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?

Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership Are Actually Totally Irresponsible.

Sooner or later I knew that Tim Wheeler, who runs a blog called Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership, would come out and say something that reveals how far away he is from thinking like a serious physician.  Or thinking like any kind of physician, for that matter.  Since he started his so-called organization, which is basically just a blog, he has spent his time promoting one stupid and/or senseless notion for the gun industry after another stupid and/or senseless notion.  From denying that physicians should question patients about guns, to advocating that physicians should hand out gun safety information that has never been reviewed by the medical academies, Wheeler pushes out opinions that pander to the lowest common mental denominator and misrepresent the role of doctors in dealing with health issues, guns or no guns.

Wheeler has now trained his sights on a situation in New Jersey where the legislature is thinking of amending a ‘smart gun’ law that was passed in 2002 but has never been implemented because no manufacturer could deliver a smart-gun product that both worked and was made available for retail sale. A brief attempt was made to sell one of these models in California, but the gun shop in question quickly removed the produce from its shelves when local gun nuts threatened a boycott of the store or worse.

hippo                Wheeler refers to smart-gun technology as a “sweeping infringement” of the 2nd Amendment, a judgement obviously based on his expertise on the area of Constitutional law.  If he would bother to actually read the 2008 Heller decision, he might notice that Scalia explicitly states that “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on … laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” [p. 54]  Notice the phrase, ‘commercial sale of arms,’ which even a jerk like Wheeler must know means that the government can decide what types of guns can and cannot be sold.

Smart guns were first hyped during the Clinton administration when the government awarded R&D grants to various inventors and entrepreneurs to develop new gun-safety technologies.  You can get a very complete overview of the history and development of smart-gun products by reading a report published by the Department of Justice in 2013. The report brought together representatives of federal agencies and test labs, law enforcement bodies, technology institutes, public health researchers, and was discussed with staff from Smith & Wesson, Colt, FN and Ruger, among others.

If Wheeler read the report, perhaps he would have noticed right up front that the primary group of users for whom such technology is being developed is “people responsible for public safety (i.e., law enforcement personnel.)” [P. 8]  I think that Wheeler only blogs about issues, like Heller, for which he hasn’t read the relevant texts, but why should a physician depend on anything other than his own opinions, correct?

Wheeler not only believes that smart-gun technology represents an ‘infringement’ on the 2nd Amendment, but worse, is a solution in search of a non-existent problem; i.e., accidental deaths of children from firearm misuse.  He refers to these deaths as “miniscule,” claiming a “few dozen” lives each year.   In fact, more than 75 children under the age of 18 died from accidental shootings in 2013, and more than 560 were treated for gunshot wounds.

But worse than understating the numbers is what this says about Wheler’s approach to medicine.  Let me break the news to him gently: physicians don’t define a medical problem by how many patients present a particular symptom during an exam.  The role of the physician, according to the Hippocratic Oath, is to reduce harm. And this applies to every single patient, whether the harm comes from something which is nearly universal, or is something that a physician might see only once.

Wheeler’s attempt to make readers believe that the severity of a problem is in any way based on its frequency is a conscious misstatement of the role of the physician and shows him to be the crackpot and gun industry mouthpiece that he really is.

Is Smart Gun Technology Coming Or Going? I’m Not So Sure Either Way.

Now that half the world will soon be walking around with an iPhone that recognizes the owner’s thumbprint as the way to unlock the device, it would stand to reason that smart-gun technologies would soon be offered to consumers as well.  But what stands to reason in the mainstream consumer market rarely, if ever, penetrates the world of guns, so it came as no surprise to me that the first-ever symposium on smart-gun technology came and went without a single representative of the gun industry in sight.

I’m referring to a meeting this past week in Seattle, hosted by the Washington Technology Industry Association devoted to the issue of smart guns and featuring an appearance by Loretta Weinberg, the New Jersey State Senator who authored the nation’s first smart-gun legislation requiring all new guns in New Jersey to be equipped with smart-gun technology within 30 months after the first smart gun was sold anywhere in the United States.  The countdown almost began last year when a gun shop in Maryland stocked a few models, but the owner yanked the guns off his shelf when the store was besieged by 2nd-Amendment terrorists who threatened to burn him down.

smart gun                Smart-gun technology got started in a big way during the Clinton Administration which awarded $600,000 in R&D monies to Smith & Wesson and FN in return for undertaking research into the development of smart guns.  These grants were the first step in a major investment in smart gun technology, with federal budget numbers as high as $10 million annually for research being bandied about.  The only little problem was that the initial awards were announced in 2000 and an unforeseen event, a.k.a. the election of George W. Bush put a quick end to all such plans.

So here we are in the waning days of another President who should be extremely friendly to the idea of smart guns, but he has no money to give out to anyone for anything related to guns, and it was clear from comments at the Seattle smart-gun conference that nobody else has any real money to fork over either for research or for moving such products into the consumer market which is where the real test of this technology would have to take place. The conference host, the Washington Technology Industry Association, has certainly seen its share of new, electronic innovations over the years.  After all, Seattle is a hop, skip and jump from Redmond, and I don’t have to tell you the name of a little hi-tech company that just happens to be located up there.

The folks who met in Seattle, while supportive of smart guns, were not unsparing in their concerns about possible technical and legal problems that such technology represents.  To begin, there is the simple issue of whether or not the technology actually works, and while there are several smart guns that allegedly have been tested under real-life conditions, even smart-gun proponents like King County Sheriff John Urquhart voiced concerns at the conference about whether he could trust this and other electronic gun accessories to operate in ways that would not impede the overall effectiveness of a police officer’s gun.

Much has been made in the liberal media about the NRA’s opposition to smart gun technology, but for once I have to say that taking the NRA to task over this issue may be a little bit overblown.  It’s true that some of the NRA bloggers and their allies in the ultra-right media have spoken out against these guns from time to time.  But this is nothing more than the usual attempts to feed the 2nd Amendment ‘absolutists’ their daily ration of red meat.

The problem with smart gun technology is that, unlike other new technologies, it’s coming from outside the industry rather than from within.  And the gun industry, the recent fascination with lasers notwithstanding, is a notoriously conservative, un-innovative industry from a technology point of view.  After all, probably the best-selling handgun today is the exact same gun that John Browning designed in 1907, a year before the first Model T.  Anyone seen a Model T lately?