Last week, in an effort to reduce gun violence in the United States, President Obama directed several federal government agencies to conduct or sponsor research into smartgun technology.

But what exactly are smartguns--and how will they make us safer? And, why, in an age of smartphones, drones, and connected appliances don't we already have smart guns?

To understand the answers to these questions and more, here is a quick primer on smartguns:

What are smartguns?

Smartguns are firearms (and, potentially, also air-powered guns) that include electronic safety features that prevent unauthorized users from firing them. 

How do smartguns work?

Smartguns may authenticate their users with biometrics--that is, by analyzing the physical attributes of a person holding a gun (for example, by checking fingerprints or verifying the holder's grip pattern)--or may check for a gun's proximity to a specific device such as a particular key fob, smartphone, watch, or holster. Smartguns may also require the entering of a PIN code in order to arm the gun.

Why are smartguns important?

The appeal and importance of smartguns is that, at least in theory, they may be able to (a) reduce the likelihood of children taking their parents' guns and shooting themselves, their siblings, or their classmates, (b) make it more difficult for guns that are stolen to be used, (c) reduce the number of gun accidents, and (d) reduce the ability of criminals to use a police officer's gun against the officer.

Do smartguns exist today?

Yes and no. There are already several smartgun products and prototypes. However, none of these devices are, in my opinion, sufficiently reliable to for us to say that smartguns are available. Consider that while all of the thousands of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. are concerned with gun safety, none have issued their agents and officers smartguns as service weapons.

What's wrong with the current smartguns?

There are many significant concerns with the present crop of smartguns, so I have dedicated an entire article to the topic.

I can lock and unlock my phone with a fingerprint. Why is it so hard to equip guns with similar technology?

Creating a reliable smartgun is not simple. There are complexities involved with putting sensitive electronics inside an object that absorbs quite a bit of force, as a gun does when fired; biometric authentication technology is imperfect; and electronics crash and malfunction especially in extremely cold and hot temperatures as are common during some parts of the year in much of the United States. In a life and death situation--as is often the case when a gun needs to be used--delays and technical glitches that might be acceptable when unlocking a smartphone can be fatal. 

Have politics played a role in delaying smartgun development?

Sadly, yes. For reasons that are subject to argument, efforts by a couple of gun manufacturers to perform research into smartgun technology 15-plus years ago were met with negative responses. More recently, and more significantly, a well intentioned but poorly conceived 2002 law enacted by the state of New Jersey outlawed the sale of conventional guns in the state once smartgun technology is available. This provided a strong incentive for those involved in the firearms business not to develop smartguns and led to boycott pressure against anyone who wanted to produce or sell smartguns. Why would gun manufacturers invest significant sums in order to create a product that would cause their flagship offerings to become unsellable?

The New Jersey law also created a fear that other states or the federal government might follow suit, and ended up having the opposite effect of its desired impact. Thankfully, the state is in the process of modifying its smartgun mandate to simply require that gun stores selling conventional weapons also carry at least one smartgun.

Do you support the development of smartguns?

Yes--as long as smartguns are developed as something offered as an option, not as a government-mandated replacement for conventional weapons. For the foreseeable future there will be significant tradeoffs involved with choosing to protect oneself with a smartgun rather than with a conventional weapon. People choosing to exercise their constitutional right to "keep and bear arms," and law enforcement agents relying on weapons to ensure their safety when dealing with dangerous criminals, should, therefore, have the right to obtain and utilize conventional weapons if they so desire. 

What is the best path toward creating smartguns?

My opinion remains as I wrote in Forbes two years ago: "A far better approach than government mandates would be to let the free market for handguns--which, in the United States, for better or for worse, is immense--incent manufacturers to create safer weapons. Fund research. Run invention contests. Incent improvements. If smartguns were designed that were sufficiently reliable and, at the same time, safer than conventional firearms, people would want them; law enforcement agencies would start procuring them, and private citizens would follow suit."

Will smartguns really make us safer?

Theoretically, smartguns are inherently safer than conventional weapons, but whether that translates into lives saved is another matter altogether. There are gun experts who feel that firearms that have safety switches are more dangerous than those that do not, for example, because some people engage in riskier behavior when holding guns that have the switches because they rely on the switches to prevent the gun from firing, and they end up killing themselves or others. Could this happen with smartguns? Consider that the aforementioned New Jersey law is typically referred to as the "New Jersey Childproof Handgun Law"--a terrible misnomer that insinuates that smartguns are somehow childproof and might encourage owners not to treat the weapons with the same care as they would conventional weapons.

Furthermore, there is risk that even improved future generation smartguns could fail their owners at critical moments at a rate higher than do conventional weapons--a factor that must also be considered when determining if a particular type of weapon improves safety or not. Time will certainly provide more clarity into this issue.

Of course, the primary determiner of safety is not the type of weapons in circulation, but who has them. Clearly, we'd all rather be standing among law abiding citizens and law enforcement agents possessing conventional weapons that among mentally ill individuals, felons, and terrorists carrying smartguns. So, while smartguns may offer some safety benefits, they are certainly not going to be the primary solution to America's gun violence problem, and other factors are more likely to impact gun violence statistics. Still, for anyone who is not shot because a smartgun prevented an unauthorized party from firing it, the technology could literally be a life saver.

Published on: Jan 11, 2016
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