A “smart gun” is a weapon that requires the shooter to identify themselves before firing. This is not a new idea, and every month a new smart gun is released that promises to fix the problems of the last generation.
As with any new technology, if smart guns are to be successful, their adoption will be driven by those who have most need for them. For handguns, that’s the Police force. No matter how large and dedicated the gun enthusiast community is, the average law enforcement officer will fire more rounds, and be in more dangerous situations, than the vast majority of other gun owners.
To see whether smart guns are going to be the next big thing, then, we should ask the police if they like them. The answer is no.
What Are Smart Guns?
Good question. Smart guns are essentially guns that require some form of security authorization in order to fire. Several approaches to this have been tried, ranging from fingerprint sensors, radio-frequency identification (RFID), to magnets and biometric sensors.
The idea for Smart Guns has been around for quite a while, but the nascent industry was given a huge boost in 2016, when Obama used a speech on gun control to ask: “If we can set it up so you can’t unlock your phone unless you’ve got the right fingerprint, why can’t we do the same thing for our guns?”
Since then, several companies have tried to develop an “iPhone of guns”, with the Armatix IP1 so far generating the most headlines. Nevertheless, smart guns remain a niche market.
Are They Smart? Are They Guns?
There are many reasons for this, ranging from concerns about the security of such weapons to some slightly absurd laws on their sale.
Let’s take the security issue first. It took approximately 2 weeks for a “hacker” to get around the security features on the Armatix smart gun, using magnets available at your local hardware store. And far from making future weapons more secure, adding new technology to guns might actually make them more vulnerable: reported back in 2015 that computer-enabled sniper rifles could also be hacked, much like websites. Not so smart after all.
Then we have the legal issues. New Jersey passed a law back in 2002 that imposed a time limit: as soon as smart guns were available in the State, “traditional” weapons had to be withdrawn from sale within 3 years. The ensuing backlash, in which local gun shops were threatened, led to the State legislator decreeing that smart guns were not, in fact, guns.
Why Cops Don’t Like Them
Despite nearly 60 per cent of Americans saying that they would purchase a smart gun if given the chance, law enforcement professionals remain unmoved by the new technology.
To see why, we need to consider what kind of weapon police officers carry, and how they carry it. It might not surprise you to learn most officers are pretty old school, carrying a hefty pistol where it can be drawn quickly: think a 1911 pistol in a shoulder holster, not a .22 stuffed down their sock.
This points to the two major reasons why the police force remain skeptical of smart guns: they are not powerful enough, and are still not totally reliable. Technologies like fingerprint scanners, as anyone who has a smart phone knows, simply do not work all the time: all it takes is a dirty sensor, and you will be locked out of your gun. In addition, the most widely available smart guns are chambered in .22, which most police officers regard as completely underpowered for the dangers they face.
Smart gun manufacturers are trying to address these concerns. Smart guns chambered in the more powerful 9mm round are being developed, as are weapons that require a PIN code rather than relying on a fingerprint scanner.
But perhaps the biggest issue blocking the adoption of smart guns is simply that the police do not want to be using untested technology. “Police officers in general, federal officers in particular, shouldn’t be asked to be the guinea pigs in evaluating a firearm that nobody’s even seen yet,” James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, told Politico at the time of the Obama push. “We have some very, very serious questions.”
Until these questions can be answered, it is very unlikely that smart guns will be adopted by law enforcement. And without that endorsement, they are unlikely to make a splash in the civilian market either.