Last Friday, President Obama announced a series of actions aimed at making smart guns a reality, rather than a lab curiosity that has never gotten beyond the demonstration stage.
A smart gun is one that in principle can be used only by its authorized owner. If we had a magic smart-gun-making wand that we could wave and thereby grant the beneficences of intelligence and the moral judgment of St Thomas Aquinas to every gun in the US, well, I suppose we would no longer have to worry about any gun being wrongly used ever again.
But that would require that guns have more smarts and judgment than the owners, and nobody’s expecting the technology to go that far. Even if the technology worked perfectly, it’s easy to see that smart guns would eliminate only a fraction of the accidental and intentional shootings that gun regulations are intended to reduce, because no gun can tell whether its owner is using it for good or bad purposes. And you can rest assured that if the only kinds of guns available were smart guns, that’s the kind that criminals would use.
Admittedly, accidental shootings such as the ones involving small children are the most tragic and unnecessary ones. And almost any kind of smart-gun technology would go far to prevent gun accidents involving children who gain access to guns. But this kind of accident is a small proportion of the annual gun-fatality roll in the United States, making up less than 5% of the 12,000 or so gun-related deaths in 2014.
The President has stopped short of measures that would put the purchasing power of the federal government in play. Without any enabling legislation, for example, he could have mandated that all future gun purchases by the US government would be smart guns only. He probably realized that such a mandate would seriously handicap the FBI and other federal domestic law-enforcement personnel, because right now, there is no generally available smart-gun technology, because basically, nobody wants to buy one.
Anytime US gun laws are discussed, the National Rifle Association has to be considered. The NRA’s official position is that they do not oppose smart-gun technology per se, but do not want it mandated by legal fiat. Instead, the NRA prefers to let market forces lead the technological development.
This is a little bit like saying, “Let the market decide how many Ferraris we should make with speed-control governors keeping them from exceeding a speed of 60 miles an hour (100 km/hr).” The whole point of buying a Ferrari is to be able to go fast, and the NRA knows very well that if the matter is left to the market, the market will go on rejecting the idea of smart guns, as it has for the last 25 years or more.
Why aren’t they popular?
There are two main reasons that smart guns and smart-gun laws have not proved popular: one pertaining to the technology itself, and the other having to do with the legislators who would have to make the smart-gun laws.
The technological reason is that none of the dozen or more different approaches to making smart guns seems to work very well. Some of them use biometric sensors—these are not yet advanced enough to be used for routine computer-ID purposes. And a law-enforcement officer wants a gun that’s at least as reliable as getting money out of an ATM.
Others depend on the user wearing some kind of wireless ID bracelet or RFID chip. Well, gosh, what if you leave it at home with your other pair of trousers? Or what if the crooks figure out a way to jam the RFID chip (that’s not hard, incidentally)? And so on.
Every single smart-gun technology idea has some potential for failure, which adds to the chances that a gun won’t be usable when it’s most needed. To most potential gun purchasers, the incremental value added of knowing that unauthorized users can’t fire the gun is not worth the complications of carrying around an RFID bracelet or hoping that your gun will recognize you despite your recent haircut, or whatever means it uses.
What makes a gun smart?
The second reason that most gun owners (and in reality, the NRA) detest the idea of smart-gun legislation is pointed out ably by Jon Stokes, a blogger at TechCrunch. It turns out that the legislators who are most enthusiastic about gun regulation tend to know the least about guns.
He cites the example of the 1994 Federal legislation banning “assault weapons.” Now in order to ban something, you have to have at least a vague idea of what it is you’re banning. So the law had a kind of laundry list of features that made a gun an assault weapon, including such things as a vertical foregrip. This is a kind of stick-like doohickey that extends down from the middle or so of the barrel and gives you something to do with your non-trigger hand. The presence of that one little optional feature made the gun an assault weapon, and ipso facto illegal.
The 1994 law has been superseded since then, but Stokes points out that any smart-gun law will face the same problem: what makes a gun smart? What design features specifically qualify it to be a smart gun? And inevitably, the lawmakers will be forced into the nitty-gritty of gun design, for which activity they are dubiously qualified at best.
Guns have a special place in the American psyche. Here in Texas, they are part of the culture to a degree that is unimaginable in San Francisco or Boston, and while I do not personally have any truck with guns, I have several friends who do own and use them responsibly.
Maybe the fact that President Obama is directing more federal R&D funds to the problem will uncover a single technology that will make smart guns as easy and reliable to use as the “safety” that keeps a gun from going off when set that way by the user, and which has been a standard feature of many firearms since at least 1911.
And maybe state or federal legislators will educate themselves enough on how guns really work and are used to pick the best smart-gun technology to require gunmakers to install. But right now, I’m not seeing a lot of speed-controlled Ferraris on the road, and I would not risk a bet on smart-gun legislation getting very far any time soon.
Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.