It's increasingly difficult to have a rational discussion about gun violence. Thankfully for us, we're not here to do that. We're here to explain what the concept of a smart gun is, beyond what you've seen in hit Sylvester Stallone film Judge Dredd. Lost amid the shouting and hand-wringing of American politics are a bevy of technologies that aim to skip the argument, instead aiming to decrease gun violence through advanced technology. Barring a dramatic shift in American culture or politics, however, it seems the smart gun concept may wither and die. So, what are smart guns?
WHAT IS IT?
The term "smart gun" is trademarked by the company Mossberg, though it's generally understood to refer to any firearm that is designed to allow only the owner to pull the trigger. How exactly a weapon accomplishes that doesn't matter, so long as some form of authentication is required.
There are a number of different solutions out there, but the Armatix iP1 (seen above) has received the most attention recently. The safety mechanism on this .22-caliber pistol is built around a watch that unlocks the gun by broadcasting a wireless signal (RFID). If the weapon is separated from the watch by more than 10 inches, it won't fire. Mossberg employs a similar technique with passive RFID rings, which are powered wirelessly by a battery inside a shotgun. When the rings come within a certain distance of the gun, they're powered on and then send a signal back to the firearm disabling the safety.
Another company, Kodiak Industries, has taken a different route. Instead of building a specialty firearm, it offers the Intelligun modification for 1911-model handguns -- one of the more popular weapons in the United States. A fingerprint scanner is embedded in the grip right where your middle finger would naturally rest when holding it; if your finger isn't on the sensor, the gun won't fire.
Then there are seriously futuristic prototypes, like the Dynamic Grip Recognition system from the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). That uses an array of sensors in the handle to identify the unique pressure pattern exhibited by a user. The team behind this particular solution is looking for investors and partners now to bring the concept to market. Armatix has also developed a system that can supposedly tell the difference between paper targets and people, and will disable the weapon when pointed at a human being. Even industry stalwarts like Smith & Wesson and Colt have put in work on smart guns.
WHY SHOULD I CARE?
Well, the reasons are pretty obvious. There have been more than enough alarming news stories about children who get their hands on a parent's gun. Sometimes these tales end with the child bringing it to school for show and tell and getting in trouble. But an unfortunate number of these incidents end with the death of another child. A fingerprint lock would, ideally, make these occurrences less frequent.
A smart lock would also make it near-impossible for a weapon to be turned on its owner. The Armatix iP1 promotional video above, corny as it is, illustrates as much: A man (who makes a number of seriously questionable decisions) winds up losing his firearm to an attacker after a struggle. When the masked thug tries to pull the trigger, nothing happens and he takes off.
Back in 2002, the New Jersey state government had enough faith in the technology to mandate that gun dealers convert all their stock to smart guns over time. That bill, the Childproof Handgun Bill, states that gun retailers have to start converting their stock to smart guns once the law is triggered. And how is the law triggered? By someone, somewhere in the country selling one. At that point, stores in New Jersey will have exactly three years to cease selling traditional handguns and stock only smart guns.
And the government in Jersey isn't the only one that believes in the personalized gun's ability to reduce firearm deaths. Many of these efforts have been backed by grants from the US government. Plus, the European Union views smart gun tech as a cornerstone (PDF) of theft prevention and misuse. In America, however, you can't walk into a store and buy one.
WHAT'S AT STAKE?
While the idea of a gun that can't be turned on its owner seems like an obvious win for everyone involved, there are a number of problems with the concept. Chief among those worries: the safety mechanism will fail when it's needed most. If you're relying on a weapon for defense, the last thing you want is another point of failure. Electronics aren't perfect. Sometimes cameras can't autofocus. Cable boxes freeze up when browsing the channel guide. The equivalent, seemingly small glitch in a smart gun could be the difference between life and death.
And then there are specific technical limitations. Smart guns rely on batteries to power their various safety systems. Should that battery die, the gun could fail to fire. In fact, most models designed for civilian use are designed to fail if the battery dies. It's been suggested that smart guns designed for law enforcement should automatically disable the safety if the battery dies. There are similar issues with biometric scanners, which have serious trouble reading fingerprints if your hands are wet (with panicked sweat as you grapple with an armed attacker, for instance). Many of these systems claim they can read a fingerprint or other biometric and properly unlock the firearm 99.9 percent of the time -- but when it comes to matters of life and death, even 0.1 percent chance of failure is considered too high. And then there's always the worry that these weapons could be hacked or jammed remotely. Which is terrifying.
The biggest roadblock to the sale of smart guns in the US is currently the aforementioned Childproof Handgun Bill passed in New Jersey. The law has become a landmine for manufacturers and retailers. Rather than incentivize all the parties to get on board, it gives everyone involved an excuse to avoid the technology and provides an easy rallying point for gun rights advocates opposed to it.
WHAT'S THE ARGUMENT?
Not all advocates of gun control oppose the move toward smart guns, but there are plenty who do. One of the biggest is the Violence Policy Center, which believes they're "a very seductive hoax." The group argues that smart guns engender a sense of false security. While RFID and fingerprint scanners are hardly new technologies, they've yet to be successfully deployed in a commercial firearm, so the group's also concerned that failures would be frequent. Additionally, opponents argue that the millions of dollars pumped into developing these weapons would be better spent on other violence-prevention and educational programs.
The strongest argument is that most of the people who would purchase a smart gun already own traditional firearms. If a non-smart weapon is already present in the home, adding a smart gun to the mix doesn't do anything to decrease the risk of accidental or premeditated violence. It's also believed that some who currently don't own weapons may be convinced to invest in one if they believed that it couldn't be fired by anyone but themselves. And, in the view of the Violence Policy Center, an increase of gun owners is undesirable -- especially those who might be less experienced with or knowledgeable about firearms.
If you want one, you can't just go out and buy a smart gun. Two stores in the US have said they would stock the Armatix iP1, but campaigns by advocacy groups have forced them to backpedal. Within days of announcing he would carry the gun, Andy Raymond of Engage Armament in Maryland discovered the NRA had launched an intense counter-campaign against him and people started sending him death threats. Ultimately, these groups do not want to see the NJ law triggered and have resorted to bully tactics to force Raymond to back down. For even more info, check out this piece from Motherboard that looks at the future of smart guns, including ones that can aim themselves. And for more on New Jersey's Childproof Handgun Bill, check out this New York Times article from 2003.