Recently, there has been renewed interest in smart-gun technology by some people, especially the Biden administration and their highly-publicized gun-control focus. This article explores the practical and constitutional aspects of smart guns and their mandate as a means to reduce certain firearms-related deaths, like those caused by suicide, violent attacks, and accidental gun discharges, as well as safety concerns.
Smart Guns: Definition and Earlier Problems
Smart guns originally meant personalized guns that only the owner or designated user could fire. In the military context, they were also known as Electronically-Controlled Safety Mechanisms for weapons. Generally, they had a poor start as a promising new technology about 24 or so years ago. You probably remember some leading candidates in the 2020 primary election who advocated for smart guns as a solution to gun violence. Of course, there have been advances in technology since then, as well as other proposals and schools of thought.
The earlier generation of smart guns experienced problems with the reliability of the technology, as well as legislative and political mistakes that would have banned all other guns as soon as smart guns appeared in the retail market. At least one state in 2019, New Jersey, passed carefully drafted legislation promoting the introduction of personalized smart guns, while another, Arizona, passed legislation discouraging the adoption of digital ledgering technology for smart guns. Some of the earlier proposals triggered boycotts of firearms manufacturers, dealers, and negative attention on the limited technology, with a subsequent abandonment of the projects by legislators, potential users, and the gun industry overall.
Goal of this Article
I want to explore the recent second-generation smart gun technology, it’s potential for adoption by the military, law enforcement, and civilian markets, and the realistic opportunities for improvements in safety and/or reduction in gun violence. Can we develop and use an effective and safe handgun that only the gun owner can fire, and can it be highly reliable and accurate for self-defense? Can you imagine a gun meeting all these requirements? A smart gun that enhances safety, can only be shot by the owner or designated user, and which the user can safely count on for every personal protection encounter or any given use. And it should be concurrently recognized that some look at improved smart gun technology as a way of making firearms more lethal through enhanced accuracy and added stopping power, whether true or not.
Types of Smart Gun Biometric Trigger-Lock Systems
Basically, there are two types of smart gun Biometric Trigger-Lock Systems (BTLS), according to Metzler’s and Kloepfer’s technical research in 2018 and subsequent years. There are those that use the most-common physical biometric scanners, like fingerprint and palm print scanners, facial and iris recognition scanners, and those that use behavioral biometrics, which recognizes physical characteristics, like characteristics of voice and grip. Duke’s Law and Technology Review says these scanners work by using a sensor to pass a small electrical current through the fingerprint, which conducts electricity to create an image that allows the gun to fire. There are also smart guns that are trigger locked by Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tokens and use radio frequency and electromagnets to fire and block the firing pin from working. They are activated from an external device, such as an electronically-matched chip like a watch, key fob, or ring. You can imagine all the inherent concerns about their activation since it has more technical issues than biometric-based trigger-lock systems. The RFID smart guns are also more susceptible to hacking since a $10 magnet placed next to the electromagnet is all that a hacker needs to unlock the gun’s firing pin to fire it.
Inherent Problems with Smart Gun Biometric Scanners and Locks
There could be compromising situations and conditions for any scanner to properly work, i.e., think of the problems and time delays experienced with retail scanners.
NOTE: Any time delay in making a smart gun operational could cause death for the operator or user.
There are other practical problems and conditions in shooting situations to consider. For example, sweaty or wet hands, dirty hands, gloved hands, the way the person grips or holds the gun or anything which interferes with conducting electricity or blurs the image. I certainly have discovered that students, when shooting at the range, often do not have a proper grip on a handgun, which causes the gun to jam, malfunction, not operate at all, or stop functioning. Of course, there are usually misses or inaccuracies when a gun is not properly gripped or functioning.
Also, since these scanners are battery operated, battery issues may cause the gun to be inoperable, and battery life varies. It would be terrible to have the smart gun battery not work at the very moment when confronted with a deadly-force aggressor. Some home defenders and carriers express concern that a smart gun may be left in its locked setting if the battery fails, potentially leaving them defenseless in a life-and-death deadly-force encounter. So some sort of design feature to make the gun default to its traditional, operational setting is necessary for an operational gun whenever the electronics fail. It should be pointed out that some advanced fingerprint scanners report false authentication rates, which could lead to improper gun use and possible legal claims. Of course, manufacturers’ claims vary.
Smart gun technology includes ancillary considerations, in addition to the very meaningful gun safety and storage benefits and reduction in deaths and suicides.
Some of the technology has the capability to automate, record, and archive deadly-force events for subsequent replay. But, there have been several reports of repeated factual inaccuracies with this aspect of the technology. While it attempts to enhance accountability and recording of facts, there are significant implementation, practical, and legal problems here. Justification and/or collaboration of claims for self-defense have been disputable.
The Constitutionality and Practicality of a Smart Gun Mandate
A problem with previous smart gun alternatives and introductions has been the mandating of their use of them. New Jersey and other states in earlier years (at that time) insisted on the mandatory use of smart guns, which turned a lot of users and individuals, organizations, and manufacturers away from them. Early proponents wanted to make smart gun use mandatory, primarily for the benefit of safe gun storage. An NRA spokesman stated earlier that “Mandating every person sell products is just not acceptable. If a gun shop wants to sell smart guns, fine… It should be something left to the marketplace.”
