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.”

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Are Safe Guns Finally Here? The President Just Gave Them A Big Push.

The man who still lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has just unveiled his plan to move forward with ‘smart gun’ technology, and while the Devil is always in the details and I’m not sure that all the details have been worked out, some of the hurdles that previously stymied the development of smart guns seem to have been anticipated and overcome.

bomberThe idea of electronically preventing someone other than the qualified owner from using a gun has been floating around for more than twenty years, but a combination of gun industry resistance, the usual bureaucratic inertia and consumer disinterest has kept this stuff on the back shelf. The biggest issue is not whether the technology works per se, but whether a workable ‘smart’ technology can be added to a gun without seriously impacting the retail price. I have heard different numbers from various ‘smart gun’ inventors and entrepreneurs, but all I know is that the one market-ready gun, the Armatix iP1, has a retail tag in excess of $1,600; in other words, fuggedaboutit.

The Obama plan surmounts this problem somewhat by approaching the entire issue from the perspective of developing a new law-enforcement technology and using federal funds both to help develop the product as well as to subsidize police agencies that might then adopt the gun.  The good news is that the civilian gun market is very much influenced by what the cops carry and buy, the bad news is that a subsidized police price doesn’t necessarily translate into an over-the-counter deal that will being gunnies into to my shop.

Leaving that issue aside for the moment, what impresses me most of all about this plan is the decision to create a bone-fide procurement process that reminds me of when the Army junked the Colt 1911 pistol back in the mid-70’s and went to the Beretta M9. First they figured out what they wanted, then they issued an RFP, then they ran a proof test to make sure that submitted guns actually met the design requirements and worked, then they got serious and did the requisite torture tests at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds to validate that the gun wouldn’t fall apart after it was shot thousands of times, dropped into water and sand, in other words replicating what happens to any military weapon that is carried in the field.

From what I can see in the White House report, a similar plan has been developed for smart guns, which will have to get through two test phases before the technology is considered to work. Entry requirements for the competition, however, do not specify what type of gun is permitted, nor the caliber of ammunition. Nor has the NIJ published the pass-fail criteria for the second and much more rigorous test phase.  So this initiative is still focused on testing the technology rather than testing a specific gun that might be adopted by law enforcement agencies. The “baseline requirements” for such a weapon (or weapons) will be determined following the Phase 2 test results.

If a technology exists that will meet the rigorous performance criteria that will no doubt be adopted, I am sure that we will see some product being carried by a few cops on a provisional basis by the end of the year.  But if the purpose of smart guns is to diminish gun accidents caused by an unqualified individual grabbing a gun, the number of such shootings involving law enforcement personnel is a tiny fraction of the accidental civilian shootings that take place every year. Which means that the issue of commercial market penetration must still be addressed.

On the other hand, it was nice to see the NRA’s positive response to this report which I quote: “At a time when we are actively fighting terrorists at home and abroad, this administration would rather focus the military’s efforts on the president’s gun control agenda.”  Now when do you think the NRA wrote that one?