Smart Guns: Gun Control That's Good for the Gun Business
(Bloomberg View) -- Two days before the horrific school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people on Wednesday, Remington Outdoor Co. announced that it was filing for bankruptcy protection.
Remington Outdoor is the world's biggest gun company. In addition to Remington rifles, its brands include Bushmaster, Marlin and DPMS. It is owned by the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, which is run by Stephen Feinberg, the secretive billionaire investor and pal of President Donald Trump.
Remington semiautomatic rifles were used in 2012 in the Aurora, Colorado, mass shooting and Sandy Hook massacre that traumatized the nation. In the wake of the killings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Feinberg said he would sell the company. He never did. A year later, though, he did change the name from Freedom Group to Remington Outdoor Co.
Remington's financial problems result from its own mistakes and an industry-wide downturn. Between 2016 and 2017, its revenue dropped from $865 million to $688 million. A competitor, American Brands Corp. (formerly Smith & Wesson), saw revenue drop from $740 million to $656 million in the same time span. And so on.
It's no secret that the reason for the slowdown in sales is the Trump presidency. With a strong supporter of the National Rifle Association in the White House, fewer gun owners are in a frenzy over the prospect that their guns are about to be taken away by the government. So they're not racing to their nearest gun store to stock up every time there's a mass shooting the way they did when Barack Obama was president.
There are also fewer gun owners than there used to be. Less than a third of American households own guns today, compared to nearly half in 1973, according to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Half the guns in the U.S. are owned by 3 percent of the adult population.
If the gun industry hopes to get back on its feet while Trump remains president, it will need to do two things. It will need to expand the universe of customers beyond that core 3 percent. And it needs new products that will get its customers buying guns again.
Which brings us to smart guns.
Smart guns use technology to identify their owners and prevent their use by anybody else. The technology has been around for years — most smart gun prototypes use either biometrics or radio waves — but its introduction has long been blocked by the NRA and its allies.
I don't want to overstate the good that smart guns can do: They would not stop mass shootings by killers like the one in Florida who buy their guns legally. But preventing people from shooting guns that they don't own would reduce all sorts of violence, from suicides to accidental shootings by children to gun crimes that rely on stolen weapons.
Why is the NRA so opposed to smart guns? Because it fears that if smart guns became popular, legislators would mandate that all guns be equipped with the technology.
Indeed, New Jersey passed a law years ago that requires the state's gun retailers to carry only smart guns within three years of the technology becoming commercially available anywhere in the U.S. But gun-control advocates now realize that so long as that law is on the books, the NRA and its allies will never let smart guns reach the market. In 2014, a retailer faced numerous threats after saying he would stock a smart gun in his store. He never did it. New Jersey's new governor, Phil Murphy, now says he wants to change the law as quickly as possible, knowing it's an impediment to bringing smart guns to the market.
And there is evidence that a lot of people would buy a smart gun if they could. For instance, a 2015 poll conducted by Penn Schoen Berland found that 40 percent of gun owners said they would swap their gun for a smart gun. The younger the gun owner, the more likely he or she would be willing to make that swap.
The person who made me aware of the poll was Ralph Fascitelli, co-founder of LodeStar Firearms, a new smart-gun company. LodeStar has engaged the legendary German gun designer Ernst Mauch to develop a 9-millimeter smart pistol, which will use a radio frequency to connect gun to owner.
Fascitelli pointed me to another bit of research, an online survey of law-enforcement professionals nationwide that showed that 58 percent were interested in smart guns if they were proven reliable. It is hard to know how credible this poll is, but if law enforcement were to back smart guns, it would be a big deal.
It's way too early to know whether LodeStar will be the smart-gun company that breaks through, or even whether there will be a breakthrough. But Fascitelli is correct that the conditions are right, finally, for smart guns.
Smart guns aren't the whole solution to the U.S. gun-violence problem, but they could certainly make a difference.
And they don't require a new law. They just require the market to do its thing.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg View columnist. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is the co-author of "Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA."
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