The development of ‘smart’ guns has been flopping around for more than twenty years, largely because the gun industry regards the technology, with good reason, as something that might be imposed on them by the government, and if you think that any industry looks favorably at government regulation, spend some time around Wall Street and you’ll quickly discover that when it comes to government, the business community just wants to be left alone. The gun industry faces a double whammy in this regard, because not only does the government regulate what kinds of products it can make and sell, it also regulates the behavior of gun consumers, because it sets the criteria for who can and cannot legally buy and own guns.
But the long-time opposition to ‘smart’ technologies by gun makers and their supporters also reflects a more subtle but nevertheless powerful factor at work, namely, the perception created by the ‘smart gun’ community that guns are inherently a risk. Forgetting for a moment that numerous credible studies indicate that all categories of gun injury go up in households with access to guns, the gun industry has tried, with some success, to promote the idea that whatever small risk might be incurred by keeping a gun in the home, this is more than counterbalanced by the ‘fact’ that guns make us safe. Actually, they don’t. But why quibble over facts when emotions can carry the argument any day, right?
Last year, a former NYPD officer turned State Senator and now Borough President of Brooklyn, Eric Adams, announced a ‘smart gun’ competition with a prize of one million dollars going to the team which submitted the best proposal; the entrants being connected to a college-level engineering program located in New York. Yesterday the five finalists presented their concepts to a press conference at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, and the group from NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering walked off with the prize.
In the interests of full disclosure, as they say, Mike the Gun Guy was a member of the panel that chose the recipient student team which received the award. But it was a tough choice because all the submissions were serious, contained multiple technologies, and most of all indicated a great deal of thought and hard work. The fact that four teams did not win doesn’t mean that any of the student engineers will necessarily abandon the quest. In fact, there is no reason why the group from NYU wouldn’t profit from ideas generated by research conducted by other teams.
The truth is that making a ‘smart’ gun doesn’t mean that someone has to make a new gun. Most current handgun designs are modular, consisting of a frame, a slide, a barrel, a trigger and hammer assembly – stick the parts together like a jigsaw puzzle and, as my Uncle Ben (who was a gun maker) used to say, det’s it. If you want to add some smart technology, figure out whether you need an RFID chip or a print-reader or whatever will be used to authenticate the user and stick the components into the gun.
The real trick is not developing the technology itself, but making sure it really works. But here is where the student developers have a real advantage, because remember they are training to become engineers. And no matter what kind of engineering these students want to pursue, if it doesn’t work they might as well go back to school and learn something else. So becoming an engineer means not only designing a product, but also designing a valid test methodology which will move your idea from R&D to something sitting on a retailer’s shelf.
What safe gun development has lacked first and foremost is an industry standard which will define a safe gun and a test protocol that will validate that standard as a workable idea. The million-dollar award announced by Eric Adams is a major step in meeting those requirements which means that, yes Virginia, safe guns will appear.