As part of his announcement of executive actions on gun control this week, President Obama including funding smart gun research part of the package, intended to reduce gun violence.
Major media outlets began running stories on approaches to smart gun tech that have been in development for a while now, like this piece from HuffPo.
But people who know guns know that the mythical “smart gun,” which will only fire when being held by its owner by a variety of mechanisms, has long been the stuff of magazine and web stories. None have found their way into the local gun shop.
This op-ed piece from TechCrunch, written by the former editor of Wired, Jon Stokes, explores the reality of smart gun technology and attempts to answer the question of why the devices aren’t appearing on the gun market.
“Unfortunately for the president and other well-intentioned advocates of electronically enabled gun control, the smart gun, in all of its incarnations, is a fantasy,” Stokes writes. “Not only is it impossible to produce a smart gun that gun buyers will actually purchase in large numbers, but even if the technological hurdles could be overcome, the results are sure to drastically disappoint everyone who has been looking to these weapons as some sort of silver bullet that can end gun violence.”
He starts by examining the purpose of the technology, to restrict the use of a firearm to intended individuals, ensuring it cannot be stolen and used by a criminal or found and accidentally used by a child or any other person who shouldn’t have access to a gun. In theory, it’s a great idea.
The major problem is a lot of the technologies proposed can rather easily be turned on itself.
“First, no electronic technology is 100% reliable, and very few people will trust a gun that can be turned into a brick by a failure of some on-board circuitry.
Second, whenever you attach software to some new category of things — especially software that has any kind of connection to the outside world, whether via RFID or an actual network — then in addition to whatever problems that thing had before, you’ve introduced a whole host of brand new security and identity problems that are new to that thing and that must be discovered and patched, and then the patches will have problems that must be discovered and patched, and on it goes.
In short, software security is a virtual arms race, and when you put software into a weapon, you turn it into a literal arms race. Ultimately, adding software to guns (or cars, or pacemakers, or anything else) does not make them safer or more secure — rather, it makes them less secure because it gives creative bad actors a whole new avenue for exploits.”
Imagining that smart gun tech was viable and fully functional today, one of the major problems is the potential for criminals to scan for RFID beacons installed in firearms, if that’s how they function. And if they can do that, they can potentially disable the lock, or lock it so that even authorized users won’t be able to use it against them.
“…guns are made to be disassembled for regular cleaning and maintenance. So no matter where you put the RFID chip, biometric lock, or other electronics on a gun, anyone with a bit of time and information will either be able to grind it out with a Dremel, cover it with something that will prevent it from transmitting, or simply replace that particular part. Barrels, triggers, and every other part of a popular gun like a Glock can be bought on the aftermarket — you can even build an entire non-Glock “Glock” out of aftermarket Glock parts made by third-party vendors.”
Biometrics offer slightly more promise for people who carry openly all the time and have to worry about bad actors potentially wrestling their gun away from them, but they offer little safety advantage to the average gun owner not provided by a biometric safe or gun lock.
But the largest and inherent problem with smart guns that’s obvious to most gun owners, as Stokes points out, is the fact that adding any electronic device to a firearm, which controls whether or not it will work when you have to pull the trigger, can fail. And that makes the gun unreliable, defeating the purpose for its existence. Even the military, who stack thousands of dollars worth of high-end electronic optics and gear on rifles, still have iron sights on board in case it all fails, and none of those devices can keep the rifle from functioning as a rifle.
If Stokes is to be believed, this fact means the very idea of smart guns will never gain traction in the U.S. gun market.