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"Smart Guns":

Doug Berman (Sentencing Law & Policy) asks how "smart gun" technology is doing. I take it that "smart gun" here means technology that can keep unauthorized users from using a gun (e.g., some sort of fingerprint recognition technology, though that's just one example), but would still leave the "smart gun" as effective as a normal gun for self-defense.

I'd love to hear people's thoughts on this, but let me suggest one broader point: My sense is that gun manufacturers have plenty of incentive to develop good technology if such a technology is feasible. If they aren't developing it, that's a pretty good sign that smart guns would either be prohibitively expensive or insufficiently reliable, at least without vast technological advances.

I say this because gun manufacturers face a rare problem: Many of their customers (the ones who aren't gun collectors or otherwise gun enthusiasts) are going to give them nearly no repeat business. I have my Glock in my gun safe and it works just fine for me (that is to say, it would work fine if I could get it out of the safe in time, which I hope I could). It will probably work for decades if not centuries. Glock will get no more money out of me or many other people like me for a long time, precisely because it's created such a reliable and long-lasting technology.

The only way they can sell more to people like me -- people who have shown a willingness to buy guns, and therefore seem like a desirable market segment, but who have all the guns they need already -- is by offering me something a lot better than the original. A gun that my kids can't fire without my permission would qualify; I'd definitely buy it if it were affordable and reliable. I'd imagine that many gun owners who have children would do the same; so would many police departments who are worried about criminals' grabbing guns from a police officer in a scuffle. Whoever patents and develops such a workable technology (whether that's an existing gun manufacturer, a start-up, or a company that's in some other line of business, and whether here in the U.S. or abroad) could sell billions of dollars' worth of guns in the span of only a few years, as many millions of gun-owning parents decide to upgrade to the safer versions.

My guess, then, isn't that the gun manufacturers and other manufacturers are sitting idle and neglecting to do research in this area. Rather, it's that people who know have looked into this, and the problem is much more difficult than it appears, especially given the necessary level of reliability that gun owners rightly expect from their weapons.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Focusing on Only One Risk:
  2. "Smart Guns":
wulak:
you've never tested yourself to see how long it takes to get your gun out of the safe in the middle of the night?

tonight, fall asleep on the couch watching craig ferguson. then, when you wake up at 3am to transfer to your bed, pretend you hear a noise and then run to get your gun.

seems like a crucial piece of information.
2.25.2008 8:19pm
RKV (mail):
Your assumption that millions of gun-owning parents would upgrade is in doubt. There are may alternative technologies (dare we say trigger locks or certain kinds of safes) which are of known reliability and fully developed - and demonstrably less expensive than some new approach. There is no reason to spend the money for many others, who have mature, gun-safe children or no children at all. A number of states, of course, don't give a shit what gun owners want and impose all kinds of nonsense restrictions on them as they please - even to the point of harassment for its own sake. Let's look at 10 day waiting periods for instance. I have plenty of guns in my safe. Making me wait is not going to stop any "crimes of passion." All such laws succeed in doing is reminding me that I am a second class citizen of the Peoples' Republik because I own guns and don't vote like the majority.
2.25.2008 8:21pm
Brett Bellmore:
It's been my perception that the unavailability of smart guns is their chief selling point among advocates. A conscious strategy of making the best the enemy of the good.

Indeed, as anyone with an engineering background who's looked at the problem could tell you, it's an extraordinarily difficult one. Short of something on the level of RFID chips implanted in the owner's trigger fingers, I don't see it being solved.
2.25.2008 8:27pm
ProctorOfAdmiralty:
with respect, I disagree that gun companies don't face repeat customers; that is, not significantly enough to continue to profit. I believe that a substantial amount of their business is to folks who do buy more than one gun-- this may be a crass analogy, but I assume that those who buy a cell phone bought a later version b/c it was "better" for them, i.e., a psychological appeal/consumerism.
L.
2.25.2008 8:28pm
PersonFromPorlock:
Smart guns are a software trap; you'd end up sending Glock an annual update fee to keep your gun operating, or having to change the entire (throwaway) magazine instead of just reloading it if you fired x shots.

