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Obama Directs The Pentagon To Study Gun Safety


They're called smart guns - weapons that can only be fired by their owners. President Obama is directing the Pentagon and other federal agencies to both develop and promote smart gun technology. Firearms manufacturers, though, have resisted adding these safety features. Gun safety advocates hope that will change with the president's new initiatives. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: In his executive order on guns earlier this week, President Obama tasked the departments of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security with getting smart gun technology out to the real world.


BARACK OBAMA: We need to develop new technologies that make guns safer. If we can set it up so you can't unlock your phone unless you got the right fingerprint, why can't we do the same thing for our guns?


WELNA: Here's the plan. The federal government is by far the nation's single largest purchaser of guns, so if it promotes and demands smart gun technology, firearms manufacturers would have a big economic incentive to make such guns.

LORETTA WEINBERG: I am absolutely delighted with what the president did.

WELNA: That's News Jersey State Senator Loretta Weinberg. A law she sponsored 14 years ago mandated that only smart guns be sold within three years of such guns becoming commercially available in the U.S. Gun advocates made sure no such guns were sold anywhere. And Weinberg's law is now being scaled back to require only that one smart gun model be available at gun dealers.

WEINBERG: So I would hope with us rolling back the mandate to purchase and certainly the president moving the whole idea of smart gun technology forward, that this is the right moment and the right time.

WELNA: But not for gun advocates like Alan Korwin. He's published 10 books on gun laws and fears the president's push for smart guns will lead to new restrictions.

ALAN KORWIN: Smart guns has arisen as a way the government is seeking to infringe on the public's rights. They meet incredible resistance when they do that.

WELNA: Margot Hirsch knows such resistance well. Two years ago, as president of the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, she funded 15 innovators to develop smart gun technologies.

MARGOT HIRSCH: To this date, I am not aware of any of the gun manufacturers who are in the process of bringing any of these technologies to market.

WELNA: The only smart gun technology many people have actually seen was in the James Bond movie "Skyfall" when the hero addresses a bad guy who's just stolen his pistol.


DANIEL CRAIG: Good luck with that.

WELNA: As the villain squeezes the gun's trigger, three tiny red spots light up on the weapon.


WELNA: It's a smart gun that fires only when 007's palm contacts the handgrip. The New Jersey Institute of Technology has already patented such technology, but the Institute's Bill Marshall says no gun maker's been interested.

BILL MARSHALL: We had always looked to partner with one of the primes in the industry. And of course, that never came to fruition.

WELNA: And hopes that the Pentagon may soon adopt such personalized weapons may be misplaced, says Dave Broden of the National Defense Industrial Association.

DAVE BRODEN: The DOD community is certainly - I don't want to say anti but rather conservative about moving into smart guns because of not wanting to have an added function for the war-fighter when he's in combat.

WELNA: Just ask retired Army Colonel Peter Mansoor. He commanded a brigade in Iraq that saw more than a year of combat. Personalized weapons, he says, could've been a problem on the battlefield.

PETER MANSOOR: If your pistol breaks in combat, you want to be able to pick up someone else's, you know, if they've been wounded or dead. You can't simply match a weapon to a single soldier.

WELNA: Mansoor says smart guns could possibly be matched to an entire fighting unit to get around that. The Pentagon's been given three months to devise a plan for sorting out such issues as the federal government takes the lead in promoting smart guns. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.