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Today's Philadelphia Inquirer has a front page story headlined "Closer to a Safety Target" which hails new developments in so-called "smart gun" technology:

As police in Philadelphia struggle to stop a scourge of shootings, some New Jersey engineers say they are closing in on a "smart" solution: a gun that can be fired only by its owner.

The prototype, developed at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, has pressure sensors embedded in the gun handle that recognize a person's unique grip.

The team says a commercial model is up to five years away, but if it works, it will trigger a singular - and controversial - state law. Within three years, all handguns sold in New Jersey would have to be personalized, with this or some other recognition technology.

Correction: Not all handguns! Police are exempted from the requirement, and could still buy regular handguns which fire whenever the trigger is pulled.

Michael Recce, who dreamed up the grip-recognition concept in 1999, said the only obstacles are time and money.

"It's an engineering problem, not a scientific problem," he said.

However long it takes, it's safe to say the university has embarked on a product-development quest like no other - wading into a contentious issue on the fault line between red and blue America.

Sorry to interrupt again, but I'm way past the wading stage. I've been swimming in purple seas for years.

Various smart-gun efforts have flamed out in the past, amid vocal skepticism by the National Rifle Association. Many gun owners chafe at the notion of any restrictions on their Second Amendment right to bear arms, and warn that any such modifications would make guns more expensive.

Gun-control advocates, meanwhile, are split, with some warning that personalized firearms would give owners a false sense of security.

Most see New Jersey's 2002 law as a commonsense safety measure, but they are starting to run out of patience.

"These guns should have been developed 20 years ago," said Bryan Miller, executive director of Ceasefire New Jersey.

Duke University economist Philip J. Cook estimates that if all handguns were personalized, more than 4,000 lives would be saved each year from fewer murders, accidents and teen suicides.

Hey wait a second! They're running out of patience? I'm running out of patience too! With economists who've probably never fired a gun in their lives imagining themselves to be competent to tell me what to do with my gun and deliver "estimates" of "saved lives" predicated on nonsensical suppositions that either the millions of existing handguns could ever be retrofitted or that they would disappear if made illegal.

Though the New Jersey law exempts law enforcement, police might also benefit from the technology. According to FBI statistics, as many as one in six officers killed each year is slain with his or her weapon.
Doesn't this admission contradict the earlier assertion that "all handguns sold in New Jersey would have to be personalized."?
In the last few months, Recce's team has crammed the necessary electronics into the handle of a prototype, so the firearm no longer must be tethered to a computer.

Inside the grip, 16 ceramic discs generate a charge when pressed. They are called piezoelectric sensors, from the Greek piezo, for "pressure." Barbecue lighters use a similar feature.

Once the shooter squeezes the trigger, the grip sensors spring into action, recording the pressure for one-tenth of a second. In that moment, the pressure applied by each finger varies enough that engineers can distinguish between shooters with a high degree of reliability. A grip's signature does not vary significantly from firing to firing, even in stressful situations, researchers have found.

For reasons I'll explain, I don't trust these researchers, and I don't trust this, or any product which is mandated by government regulations and not developed in and for the free market.

Dave Kopel discusses the many problems with this technology, from both civil rights and hands-on perspectives, noting that the reason police officers from the requirement is the idea is inherently unreliable.

Bottom line: real guns would still be sold -- but only to police officers!

Extreme Tech has long discussion of the emerging technology, which seems inevitable eventually:

Smart guns, no longer science fiction, will be a commercial reality in a few short years. And the future holds a wealth of possibilities, such as accelerometers to aid in firing practice and GPS sensors to help in crime-scene reconstructions.

As Chang notes, smart gun technology isn't a restriction, but an enhancement.

That's easy enough to say, and easy enough in theory. Some gun owners might indeed welcome a high tech gun that plugs into a charger at night and that can't be picked up and fired by a stranger or a child.

But if it is "not a restriction," what if you want to add a "user"? What if you don't live alone, but with another adult you love? What if you have a wife, a husband, a live in? If it is in fact your gun, isn't part of its function to offer protection to your loved ones? Lots of people have to leave their loved ones at home when they go to work, go on trips, drive to the store, or even take a shower.

I can just see it now. . . Husband goes downstairs to investigate a noise. Intruder jumps him, and during the struggle the husband screams upstairs for his wife to get the gun and help him. She grabs the gun and runs downstairs.

"Honey, the gun won't work. How long will it take to have it reprogrammed?"

This leads to an inevitable question.

Whose gun is it?

Suppose you want to turn off the damned piezoelectric sensor mechanism to allow it to be fired when you're wearing gloves, or by anyone in your household. Who is the owner? Obviously, high tech guns are a bureaucrat's dream, for they invite a plethora of rules and regulations, programmer standards and certification, hacking, and in turn anti-hacking police. In short, a war over the chip inside your gun, and over what you can do with it.

As is the case with so many bureaucrat's dreams, this one sounds like a citizen's nightmare.

I suspect that's the idea. But it's only part of the idea. Long term, I think the goal is not to offer an "enhancement" but to confiscate older guns. It's a very short step from prohibiting the sale in stores of any firearms that aren't "smart guns" to prohibiting the sale or transfer, or possession of real guns.

Yes, real guns. The kind that can be picked up and fired -- even if it has been left on a shelf or in a drawer, or packed inside an emergency survival kit. The kind that don't need a charger:

Chang is also concerned with battery life, a crucial factor in this case, of course. He imagines that the finished product will operate four hours in active shooting or several days when idle. The guns would likely come with charging stands, much as handheld computers and cell phones do now.
Um, how is a smart gun supposed to be recharged when the power is down?

Look, I'm no Luddite, nor am I anti-technology. If gun dealers wanted to market the smart technology as an "enhancement" in a free market, fine. But when the government is developing them and laws require people to have them, calling a limitation an enhancement sounds Orwellian.

I don't know if I'd ever want one of these things. But even if I did, common sense requires having a backup -- in the form of a real gun.

In case of a thing called an emergency.

(To my old-fashioned way of thinking, emergencies are what guns are for.)

AFTERTHOUGHT: Just to prove I'm not a total Luddite, here's a detail from the Inquirer piece that intrigued me:

The most sensible approach may be to marry Recce's recognition technology with a gun that fires electronically - without mechanical, moving parts such as a hammer. If an authorized user were recognized, it would be a simple matter to turn on the firing circuitry.
Electronic firing? If that isn't an invitation to full-auto hackers, I don't know what is.

I suppose making them "tamper proof" would have to be the next "enhancement." If they're smart, why not make them smarter and build in an emergency cell phone chip that sends a distress signal to the authorities whenever attempted tampering occurs?

Imagine how many lives "we" could "save."

MORE: How about real smart guns activated by human brain waves?

Nah. They'd probably be activated by sleeping users during home invasion nightmares, and start firing at dreamed up targets.

posted by Eric on 05.25.06 at 07:25 AM










Comments

Hmm. The idea I originally heard was that there would be an RFID chip in your hand that would activate the gun.

Which is a cooler idea, because you'd have a chip in your hand.

Notice the following, as well. Gun owners? Against. Half of gun control nuts? Against. So, in the end, who is for this law? A few gun control experts who don't think that it will create a false sense of security.

Jon Thompson   ·  May 25, 2006 1:28 PM

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