Gun violence & accidents preventable with smart technology?

Thatcher Montgomery Feb 14, 2016

Last week’s Pugwash meeting focused on what technology can add to weapons in the realm of smart guns. The topic was not gun rights, but instead how technology could be used to overcome ethical issues surrounding gun rights.

You may have heard of the Internet of Things, the idea that we can connect objects, even mundane ones, to technology in order to make them function more effectively. When applied to firearms, this can lead to safety features like thumbprint scanners or other locking mechanisms; other potential features are increased capabilities like advanced aiming features or being able to adjust bullet velocity.

At first glance, some of the safety features seem like no-brainers. Adding a fingerprint scanner to a gun would make it so only the authorized user could shoot it, making it impossible for stolen or ill-gotten guns to be used.

Similarly, adding a safety that could only be unlocked with a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip, which uses electromagnetic fields to identify people or objects, would make it harder for unintended users to fire guns. In addition to just preventing illegal guns from shooting, these features would make it harder for accidents to happen in the home, as children wouldn’t be able to fire guns even if they were able to access them.

Another possible smart gun technology would provide a GPS tracker and a log of all shots fired by a gun, with the opportunity to have an alert sent to the owner of the gun. This would help keep track of where guns are and make it easier to respond to shootings, accidental or not.

However, all of these high-tech solutions come with their own problems. To start with, there is absolutely no chance any of this would become mandatory. All of the older guns without smart tech will remain out in the world, and even if the technology comes to the market, there is no political will to make the smart guns the only gun. Smart guns also cost more, and those with safety features have faced heavy opposition from the National Rifle Association and private gun owners.

While the NRA isn’t explicitly against smart guns, they are against many of the safety features that take away the very thing that attracts people to guns. Many gun owners see guns as an ultimate defense, as something that they can rely on to stop an intruder or protect themselves. By making it more difficult to use the gun, the technology takes away the certainty a gun offers.

Thumbprint scanners require clean hands and no gloves, neither of which are guaranteed. If a gun owner forgets their RFID chip, then they won’t be able to unlock their gun to use it. Also, if the RFID chips have a large-enough range, they don’t function for their very purpose: a chip in a homeowner’s pocket could allow an intruder to turn the homeowner’s gun against them, or keeping the chip in the same room or same area could still allow children to accidentally fire guns.

Any extra level of complexity in firing a gun takes away from its purpose of being a response to a life-or-death situation. While purely mechanical guns can jam, adding layers of technology on top only makes it more likely something will go wrong. As one Pugwash member put it, gun owners don’t want their guns crashing as often as their phones.

Even if they aren’t feasible among private owners, could these technologies be used for the police? It seems like the answer to that question is no, for the same reasons civilian gun owners don’t want smart guns. If a smart gun were to lock up or glitch and endanger someone’s life because a police officer couldn’t fire it, that would be a tremendous amount of liability on the police department.

There are already safety mechanisms in guns — for example the “safety” — and smart guns often seem to be a complicated, flashy, and unnecessary solution. If someone already doesn’t lock their guns at home, or keep their magazines separate from their weapons, or take any number of simple precautions, then adding something even more complex and expensive won’t help.

One Pugwash member wondered how far society has to go to protect people who seem to refuse to protect themselves. For example, if a pedestrian refuses to look both ways before crossing a street, do we need smarter cars, or do we need to teach people to look both ways? There are responsible gun owners, and they don’t need the safety features of the smart technology, but the irresponsible owners aren’t going to use the smart guns anyway.

The sorts of smart technology that are catching on among gun owners are those that don’t hinder the basic function of a firearm, but only add to it, such as advanced aiming systems, or the ability to adjust bullet velocity from lethal to merely very painful. When trying to make guns safer, techies have to work together with gun owners and understand their reasoning behind owning a firearm. Otherwise, solutions that might seem ideal, end up on the wayside, unhelpful, untrusted, and unadopted.

Student Pugwash is a non-advocacy, educational organization that discusses the implications of science. This article is a summary of last week’s discussion on smart guns.