Smart Guns: Are They Magic Bullets, Or Just Decoys?
For generations, common wisdom advised that polite conversation should avoid politics and religion, because those two topics invariably led to heated arguments. In the 1960s and 70s, a third subject was added to the list: abortion. Today a fourth topic could easily quality for inclusion: gun control.
There’s no question that mass shootings, gun violence and teen suicides are huge problems in American society. Sides have been sharply drawn, though, between those who think stricter gun regulations would stem the violence and those who believe any new gun laws would violate their Second Amendment rights.
It’s not surprising to discover that the two sides also have vastly different opinions on the latest technological advance to be brought into the argument: smart guns.
What Are Smart Guns?
To put it simply, a smart gun is able to recognize its "authorized user" and prevent anyone else from discharging the weapon. There are several different ways that can be done; one is already being used and several others are still in development.
The famed weapons designer Ernst Mauch has created the Armatix iP1, a .22-caliber semi-automatic pistol linked to a wristwatch. When the authorized user enters the proper PIN code on the watch, a radio frequency transponder sends a signal to a receiver that unlocks the gun’s firing pin for a specific period of time. The watch has to be within ten inches of the gun at all times, or the weapon can’t be fired. Mauch has sold an undisclosed number of these smart guns, although most dealers have refused to carry the weapons so far.
Other approaches are still being tested. One will only allow a gun to be fired if the fingerprints of the person holding the weapon match the prints of the registered owner. Another relies on small sensors placed on the gun’s grip, which measure the pressure applied while the trigger is squeezed. Tests have shown that the sensors are 90% accurate in linking grip pressure to an authorized user.
Why Are Smart Guns Controversial?
Proponents of smart gun technology argue it’s a no-brainer, allowing legal gun owners to use their weapons while preventing anyone from stealing or selling guns for use in the type of mass shootings which have become all too frequent in recent years, while also eliminating the possibility of gun accidents involving children. Gun rights activists, however, believe that the technology is simply the first step toward government monitoring of firearms use and an eventual ban on personal ownership of weapons. The National Rifle Association and gun industry groups insist that it’s not smart guns themselves which are the problem – what they oppose is any mandate that requires that all guns must be "smart." They fear that a mandate would be a natural step for lawmakers to take, once smart guns are commonly sold.
The Future of Smart Guns
The debate over smart guns isn’t just an academic exercise. New Jersey may soon change a 2002 law which, paradoxically, was meant to bolster the production of smart guns but is credited with actually preventing their sale. (The law requiring all guns to be "smart" would go into effect three years after they were made available in stores, so manufacturers avoided triggering the law by not producing them at all.) Armatix is working on additional models including a 9mm pistol, and President Obama has recently ordered new federal research into smart gun technology.
Smart guns are definitely on their way, sooner or later. What will certainly be a long and acrimonious debate over the technology, though, has only started.