Why the NRA hates smart guns

With yet another push from President Obama to revive initiatives to develop “smart gun” technology, it looks like it’s time to revisit the issue once again.

The most common question I got in response to my previous piece on the many problems with smart guns is, “even if you’re correct that smart guns are a bad idea, why is the NRA so opposed to letting the market even try to get it right?”

The NRA’s official position is that they don’t care one way or the other about smart gun tech, and that the market should decide, but we all know that’s baloney. The NRA doesn’t want smart guns to ever reach the market, at all.

So the question is, why? If smart guns as doomed to fail as I’ve previously argued, why not just let them fail in the market? Why try to prevent this technology from even having a chance?


The simple answer to this question is widely known, but also widely misunderstood.

Most who follow this issue know that the NRA hates smart guns because they’re afraid that once a seemingly viable smart gun technology exists, anti-gun legislators at the state and federal levels will attempt to mandate it in all future guns by comparing it to seat belts, air bags, and other product safety features.

If you read my previous piece on the problems with smart guns, then you hopefully understand the differences between a seat belt and smart gun tech, and why the prospect of having smart technology forcibly included in all new firearms drives gun nuts into apoplectic fits.

But maybe you’re thinking, “that’s fine, then. We just won’t mandate it. There will be no mandate. There, you happy now? Can we just get on with the smart gun innovation and let this play out in the market?”

Here’s the thing, though: the NRA is actually right, in this case. If smart guns get any traction, then non-smart-guns will come under legislative assault.

I realize some of you went into shock and stopped reading after you saw the phrase “NRA is actually right” appear on TechCrunch, but if you’re still with me then give me a moment to explain.

The Series of Tubes

Guns are a technology, and, like most members of the general public, gun control advocates are thoroughly confused about how guns operate outside of Hollywood — as in, “the Internet is a series of tubes“-level confused. It’s hard for me to overstate just how bad it is out there, even among much of the gun-owning public.

But maybe you grew up on a farm, you had a little hunting rifle, you went to the range a few times and shot a pistol, and so on. And you’ve seen lots and lots of movies with guns in them. Even so, unless you have a background in the military, law enforcement, or executive protection, or have undergone a decent amount of civilian training in real-world defensive use of firearms, then you know as much about guns as a teen with a brand new learner’s permit knows about steering an 18-wheeler through downtown Chicago in rush-hour traffic.

It’s bad that the general public — including the majority of casual gun owners — are so confused about guns that they don’t know how much they don’t know. But what’s worse, at least if you’re a gun person, is that lawmakers and activists who know less than nothing about guns often find themselves in a position to confidently enshrine their technological ignorance into law.

This, then, is what the NRA is terrified of: that lawmakers who don’t even know how to begin to evaluate the impact of the smallest, most random-seeming feature of a given firearm on that firearm’s effectiveness and functionality for different types of users with different training backgrounds under different circumstances will get into the business of gun design.

And they’re right to be afraid, because it has happened before.

The Vertical Foregrip: A Case Study in Well-Intentioned Insanity

To understand how gun control advocates’ high-handed indifference to basic gun knowlege feeds into to the visceral reaction that pro-gun folks have to smart gun tech, you have to go back to the original, Clinton-era Assault Weapon Ban. Whatever you think of the merits of the AWB, you have to admit that this ban put legislators in the business of gun design. And I don’t mean this metaphorically — legislators were literally doing gun design.

Before they could ban “assault weapons” as a category, lawmakers (or lobbyists and interns, more likely) had to compile a list of cosmetic, ergonomic, and functional features that, when they appear on a firearm either singly or in certain combinations, turn that gun from an ordinary rifle into a deadly assault weapon.

This process of looking at features and combinations of features and deciding what stays and what goes is pretty much what you’d do if you worked in product design at a Remington or a Smith & Wesson. But the people who put together the AWB’s feature lists not only were not professional gun designers, but they didn’t even appear to know anything at all about the guns they were designing for the public’s use.

This article isn’t the place to catalog the insanity of the Clinton-era AWB, or the recently proposed AWB that seeks to take its place, but I do want to offer to the uninitiated one concrete example of what I’m talking about, so you can get a feel for just how mad and maddening the results of this design-by-lawyer process are.

Consider the lowly vertical foregrip (VFG), a simple handle that hangs down from the front of a rifle and gives the weapon’s operator a place to put their off-hand.

Screen Shot 2016-04-30 at 4.02.47 AM

Photo courtesy of Oleg Volk.

Some shooters love the VFG for the same reason that the AWB’s authors presumably hated it — because it’s popularly seen on military guns in movies and violent video games.

On the other hand, most competitive shooters dislike vertical foregrips, preferring instead to wrap their entire hand around the front of the gun. (My friend Tom recently got made fun of for showing up with a VFG at a shooting competition.)

Other shooters prefer a halfway option called the “angled foregrip”, which is a small ramp placed under the front of the gun that can anchor the hand.

Still other shooters put a vertical foregrip on their guns but don’t actually grip it when shooting — instead, the VFG gives such shooters a tactile marker that lets them quickly and easily place their off hand in the same spot every time without looking.

