We use smart phones. We wear smart watches. We living in smart homes. Any and every aspect of our lives touches technology and turns to gold. What’s next, you might ask? Given our current national crisis, some would argue…guns.
Aerosmith aside, I understand that there are significant cultural understandings, even within the same country, about how guns should be used. Guns are, arguably, the most politically charged topic in the United States right now. I respect that and, for that reason, designed this post to focus on the limitations and potentials for technology in the gun industry rather than to focus on the politics of it all—an aim that would inevitably breed an environment for hostility.
The Road to Smart Guns
When I started my research on smart guns, I was surprised to find that their history extended far earlier than I had anticipated. In fact, the first smart guns were being developed in 1999, two years before Apple’s the first iPod came to market. The man behind the idea’s name is Jonathan Mossberg. Those more familiar with guns might recognize his last name, Mossberg—yes, as in of O.F. Mossberg & Sons, the oldest family run gun company in the United States.
Despite being well positioned to launch his smart gun, Mossberg hit a wall. It seemed shocking, impossible even, that someone so well oriented with the industry initially failed so miserably. Recalling the time period helps to understand why. Public trust and experience with technology is hardly comparable to what it is today. For that reason, it’s not all surprising that consumers were distrustful of how one could incorporate this thing “technology” into guns, a powerful, threatening vehicle in itself. Fast forward almost two decades, though, and you’ll find yourself here, today in a world ripe with artificial intelligence, smart phones galore and (soon) self driving cars. The total ubiquity and omnipresence of technology in conjunction with our country’s current predicament around gun control has brought us here, reconsidering the idea of a “smart” gun.
Getting Smart with Guns
For those of you that have never heard of smart guns, it’s helpful to keep smart phones in mind as I explain things. Like different smart phones, such as an iPhone or an Android, smart guns vary from company to company. While some features overlap between brands, two smart gun models have very different value propositions, which is why I think it is more effective to talk specifically about different smart guns than to generally discuss features available. Some common features, though, include biometric identification, enhancements in gun locking systems and radio frequency identification (RFID). I was surprised to find that none of these elements were anything radically technical or advanced. A report on smart guns given to President Obama in 2016 supports this observation, highlighting that much of the technology included in smart guns already exists. For that reason, it’s more a matter of firearm manufacturers making investments in those areas, and consumers adapting the products.
LodeStar has been in the news most recently promoting their efforts to develop smart, personalized guns for consumers and law enforcement agents. Currently, they offer a personalized handgun that makes use of the radio frequency identification (RFID) technology and, thus, can only be used by an authorized user. The radio waves deliver a “digital handshake” between the gun and a secondary chip worn by the user (on a bracelet or ring) or implanted beneath the user’s skin. Without the programmed chip around, the gun is always switched to off. However, when the gun and the chip are inches within each other, the gun’s light glows green and the gun becomes usable. In addition to the RFID technology, LodeStar officials have mentioned their hopes to move towards a more advanced systems using facial or voice recognition.
Yardarm Technologies, on the other hand, is slightly more advanced in manufacturing their smart guns. In 2013, Yardarm started as a company aimed at protecting first responders and specialized in body cameras. Since then, they have adapted to become more of a IoT company. The core of what they do with guns is centered around their Gun Aware and Holster Aware technologies. The sensors in these products continually monitor the three axis telemetry of the gun and communicates that information to the cloud. Then, when needed or wanted, the user can generate a detailed report including:
- The locations of the gun
- The positions of the gun (such as holstered, unholstered, etc.)
- The time at which any shots were fired
- The direction of the fire (such as N, NE, NW, etc.)
- The direction in of the aim (such as 205 degrees)
Smart-ify My Glock—Arguments in Favor
Before we jump into the arguments in favor of and against smart guns, it’s important to note that many of these pros and cons depend on exactly how technology is being used in the weapon. As a result, the pros and cons are not all universally applicable and often apply only to specific guns.
1. Smart guns prevent against accidental firings by unauthorized users.
Often times, we fixate on the more intentional crimes carried out using guns, such as mass shootings. However, the Injury Epidemiology journal estimates that around 110 children in the United States are killed in unintentional shootings each year. More generally, the Center for Disease Control says that 14,000 to 19,000 people in the United States are injured in firearm accidents each year. Smart gun features such as biometric identification or RFID would help lower these numbers.
2. Smart guns mitigate damage and injury when a gun is stolen.
Often times, when a gun is stolen, it is used to perpetrate a crime. With locks and user identification technology in place, thefts would be unable to operate the gun once stolen.
3. Smart guns help prevent teen suicide.
This third argument in favor of smart guns piggy backs off the first. When a teenager wants to harm himself, he is unable to do so using the gun in his house, likely belonging to his parents, because he or she is not an authorized user.
4. Smart guns help prevent the gun owner from being killed by his or her own gun.
Studies estimate that five percent of officers killed in the line of duty are killed by another person using the officer’s weapon.
The Imperfect Cocktail: Technology and Guns—Arguments Against
1. Smart guns do not prevent against mass shootings.
Across all sources and articles, the inability to prevent against mass shootings was by far the reason most cited by critics of smart guns. Most notably, they argue that they “do nothing to prevent the legal owner of a firearm from using it in a malicious way.” This is especially powerful considering that the majority of mass shooters use guns that they legally purchase and own, according to an article by Wired.
2. Smart guns raise the question of reliability.
Like all products that incorporate technology, smart guns are prone to hacking. When placed in the wrong hands, it could have seriously negative consequences. The validity of this argument, of course, is undermined with the difficulty of hacking such weapons. However, this article shows that a recently released smart gun model was hacked using just $15 worth of magnets.
A second argument around reliability ties into the fact that these weapons are dependent on batteries. We often worry about our cell phones losing charge. However, our guns not being charged in the moment that we need them poses much more serious consequences.
3. Smart guns are not practical for situations of self defense.
You stir awake in the middle of the night to find someone standing over you. Immediately, you grab for your handgun in the nightstand next to your bed. The perfect defense! Except…it seems you are not wearing your bracelet with the chip for RFID. Or you are not gripping the gun in the exact way use usually do. Both of these situations would prevent the gun from being used even in moments of need.
4. Governments (or others in positions of power) might have the ability to control smart guns.
Like police departments can jam the signals for cell phones, critics of smart guns worry that they, too, will be able to jam usage for others’ weapons.
5. Smart guns cost more than regular guns.
Companies manufacturing smart guns argue that smart guns cost, on average, 20% more than their “non-smart” counterparts. This higher cost does not include the price of a chip implant if the gun uses RFID.
Shooting the S#!t
And, lastly, my (brief) two cents. Regardless of where you stand with gun control and the Second Amendment more generally, surely we can all agree that any improvement that can be made should be made. No, smart guns likely cannot prevent against mass shootings, our nation’s biggest issue. That shouldn’t render them useless, especially with their potential to protect against accidental firings, a smaller, more veiling component of the current gun violence epidemic.