Will ‘Smart’ Guns Ever Be Sold? I’m Not Sure.

Ever since the Clinton Administration ponied up some R&D money, the idea of creating a smart’ gun, or what is also called a ‘personalized’ gun has been flopping around the edges of the gun-control debate without much to show for it except a couple of government reports, an overpriced 22-caliber pistol that may or may not work very well and an occasional news story which just takes us back to Square One.

safegun             And Square One in the discussion about ‘smart’ guns is whether the average gun owner would be interested in owning a smart gun at all.  Because no matter how you slice it or dice it, putting an electronic gatekeeping device on a gun just isn’t as simple, easy or cheap as putting a fingerprint reader on a droid. The whole point of droid electronics is that everything that makes the device work is wired through a screen. But guns don’t have screens; they have metals and hard plastics and movable parts. Believe me, if someone could have come up with a droid-like fingerprint scanner that worked on a gun the way it works on a phone, it would have already been done.

Back in 2015 our friends at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School conducted a survey which found that 60% of respondents said they would consider buying a ‘smart’ gun, but a major gap in this survey was that the people who answered weren’t asked how much they would be willing to spend beyond the cost of the gun to personalize the weapon with an electronic device. And a comment by a member of the Hopkins research group that such a gun could use technology that ‘already exists’ simply isn’t true.

Sooner or later, someone has to explain how electronic devices that would be used to create a ‘safe’ gun actually work. Because if you read descriptions of smart-gun technologies, they will tell you how the gizmo works that identifies someone who has been programmed to use a particular gun, but what they don’t tell you is what has to happen inside the gun after the scanner reads the database and finds a print which is a match. And what most of the descriptions tell you is that once a match is made, then the gizmo ‘unlocks’ the trigger and away we go.

But unlocking the trigger of a gun isn’t the same thing as just taking a key and unlocking the front door.  In order to ‘unlock’ a trigger so that it can be pulled to fire a gun, at least three separate parts in the gun have to change their positions, these parts connecting the trigger to the hammer to the firing pin or striker, or otherwise the gun doesn’t work. And if one of these parts doesn’t shift its position with enough force, energy or pressure, when you pull the trigger all you will hear is a – click!  This is the reason you can’t just attach a fingerprint scanner to a gun without entirely redesigning the inner workings of the gun. So to make a ‘smart’ gun you are basically designing and manufacturing a new gun, which means you’re not just adding a new part to the gun the way you might change the grips.

The smart gun folks could get around the cost problem if the government would mandate ownership of smart guns. But the odds of that happening are about the same as the odds that Donald Trump would actually say something that’s true. The only smart gun that has ever hit the market (for a day) was the 22-caliber Armatix pistol which had a retail price of over $1,700 bucks, and even though the company has announced a 9mm prototype, I don’t notice that they have announced a price. And the idea that in low-bid America the cops would ever carry a pricey gun of any kind is like Humphrey Bogart’s final words at the end of Maltese Falcon: This is what dreams are made of.”


9 thoughts on “Will ‘Smart’ Guns Ever Be Sold? I’m Not Sure.

  1. Some random thoughts.

    Unless those prototype prices ramp down by a factor of two or more in mass production, these gun lines will be stillborn. Sure there may be a market but I suspect it would be small due to cost. (I bought a 300 lb Browning twelve gun safe for the difference in price between a dumb gun and a smart one.)

    Even if government mandated smart guns going forward, there are over 300 million dumb guns on the market and as far as harvesting them back, Humphrey Bogart’s words apply. The Aussie solution is highly unlikely.

    Finally, it seems odd that the recent Harvard/Northeastern survey suggested that gun ownership is below a quarter of the population but the Bloomberg survey of roughly 4,000 people showed equal numbers of gun owners v. non gun owners. Something doesn’t square.

  2. This discussion reminds me of the space race between the US and Russia. The US pored billions of $ into the space race. One problem the US had was making a pen write in weightlessness. They spent millions designing the ball point pen that would wright in space. On the other hand the Russians found a very simple solution…they used a pencil! This brings me to the smart gun. Same problem. There are simple solutions to make a hand gun safer and not cost an arm and a leg but the gun industry and US government have spent millions to come up with a solution that is impractical. I come from a gun family (Giles Wetherill, custom knives) but I am not into guns but I also am a tinkerer. A mechanical solution would be much less expensive. Trigger locks already exist in various forms. Why can’t a form of trigger lock be built into a gun? Remember those master locks that most of us had in high school on our lockers? Or those pesky luggage locks that a three or four digit number wheels. Of course people could just leave the lock open (like trigger locks) but on the built in lock it could lock automatically if the gun was left undisturbed. The number could be changed by the user after purchase. If the gun is stolen and the lock is tampered with it would render the weapon useless! A simple cheap solution to make guns more safe from unintended users.

    • I think a couple of the problems are that one, the locking/unlocking mechanism has to not compromise reliability and two, the gun has to be available (if a self defense gun or for that matter, if a pheasant flushes in front of me) very quickly.

      There are of course low tech solutions to some of this. As you say, a mechanical trigger lock, if used, works wonders. If I had kids I would favor my Beretta with a decocker over a revolver that has no built in safety. But of course I would also teach my kids firearms safety as our old man taught me and my brothers.

      As far as my third paragraph in my previous post, Mike explained the methodology offline to me in an email. Basically, after compiling the initial responses, the experimenters randomly chose equal numbers of gun owners and non-owners and compared responses between the groups.

      • Thanks Khal. The US has some of the best engineers and inventors in the world. My grandfather was one of them as well as his dad and his dad, (they invented lead free paint for one), my grandfathers hand made knives are still being sold at gun shows. I think there is more than one option for a locking mechanism depending on the type of gun. Obviously a hunting rifle would need a different system than a small hand gun. No matter what the biggest problem is the 300 million dumb guns already out there, but we have to start somewhere. One thing that I have learned from my dad, who was also a tinkerer, is that the best solutions are always the simplest ones! A smart gun is not a simple solution!

      • Indeed, Occam’s razor comes to mind. A simple safe gun is better than a complex one. Or as they say in safety analysis, the more complex things are, the more chances there are for a Normal Accident.

        Lead free paint, eh? Are you by chance related to George Wetherill? I got my degree studying lead and other radiochemical tracers in rocks but eventually was working with lead as an environmental indicator after Clair Patterson did his pioneering work on environmental lead contamination. So I thank your ancestors for helping rid the US of leaded products!

      • Thanks Kahl, I am related to George (a great uncle I think) The family has a deep history in the US going back to supplying Washington with the material for his army’s uniforms. After the revolution they got into the chemical business and owned property in western PA rich in lead. They supplied lead for the army in the war of 1812 which was very lucrative. After the war the government forced them out of the business because it was too important to the security of the US to be in private hands. Later they got into the zink refining business. They invented the furnaces to process zink ore into a metal so it could be used in plating and other purposes as well as a substitute for lead in paint. The town of East Bethlehem PA was called Wetherill before it was changed, which is where most of their factories were located. I think it was Sherman Williams who eventually bought the paint formulas from the Wetherill paint company. Here is a link to an excellent article on my family and the Zink Oxide business: http://pabook2.libraries.psu.edu/palitmap/Zinc.html

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