Finally, some people use a VFG solely as a small storage compartment for batteries or cleaning supplies.

Like all things ergonomic, the decision to VFG or not to VFG is ultimately a matter of shooter preference… that is, unless you were a shooter during the original 1994 AWB, in which case your preference didn’t matter because VFGs were totally illegal.

Yes, that is correct — a small plastic handle that some people like to attach to the front of their gun because they feel it gives them a more comfortable hold on the weapon was considered a feature so deadly it must be outlawed. The lawmakers who added the VFG to the list of banned features not only declined to produce any sort of rationale for how the VFG makes guns deadlier or less safe, but it’s likely that they didn’t even know what it was or how it was used.

This ignorance about all things gun-related is on painful display in the video below, in which a young Tucker Carlson goes down a list of banned “assault weapon” features with former congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, the original AWB’s primary backer, asking her what certain features do and why they had to be banned.

The senator clearly has no idea what any of the banned features actually do, and when pressed about one feature in particular — the “barrel shroud” — she takes a wild guess so hilariously wrong that it spawned an Internet meme: “the shoulder thing that goes up”.

Screen Shot 2016-04-30 at 4.06.21 AM

To take a more recent example, here’s Leah Gunn Barrett, the executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, justifying the NY SAFE Act’s current ban on the VFG:

For example, Gunn Barrett said a forward-leaning pistol grip might give a mass shooter better control over his rifle.

“The gun is still lethal,” Gunn Barrett said. “Yes, it can still kill people. But it is not as easy to manipulate and fire accurately than it would be if you had a forward-leaning pistol grip.”

The “forward-leaning pistol grip” in the above quote is Gun Barrett’s very confused way of talking about the above described foregrip.

Again, she has literally no idea what she’s talking about. None. And yet again, here we have the spectacle of lawmakers and activists engaged in gun design without even the most superficial knowledge of or regard for how real-world firearms are actually operated in non-Hollywood and non-video game settings.

Since the expiration of the AWB in 2004, even ardent anti-gun types like UCLA’s Adam Winkler, the NYT’s Nick Kristof, and Pro Publica have recognized it as a misguided boondoggle that didn’t save lives and did serve as a powerful fundraising aid for the NRA and GOP. It was a totally irrational “own goal” on the part of the gun control movement, and in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings it’s happening all over again at both the state and federal levels.

But enough on the AWB madness, which reminds me so much of the ‘net neutrality debate that I could write a book on the topic. I think you can see where I’m going with this in the context of smart guns.

The Inevitable Smart Gun Mandate

Given gun control advocates’ repeatedly demonstrated combination of unintentionally hilarious firearms ignorance and high-handed zeal for gun design by legislative fiat, it is totally rational for gun owners to anticipate that any viable-seeming smart gun technology will be eventually pushed as a required “safety feature” by anti-gun lawmakers at the state and federal levels.

I wouldn’t even expect that a particular bit of smart gun tech would have to be particularly reliable or even fully baked to catch the eye of a zealous California congressperson, who wouldn’t wait for the market to sort out the technology’s viability before insisting that it be included in all future firearms sold in the state. (Just look at what CA did with their microstamping law, mandating a technology that isn’t actually available in production guns.) And at the federal level, it’s a certainty that the same federal lawmakers who banned the vertical foregrip in 1994 and are currently trying to ban it again will attempt to pass an equally clueless smart gun mandate of some type, the moment they get the chance.

Gun buyers who value the freedom to walk into a gun store and walk out with a brand new non-smart-gun have therefore correctly concluded that the best way to preserve that freedom is to torpedo any smart gun tech before it gets out of the gate. As for gun makers, even if they wanted to introduce smart gun tech (they don’t), they wouldn’t touch it for fear of backlash from a gun community that sees the legislative writing on the wall.

No End In Sight

As long as we live in a world where a millimeter of barrel length separates a highly restricted “short-barreled rifle” from a regular rifle, and where a plastic gun handle is willfully misidentified as a dangerous aid for mass killers — in other words, where people who know zero about firearms nonetheless continue to design them through legislation — smart gun technology will be a bona fide existential threat to non-smart-guns, and people who don’t want to buy smart guns will do everything they can to strangle the technology in the cradle.

If gun control advocates were to swear off gun design for a generation, and instead focus on the “who” instead of on the “what”, there might be hope. I’m not holding my breath, though. To someone who knows so little about guns that they don’t think they have anything more to learn, the “what” probably looks like the easiest thing to legislate. But the deeper you dig into this issue, the more you realize that, as with any constantly evolving technology, the “what” is a moving target, and the “who” starts to look like the more viable avenue.

My guess is that a lot of gun people would be willing to compromise more than you’d realize on various aspects of the “who” question, in exchange for tossing most of the “what” restrictions out the window. But we’re a long way from that on both sides. And in the meantime, we’ll spin our collective wheels as one camp keeps trying to “patch” a technology that they fundamentally don’t understand, and the other side tries to block potentially threatening innovations.