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The Digital Self: How tech can solve our gun problem (and why we won’t let it)

digital self smart gunWe can send a man to the moon, a robot to Mars, and access the world’s wealth of information from a $200 hand-held gizmo that fits in our pockets – but we can’t figure out how to stop a crazy person from walking into an elementary school with an assault rifle to murder innocent children.

When it comes to preventing gun violence, technology has failed us. Why is that?

This question has tugged at my subconscious since the hideous shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December. So-called ‘smart gun’ technology, which would prevent guns from being fired by people other than their rightful owners, seems like the perfect middle ground to the gun control debate: Nobody has to give up their guns, and everybody is a bit safer. Despite having existed in one form or another for two decades, smart gun technology cannot be found in a single firearm at your local gun store. According to some backers of tighter gun control, this is a problem.

“… A lot could change if, for example, every gun purchased could only be fired by the person who purchased it,” said U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during a meeting with video game executives in January. “That technology exists, but it’s extremely expensive. But if that were available with every weapon sold, there’s significant evidence that it … may very well curtail what happened up in Connecticut. Because had the young man not had access to his mother’s arsenal, he may or may not have did what he did.”

Smart gun tech

digital self digital gunWhen Biden says smart gun technology is expensive, he’s not kidding. One of the most commonly cited smart gun solutions is the Smart System developed by Armatix GmbH, a German company. The Armatix iP1 .22 caliber pistol will only fire when in range of a watch that contains an RFID chip, and requires the user to punch in a five-digit pin to make the firearm operable. (Try doing that in the dark, with an intruder barreling down on your family, says every gun owner ever.) That setup, while not yet available in the U.S., would cost buyers about $10,000.

Mossberg Group has developed a similar product, called the iGun, which requires users to wear an RFID-embedded ring that unlocks the iGun’s trigger once it’s in close proximity.

Another company, TriggerSmart, which is based out of Limerick, Ireland, recently patented a “childproof” gun technology, which also uses RFID chips to “personalize” the gun. TriggerSmart has also developed a system that creates “safe zones” in which no enabled guns will fire – like, for example, an elementary school.

In the days following the Sandy Hook shooting, TriggerSmart founder Robert McNamara found himself utterly frustrated by the lack of safety technology in our guns.

“I was literally pulling my hair out,” McNamara told Reuters. “I thought, we have a technology that could have helped prevent that massacre.”

If you’re anxious for us to find a solution to our gun violence woes, smart guns seem like an exciting, next-generation option.

Other smart-gun solutions are more high tech. The New Jersey Institute of Technology began developing a smart gun in 2003, after state legislature passed a law requiring all guns sold in state to have smart technology within three years after a viable product becomes commercially available. The NJIT’s smart gun solution is a special grip, which uses pressure sensors to learn the muscle pattern of its owner – a kind of grip “signature” similar to a fingerprint. The training period is about 50 shots, and the system has a 99 percent reliability rate – meaning, out of 100 times, if someone other than the owner picks up the gun to fire it, it won’t shoot all but one time, on average.

Millions of dollars in state and federal funding later, a commercially viable smart gun is not yet available.

The smart gun opposition

The problem here is not just that the tech is too expensive or too clunky – though all the available solutions seem to have at least one of these problems. As with all things related to the 2nd Amendment, the truth is far more complicated. But it basically boils down to this: People who want guns don’t want smart guns – especially if they cost ten grand.

Herschel Smith, a blogger and gun enthusiast, summed up the general sentiment about smart guns this way: “… Here’s a note to manufacturers. You go right ahead and ‘dabble’ in smart gun technology. I will purchase such a gun when hell freezes over.”

digital self digital gunThat’s not to say some people, like those with small children in the house, might choose to buy a smart gun but not a “dumb” gun. But those people appear to be few and far between. And as a result, gunmakers aren’t pumping R&D money into making a product people ultimately won’t buy.

“The gun industry has no interest in making smart-guns,” SUNY Cortland political science professor Robert Spitzer, who has written four books about gun policy, told The New York Times. “There is no incentive for them.”

Adding to the complications is that neither pro-gun nor the anti-gun lobbying groups support smart gun technology. Pro-gun groups, like the National Shooting Sports Foundation, say the technology is unreliable, and dismisses the possibility that smart guns will curb gun violence. And the Violence Policy Center (VPC), which is generally in favor of gun control, actually agrees with this assessment.

“Many of the issues addressed by a smart gun can be addressed by a trigger lock,” Josh Sugarman, founder of the VPC, told U.S. News. “I think we have to be honest about what percent of gun violence this might affect – most homicides are committed with a person’s own gun.”

So, in short, the only way for smart guns to gain ground in America is for Congress to completely ignore both sides of the gun control debate, and impose laws, like that of New Jersey, requiring gun manufacturers to install smart technology in all of their weapons. I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that that will never, ever happen.

digital self triggersmartAnd even if it did – which it won’t – that still leaves all the guns already out in the wild that would remain smart tech-free. According to Small Firearms Survey (PDF), Americans currently own in the neighborhood of 270 million guns – or 89 guns for every 100 people. Those guns would still be out there, dumb and potentially dangerous in the wrong hands.

Conclusion

As the gun control debate rolls forward, expect to see a lot of talk about smart guns, and how they can solve all our problems with gun violence. If you’re anxious for us to find a solution to our gun violence woes, smart guns seem like an exciting, next-generation option. But you shouldn’t believe any of it. The tech may be there, but the market isn’t – and nothing on the horizon will change that.