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The stupidity of 'smart guns'

A recurring socio-political problem that plagues our advanced industrial society is that of technology as panacea – the idea that technology in and of itself, invoked in some vague, unspecified manner, will magically solve problems. Believers in this latter day deus ex machina somehow think that waving their hands and invoking “technology” or even “science” will address some issue regardless of context and without regard to the very nature of the problem to be solved. More importantly, whether the state of developed or even developing technology is actually up to the task is never considered. This type of ignorance, when coupled with governmental, bureaucratic fiat, results in mandates that are effectively impossible to fulfill. Never has this been more obvious than in the push to make deadly weapons less deadly.

Almost eight years ago now, firearms columnist and self-defense expert Massad Ayoob, writing in Guns magazine, identified the trend in, and ill-advised push toward, so-called “smart” guns. The concept is that through technology – most often unspecified and perhaps even non-existent technology, when the person advocating it has some measure of government power – we can take a deadly weapon like a handgun and render it somehow “safer.” Most often this is done, or is theorized as possible to do, through some means of rendering the gun useless to all but the legitimate operator. This would render the gun “safe” to police officers who’ve had their weapons wrested away during a violent altercation, and would effectively end the black market for stolen firearms. That is the theory, and that is the utopian vision that firearms prohibitionists, gun-banners, and various left-leaning anti-gunners attempt to sell to the public.

The truth is that the “smart gun” concept is remarkably stupid. It fails both in its technological aspects and in its practical aspects. Before we examine the more important practical side of this issue, let’s touch on and dismiss the technology in its current state of development.

Ayoob identified three categories of “smart gun” application that have not changed in the intervening years. There is fingerprint technology. This is currently unreliable in any sort of handgun platform, and easily defeated by anything but a perfectly clean mating of fingers to grip. There is electronic transponder technology, which relies on the sending and receipt of a signal to or from components in the gun and/or in an on-body device. This is subject to power failure but, more importantly, is impractical with regard to the range of the transponder. (If a police officer is grappling with a subject for control of the gun, the gun is still within the practical range of the officer’s on-body transponder, for example. Shorten the range and the officer could effectively put his gun out of range of his own authorization device by changing his body position or switching hands.) Finally, there is magnetic technology, which has existed for revolvers since 1975 – and while this is physically workable and mechanically simple, it is not advisable to walk around with a powerful magnetic ring on your hand in today’s electronic age.

Because the technology of “smart” guns simply does not work, or does not work reliably, it would be inadvisable to attempt it on any sort of widespread scale (such as in police forces). The civilian firearms market surely would reject such gadgetry were it offered for sale. More insidiously, however, were government to mandate the use of such unproven, unreliable technology, the result would be a de facto gun ban. If the government can mandate the use of a technology that doesn’t work, after all, they have effectively infringed on your Second Amendment rights while maintaining plausible legal deniability. They didn’t ban gun ownership, after all; they merely told you that you would have to make your gun “safe.”

This brings us to the practical side of the “smart” gun issue. At its most basic, a firearm is a platform for launching small projectiles in a straight line at high speed – and that’s all. Given the nature of any self-defense scenario, the physical interaction demands that any weapon used be as reliable, as functional and as simple to use as possible. Under stress, fine motor control is lost, tunnel vision and auditory exclusion occur, and the stress of a force-on-force exchange does strange and sometimes unpredictable things to all but one’s most basic mental processes. It is therefore critical that a firearm used in self-defense function reliably and repeatedly under diverse and even adverse environmental conditions. By this I mean it may be fired at a less than ideal angle or position, it may be fired while pressed against a body or bodies, it may be fired while wet or covered in blood… but, most critically, it must fire.

The introduction of unproven technology (particularly electronic technology) to a firearm introduces a level of risk that is simply unacceptable. Worse than that, it is unconscionable. Would you want your life or, more importantly, the lives of your family to depend on a gun that was no more likely to work on any given try than your first-generation iPod mini? The desirability and liability of even simple internal mechanical locks on firearms are debated among gun owners for this reason – because they introduce an additional potential point of failure in a mechanism that absolutely cannot fail if it is to protect your life.

The fact is, firearms are deadly weapons. All self-defense tools have the potential to be lethal. These tools would be completely useless if they weren’t deadly. Self-defense is predicated on the idea that it is sometimes necessary to use violent physical force in order to preserve your life and the lives of your family. Any attempt to redefine self-defense, or to neuter it through technology – proven or otherwise – is an attempt to take this most fundamental human right from you, under the guise of making you “safer” or of making your tools “smarter.” Far from being smart, it’s stupid – and it’s wrong.