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Obama administration plan may reignite smart gun fight

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    Obama administration plan may reignite smart gun fight

    Obama administration plan may reignite smart gun fight

    President Barack Obama wipes tears from his eyes as he speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016, about steps his administration is taking to reduce gun violence. Also on stage are stakeholders, and individuals whose lives have been impacted by the gun violence. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) ORG XMIT: DCCK105 less

    Early in January, just weeks after the San Bernardino, Calif., mass shooting, President Obama choked back tears as he announced a series of initiatives aimed at counteracting what he termed the "scourge of gun violence" in America.

    Among them: Ramping up investment in smart guns, which require codes, thumbprints or other measures to make firearms operable. He gave the Defense Department, the Justice Department and the Homeland Security Department 90 days to come up with "a research-and-development strategy designed to expedite the real-world deployment of such technology."

    And he also told the agencies to look into whether the federal government — a major firearms buyer — could use its purchasing power "consistent with operational needs" to spur the market for smart guns.

    Fast-forward to April: The Obama administration has said nothing about smart guns, even as controversy over their use continues to rage between groups favoring gun rights and those committed to gun-violence prevention.

    But that may be about to change. Sources in and out of government say the administration is about to put forward a report from the agencies on the way forward on smart guns. The document could be released as early as this week, these sources say.

    Its exact recommendations are being closely guarded by the White House, but it's likely to reopen a years-long debate on whether smart guns ultimately can cut down the number of accidental shooting deaths — 500 in 2013 alone, 30 of those under age 5.

    The National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation counter that smart-gun technology is still unproven and the marketplace — not government mandates — should be the arbiter of its worthiness to gun owners.

    In New York, the debate resonates acutely because the SAFE Act, passed in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., mass shooting, is among the toughest in the nation. And while much of the state likes it that way, a vocal segment represented by the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association says the law is nothing more than an infringement on Second Amendment rights that has done little to reduce gun violence.

    But smart-gun proponents point to Newtown shooter Adam Lanza, who took his mother Nancy's weapons to kill her and then 26 children and staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Had some or all of those guns been equipped with smart-gun technology, the younger Lanza may not have been able to open fire that day, Dec. 14, 2012.

    "The only way we are going to make our country safer from this epidemic of gun violence is with action," said U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. "We have an obligation to do everything possible to keep Americans safe, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to take steps to end the scourge of gun violence."

    Gillibrand "supports smart-gun technology and thinks it has real potential to improve safety," said her spokesman, Marc Brumer.

    Even before widespread dissemination, smart guns already have developed a "gee-whiz" futuristic appeal. In the James Bond film "Skyfall," Agent 007 uses a gun equipped with a biometric palm scanner.

    A government commitment to using its defense and law-enforcement purchasing power to create a marketplace would dramatically alter the playing field that exists now for smart guns. Huge contracts tied to smart-gun development by arms manufacturers could well create the market that the NRA and NSSF endorse as the only legitimate way to sell such weapons.

    But the climb remains steeply uphill. Back in the 1990s, Colt and Smith & Wesson put forward smart-gun prototypes but withdrew them in the face of boycott threats from gun-rights activists.

    New Jersey in 2002 passed a law requiring all guns sold in the state be smart guns once the technology is widely available. It sent the gun-rights world into a rage.

    Fear of the N.J. law triggered boycott calls and denunciations of gun stores in Maryland and California that said they would sell a German-made smart gun that receives a signal from a chip in a watch. Both stores stopped selling it.

    An NRA spokesman said that while the organization of 5 million-plus gun owners has long opposed the N.J. law, it was not behind the boycott calls.

    But the spokeswoman, Catherine Mortensen, said the technology remains unreliable.

    "If your life is on the line, do you want to depend on the same technology you use to access your smartphone?'' she said. "We don't complain about anything developed in the free market that people choose to buy, but we don't want mandates or prohibitions."

    Foolproof smart-gun technology is still about two or more years away, said Margot Hirsch, president of Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, which was set up after Newtown to spur development of smart guns.

    "Investment capital from government would incentivize gun manufacturers to also develop these technologies," she said. "It would show it's good business and saves lives."

    And in addition, "it gives consumers choices," she said. "We're not saying you have to have a smart gun, but if you want one you should be able to go into store and purchase one. Today you can't do that."

    While most gun control advocates believe smart gun advances would be positive, some in that world disagree.

    The Violence Policy Center, a leading research group that has taken no official position on smart guns, argues in a 2013 brief they would do little to stem the tide of suicide, which typically accounts for up to two thirds of the 30,000-or-so gun deaths in America each year.

    And while smart-gun technology could be an effective deterrent in cases of stolen guns, the VPC brief says it wouldn't impact straw purchases that account for significant amounts of gun trafficking from states with easy gun laws such as Virginia and North Carolina to states with stringent laws such as New York.

    But backers of smart guns insist the technology is worth pursuing.

    "We have passwords, keys, and fingerprints that unlock our laptops, cellphones and cars,'' said Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam. "It only makes sense to have the same kind of security features on firearms."

    U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, a North Country Republican and Second Amendment supporter, will review the report when it is made available and will continue to work in Congress "to reform our nation's mental health system and support common sense reforms so that we can take action that will help stop gun violence in our country," according to a spokesman.

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    Pat ------> NRA Lifetime Endowment Member #FAAFO

    "We have passwords, keys, and fingerprints that unlock our laptops, cellphones and cars,'' said Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam. "It only makes sense to have the same kind of security features on firearms."

    Not at all. Your life doesn't depend on having quick, easy and unencumbered access to your laptop.