It is obvious that smart guns would anger arms enthusiasts: What is less obvious is how smart guns could actually become “smart” enough for widespread adoption.
UPDATE: This story was updated at 9 a.m. GMT on December 31 to mention the death of Veronica J. Rutledge, 29, after her two-year-old son accidentally shot her with her loaded gun.
German safe gun developer Armatix thought their smart gun, which links to a wristwatch worn by the user to prevent misuse, would take off in the U.S. Interest in such technology has gone up in response to accidental shootings like the killing of Veronica J. Rutledge at the hand of her two-year-old son, and two gun dealers had already agreed to sell the device – but they got stopped.
This is a story not just about why smart guns would anger arms enthusiasts such as the National Rifle Association, which is obvious: We must ask ourselves how smart guns can become “smart” enough for widespread adoption.
Gun deaths are a problem – but how will technology fix it?
Every year, hundreds of people die from interactions with unsecured guns – children playing with their parents’ weapons, adolescents committing suicide with someone else’s weapons, and law enforcement agents having stolen weapons used against them.
In the quest for creating a gun that is smarter, and only functions when its owner wants it to, two different technological solutions have been experimented with: biometric sensors and wearable identifiers.
One of the very first guns to employ a wearable that would prevent unlawful use was the O’Dwyer VLe, developed by Metal Storm. The gun was completely electronic, had no moving parts, and was therefore able to achieve an extremely high rate of fire. And it could only be operated by someone wearing a specific identifying electronic ring.
Around the same time, Mossberg shotguns also developed a “smart” shotgun, which employed RFID technology to link the gun with a bracelet worn by the user: This also required a long-lasting battery pack inside the shotgun itself. It is Mossberg that actually holds the trademark for the term “SmartGun.”
These two companies demonstrate examples of wearable safeguards against unlawful use. At the same time, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) has developed a gun with biometric sensors on the trigger and grip that allow it to recognize the owner’s hand size, strength and style of grip – and only fire when authorized people hold it.
A similar approach is employed by the BIOMAC foundation, who developed an array of eight sensors fitted into the gun that measures biometric data below the surface of the skin. Like the NJIT device, it allows the owner to authorize additional users for the gun.
Why smart guns may not be so “smart”
The adoption of safer gun technology has been a controversial and bumpy process, especially for private gun users, for two related reasons. When German safe gun developer Armatix tried introducing their gun, they encountered the more obvious reason people are wary of smart guns, particularly in the United States. Gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association (NRA), opposed the introduction of the gun to stores throughout the country because they felt that it acts against citizens’ second amendment constitutional right to bear arms.
Their concern is that safety mechanisms will become a mandatory requirement of all guns, limiting their usefulness and defensive capabilities. As a result, gun shop owners who had agreed to carry the gun were bullied and threatened into backing down, wielding a major blow to Armatix’s expansion into the U.S. market.
From a technological perspective, however, the greater issue is reliability. Both the Armatix iP1 pistol and the NJIT gun only have 90% accuracy. In other words, 1 out of 10 ten times, someone’s gun would not operate when needed because it could not identify him correctly.
Though the BIOMAC Foundation’s gun has a higher accuracy rate of correctly identifying its user 99.9% of the time, as with the smart car, these technologies need to be employed in life-and-death situations. People naturally prefer the reliability of mechanical solutions over the less reliable innovation of technological ones.
As gun ownership advocate Kenneth W. Royce writes in his book, “No defensive firearm should ever rely upon any technology more advanced than Newtonian physics. Even if a particular system could be 99.9 percent reliable, that means it is expected to fail once every 1,000 operations. That is not reliable enough. My life deserves more certainty.”
Though Armatix may have better success in marketing their smart gun to other countries, the smart gun industry should improve their firearms’ accuracy before they expect the product to take off – and save lives.
Featured Image Credit: Stephen Z / Creative Commons