You need a key to start your car. That's to make it tough for anyone to steal it, and to keep kids from joyriding and maybe killing themselves or others.
But you don't need a key (or anything besides a bullet) to fire a gun.
In the wake of the horrific Sandy Hook school massacre, some Connecticut lawmakers are wondering why we can't simply order all firearms to come with some mechanism that prevents unauthorized people from shooting them.
American gun industry types insist the technology to make "smart guns" work reliably isn't ready yet — which isn't exactly true.
Smart gun technology is feasible if not perfect, according to lots of experts, but no major American firearms manufacturer is now producing or selling such weapons. New Jersey passed legislation in 2002 to require all guns sold in that state to have smart-gun safeguards, but only if such firearms become readily available for sale to the public. And that obviously hasn't happened.
State Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, believes the real reason why smart guns aren't being made now is the same reason it took the auto industry a long, long time to incorporate safety features like airbags and anti-lock brakes — worries about their bottom line.
He suggests that, like the auto industry, gun makers fear the extra cost involved in putting in smart gun technology might hurt their sales or reduce profits. Looney says government needs to find out if their complaints about technology have any basis in truth "or if it's just foot-dragging... If their real objection is just the expense."
Years ago, the U.S. government spent millions of dollars getting big firearms manufacturers (like Colt, Smith & Wesson, and Mossberg & Sons) to develop guns that would only fire if the authorized person was holding it.
Mossberg has what it calls the iGun. You can't fire it unless you're wearing a ring that the sensor inside the weapon can detect. Other companies and researchers (like the New Jersey Institute of Technology) have developed guns that have sensors keyed to an individual's hand pressure or fingerprints.
An Irish company called TriggerSmart claims it's developed a radio-frequency identification based smart gun that employs a computer chip planted in the weapon's handle.
The gun industry's big objection is allegedly that virtually all these types of smart weapons need batteries, and batteries wear out.
"What happens then?" is the troublesome question, says Bob Crook, lobbyist for the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen.
The firearm industry's biggest trade association is the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which just happens to be headquartered a few miles from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
Lawrence Keane, the NSSF's senior vice president, told Connecticut lawmakers the firearm makers haven't figured out whether a dead-battery smart gun should simply go back to being an unsmart gun like we have now or become unusable.
If it becomes unusable, then it would be useless for self defense if someone was breaking into your house.
"Personalized" or "smart-gun" technology, while in development stages, is neither reliable nor available," according to a statement on the NSSF website. "A U.S. Dept. of Justice-funded project, researched by Sandia National Laboratories, concluded, 'There is not currently a perfect smart-gun technology.' Owner-recognition technology, such as fingerprint recognition or a radio transmitter, requires a power source to work. Any technology that relies on a power source will fail, possibly at the worst time imaginable."
Of course, the battery in your car can also go dead, which makes that potentially lethal piece of machinery unusable. Batteries in smoke detectors sometimes run out of juice, which could be a lot more dangerous than having a non-working gun around.
No technology is going to solve all of America's gun problems. After all, cars can be stolen and operated without their keys.
But gun advocates are also worried that smart-gun technology could create problems for private sales by one gun owner to another (without background checks, by the way). Even some anti-gun activists are apparently worried that smart guns could make firearm ownership appear safer and encourage more people to buy guns.
The gun industry isn't taking any chances. It lobbied heavily against passage of that New Jersey law. Keane explained to state lawmakers last week that his organization lobbied against the New Jersey law because it would give any company who was first on the market with a smart gun "a government-sponsored monopoly."