NOTE: The safety goal of proper and safe storage of a firearm can be met without the required use of a smart gun and without imposing on the gun owners’ rights to bear arms in self-defense in a nefarious or life-threatening situation.
So it seems that if the technology is as reliable as the smart gun manufacturers claim, then they are attractive options for gun owners. But consider those who wish to safely store their firearms. There is the existing, less technical, less problem-related quick option. I want to facetiously say that this involves dealing with the potentially life-threatening burden of taking a few seconds to unlock a gun safe with a key or combination.
Courts and firearms experts seem to agree that the framework used by courts in determining the constitutionality of mandated firearms laws is whether the (smart gun) law imposes a burden on the conduct of falling within the scope of the Second Amendment, the Supreme Court Heller decision, and the right to keep and bear arms for personal purposes. Critics of smart guns say that the technology is not reliable and that they inhibit firearms from being used effectively for self-defense, so are unconstitutional.
NOTE: It is unlikely that a smart gun will prevent mass shootings since it can still be acquired by anyone wishing to use it for harm, like with traditional guns. Any gun is a tool that can be used by anyone for evil or for good.
Consider the Benefits of Smart-Gun Technology
While smart-gun technology may not prevent all or a large number of firearms-related deaths, it could help reduce the number of youth-related suicides and accidental firearms deaths, according to the Gifford’s Law Center. They say that about 4.6 million U.S. children live in a home with an unlocked and loaded firearm.
Bloomberg reports that unsafe firearm storage is highly associated with firearm suicide among children and adolescents. “Since smart guns restrict use to only authorized users, like parents, smart guns prevent the situations in which a child or teenager finds a family member’s firearm and uses it to commit suicide.” Duke Law and Technology Review states that smart guns are also an “effective way to protect children and teenagers from accidental shootings.” They say that “while these types of deaths compromise a small percentage of all firearm-related deaths, measures to mitigate the likelihood of accidental gun deaths in children should still be pursued.”
Of course, the military and law enforcement have been researching smart guns. If military and law enforcement use and research help to reduce costs, encourage innovation, and let consumers know that smart guns are indeed reliable, then they would be more popular. Smart guns generally first appeared in the mid-1990s as a possible solution to police weapon “takeaways,” where an officer might be injured or killed when a criminal wrestles the gun away and uses it against the officer.
A benefit often overlooked with personalized smart guns is unintended discharges during cleaning, and regular handling of the gun would be significantly reduced. The weapon would not be authorized to fire unless held correctly during cleaning and use.
Some say that smart guns help reduce gun theft since they require biometric or electronic authentication and are harder to steal by criminals.
Consider the Current Supply of Traditional Firearms and their Owners’ Costs
A large hurdle to introducing smart guns and, possibly, mandating them is the existing and large supply of traditional firearms currently in U.S. circulation, e.g., about 400 million civilian firearms owners. So, enforcement costs and times for a mandate would be astronomical. Additionally, current gun owners have many dollars tied up in their inventory of existing guns. A prohibitively expensive and practically impossible challenge to buy and switch to these new smart guns, let alone replace the guns gun owners presently own with them. Even if new smart gun owners are able to prevent some firearm-related deaths, there probably would only be a minimal effect because certain gun owners would continue to own traditional firearms. And the estimated typical cost of one basic smart gun in 2023 starts at about $1,500. Get ready to fork over a large sum to make the switch or just to get started with smart guns. A large class of gun owners would not be able to afford them. Of course, the government could, at taxpayers’ expense, offer tax credits, rebates, allowances, and reimbursements for purchasing smart guns. Bureaucracy, handouts, and something for nothing at its best.
A New Smart Gun Introduced for Early 2023
A Denver, Colorado company, Biofire Technologies, has introduced a new smart gun that can only be fired after verifying the shooter’s identity with Biometric fingerprint and 3D facial recognition. It is expected to enter the market in 2024, priced at $1,499. Kai Kloepfer is the CEO of Biofire, and he was inspired by the Aurora, Colorado, movie shooting in 2012. They claim it is the “world’s first of its kind.” They said they believe that their technology can “assist in reducing accidents, criminal misuse, suicides, and other tragic outcomes.” It is designed for home defense. A shooter can instantly unlock their firearm just by picking it up, they claim.
Emerging smart gun technology is changing and branching in different directions. There are many practical and technical considerations, reasons, pros, and cons to consider before an individual or a society decides on buying and using a smart gun. While this smart gun technology may not solve mass shootings by criminals, it can still benefit responsible gun owners and increase safety, especially for home defense and children. I hope my brief review of the topic here has given you “food for thought” and led you to make the optimal decision for yourself. What are your ideas about smart guns?
Photo by Biofire Technologies, Inc.
* This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only, and the author strongly recommends that you seek counsel from an attorney for legal advice and your own personal certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense, and concealed carry. It should not be relied upon as accurate for all shooters & the author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever.
© 2023 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For copyright information, contact Col Ben Findley at ColBFF@gmail.com.