorized use of firearms, particularly by children and criminals, the gun lobby has staunchly opposed the development of gun safety technology.

Background

“Smart guns,” also known as “personalized” firearms, are intended to prevent unauthorized persons from accessing and using firearms.

There are two kinds of existing technologies capable of reliably identifying authorized users.

  • Radio frequency identification (RFID) tokens activate a firearm when they are in close proximity to it. These tokens can be integrated into bracelets, watches, rings, or other wearable devices.
  • Biometric recognition technology activates a firearm after identifying biological features like a fingerprint, palm print, or grip.

These technologies are designed to prevent shootings that occur when unauthorized users—like curious children—gain access to unsecured guns. Personalized guns also render firearms useless to criminals who steal them. If utilized by police, personalized guns cannot be used against law enforcement if they are wrestled away from police during the course of an arrest or other encounter. For more information about the risks of guns in the hands of unauthorized users, see our page on Safe Storage.

Unsecured guns in the home pose a substantial risk to children who may find and use them against themselves or others.

  • Household guns are a major source of weapons used by youth in violence against themselves or others. Between 70 and 90% of guns used in youth suicides, unintentional shootings among children, and school shooting perpetrated by shooters under the age of 18 are acquired from the home or the homes of relatives or friends.1
  • Accordingly, the risk of suicide and unintentional shootings among youth increases in homes where guns are kept loaded and/or unlocked.2
  • For more information about the risks of unsecured guns around children, see our page on Child Access Prevention Laws.

Unsecured weapons in homes and vehicles are also fueling an epidemic of gun thefts across the country. These guns may be diverted to the underground market, where they are used in crime.

  • Nationally–representative survey data suggests that approximately 380,000 guns are stolen from individual gun owners each year.3
  • From 2006 to 2016, the number of guns reported stolen from individuals increased by approximately 60%.4 Similarly, many cities have reported alarming spikes in the number of firearms stolen from cars.5
  • An analysis of more than 23,000 stolen firearms recovered by police between 2010 and 2016 found that the majority of these weapons were recovered in connection with crimes, including more than 1,500 violent acts such as murder, kidnapping, and armed robbery.6

Research suggests that personalized gun technology could help to mitigate the risks associated with unsecured guns.

  • An analysis of a sample of unintentional and undetermined firearm deaths suggests that 37% of these deaths could have been prevented using smart gun technology.7

Smart gun technology has clear potential to prevent gun deaths and thefts. However, the gun lobby has staunchly opposed development of gun safety technology, preventing it from becoming commercially available, despite public support for its development. Recent polling indicates that 79% of gun owners think licensed dealers should sell both traditional and personalized guns8 and 60% of non-gun owners who were planning to purchase a gun in the next year are willing to consider buying a personalized gun.9

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.10 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.11

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.12

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.13

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.”14

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.15

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.16

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).17

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.18 The state police has not yet approved any form of personalized technology as sufficient to comply with this requirement.19

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).
  • Incentives are provided to encourage research, development, and commercial sale of personalized firearms and gun safety technology.
  • 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. Renee M. Johnson, et al., “Who Are the Owners of Firearms Used in Adolescent Suicides?,” Suicide and Life-threatening Behavior 40, no. 6 (2010): 609-611; Guohua Li, et al., “Factors Associated with the Intent of Firearm-related Injuries in Pediatric Trauma Patients,” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 150, no. 11 (1996): 1160-1165; John Woodrow Cox and Steven Rich, “”The Gun is Not in the Closet,’” The Washington Post, August 1, 2018, https://wapo.st/2M2HSH6. See also, Bryan Vossekuil, et al., “The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States,” US Secret Service and US Department of Education, July 2004, https://www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/preventingattacksreport.pdf; Tawnell D. Hobbs, “Most Guns Used in School Shootings Come From Home,” The Wall Street Journal, April 5, 2018, https://on.wsj.com/2Eydv2f. ⤴︎
  2. David C. Grossman, et al., “Gun Storage Practices and Risk of Youth Suicide and Unintentional Firearm Injuries,” JAMA 293, no. 6 (2005): 707–714. See also, Matthew Miller and David Hemenway, “The Relationship Between Firearms and Suicide: a Review of the Literature,” Aggression and Violent Behavior 4, no. 1 (1999): 59–75; Daniel W. Webster, Jon S. Vernick, April M. Zeoli, and Jennifer A. Manganello, “Association Between Youth–focused Firearm Laws and Youth Suicides,” JAMA 292, no. 5 (2004): 594–601. ⤴︎
  3. David Hemenway, Deborah Azrael, and Matthew Miller, “Whose Guns are Stolen? The Epidemiology of Gun Theft Victims,” Injury Epidemiology 4, no. 1 (2017). ⤴︎
  4. Brian Freskos, “Missing Pieces: Gun Theft from Legal Gun Owners is on the Rise, Quietly Fueling Violent Crime, The Trace, November 20, 2017, https://bit.ly/2izST1h. ⤴︎
  5. Martin Kaste, “More Guns In Cars Mean More Guns Stolen From Cars,” NPR, May 9, 2019, https://n.pr/2MdG66e. ⤴︎
  6. Brian Freskos, “Missing Pieces: Gun Theft from Legal Gun Owners is on the Rise, Quietly Fueling Violent Crime, The Trace, November 20, 2017, https://bit.ly/2izST1h. ⤴︎
  7. Researchers considered a death preventable if there was clear evidence that the shooter was not the owner or authorized user of the gun. Jon S. Vernick, et al., “Unintentional and Undetermined Firearm Related Deaths: a Preventable Death Analysis for Three Safety Devices,” Injury Prevention 9, no. 4 (2003): 307–311. ⤴︎
  8. Cassandra K. Crifasi, et al., “Desirability of Personalized Guns Among Current Gun Owners,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 57, no. 2 (2019). ⤴︎
  9. Julia A. Wolfson, et al., “The US Public’s Preference for Safer Guns,” American Journal of Public Health 106, no. 3 (2016): 411–413. ⤴︎
  10. 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. ⤴︎
  11. Departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security, Report to the President Outlining a Strategy to Expedite Deployment of Gun Safety Technology (April 2016), https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/docs/final_report-smart_gun_report.pdf. ⤴︎
  12. National Institute of Justice Report, Baseline Specifications for Law Enforcement Service Pistols with Security Technology (Department of Justice, 2016), https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/250377.pdf. ⤴︎
  13. Md. Code Ann., Pub. Safety § 5-132. ⤴︎
  14. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:39-1dd. ⤴︎
  15. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:58-2.3. ⤴︎
  16. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:58-2.4. ⤴︎
  17. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:58-2a(5)(e). ⤴︎
  18. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, §§ 131K. ⤴︎
  19. “Approved Firearm Safety/Locking Devices,” Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, Accessed November 28, 2018, https://www.mass.gov/files/documents/2018/08/21/Approved%20Firearm%20Safety%20Gun%20Locking%20Devices_0.pdf. ⤴︎