And if the manufacturers didn't want to make you do this, some governments would make them, just to make owning a gun harder.
2.25.2008 8:39pm
PeteRR (mail):
"police departments who are worried about criminals' grabbing guns from a police officer in a scuffle"

The very people who get their firearms turned on them on a regular basis, the Police, have so far been exempted in every piece of "Smart Gun" legislation passed into law. If they won't trust their lives to an unproven piece of technology, why should we?
2.25.2008 8:43pm
Ari (www):
To be honest, wouldn't a gun with such technology be completely worthless? Not only would it be heavier, bulkier, and more difficult to fire, but it would also be able to be fired by only one person (or perhaps a few people). What if you took the gun to a range, and you wanted to let your friend shoot off a couple of rounds, or let him teach you how to do so on your own gun? Or what if your wife was home alone and the house was broken into late at night? She certainly wouldn't want to fiddle with complicated technology while her life was on the line. There is perhaps a market for safety-conscious parents (most of whom do not own guns, let alone go near them), but such a gun would probably not be appealing to most gun owners.
2.25.2008 8:45pm
Bruce:
Glock will get no more money out of me or many other people like me for a long time

Who makes ammunition? It could be a razors-and-blades type market.
2.25.2008 9:04pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
Who makes ammunition? It could be a razors-and-blades type market.
Personally, I am happy enough with disposables that the razors-and-blades type of marketing doesn't work with me.

But in order to make it work with guns, you would need to somehow tie the bullets to the guns. If someone actually does that effectively, I would expect some serious anti-trust scrutiny. Besides, one of the benefits of the current situation where bullets are mostly interchangeable is that the whole system is relatively efficient and inexpensive.
2.25.2008 9:19pm
MXE (mail):
What if you took the gun to a range, and you wanted to let your friend shoot off a couple of rounds, or let him teach you how to do so on your own gun? Or what if your wife was home alone and the house was broken into late at night?

I'm glad somebody raised this point. For those of us who enjoy shooting and/or hunting, guns are for sharing! Not irresponsibly, of course. But when I go to the range or out to plink on public lands, I always bring some buddies along. And the point about family members is valid as well.

If a "smart gun" only worked for one person, I'd consider it a MAJOR downgrade, even if cost, reliability, etc. were equal, which is extremely unlikely. If I could easily manage a list of allowed persons through some password-protected interface, then I'd go for it. (Say it could connect to my computer by USB, or whatever.) But again, only if cost and reliability were basically equal to the old-school gun.

And that is basically 100% impossible. Think about this for a second. You'd need:

*A fingerprint recognition panel that works 100% of the time — no time to swipe three or four times in an emergency

*Sensitive electronics

*A battery that would have to be replaced periodically or the gun would cease functioning

*All of it miniaturized enough to fit on a handgun without ruining ergonomics

Now, consider your Glock, Prof. Volokh -- famous for passing the "Glock test" that involves being frozen in ice, run over by a truck, buried in sand, stripped and degreased, and then fired a few thousand times without a failure. Think a gun with all that fingerprint jazz in it would survive that kind of punishment? Zero chance.

And THAT is the main reason this technology is just a fantasy.
2.25.2008 9:27pm
Elliot123 (mail):
I wonder if smart guns are a bit like the V-Chip or those little finger print readers appearing on laptops? Does anybody actually use either the V-Chip or the fingerprint reader?
2.25.2008 9:35pm
K Parker (mail):
Who makes ammunition?
Very few U.S. firearms manufacturers also produce ammo--and not a single handgun mfr as afar as I know. Remington and Winchester are the only ones I'm aware of, and they don't produce handguns.
2.25.2008 9:37pm
Brooks Lyman (mail):
My understanding is that police, while a potentially obvious market for "smart guns," have not found any to be sufficiently reliable to date. A police officer (or a civilian wanting a self-defense weapon) wants a gun that will work if his hands are dirty or if his grip on the gun is not perfect or if he has to shoot with his left hand instead of his right hand. In short, he/she wants a simple, reliable gun, not something that will be fussy in operation and need tender loving care anjd a regular change of batteries, etc.

And would it work for both me and my wife - or my older kids if they were at home alone when a rapist or robber broke into the house?
2.25.2008 10:13pm
zippypinhead:
A co-worker who is a strong "ban all guns" proponent said to me not long ago that the real benefit of mandating smart guns would NOT be that it would necessarily make firearms "safer" (whatever that means), but just vastly more expensive, and thus scarcer. If only the VPC folks would be so candid...

I suspect smart gun technology likely won't stop a lot of criminals in the long run. Rather, you're going to see the emergence of an underground industry to reprogram stolen smart guns for new users. You would need to build in the ability to reprogram the guns for legal purposes (unless you really DO want to prevent legal firearms transfers). And if current experience with computers, cell phones, and even electronic auto engine controls is at all instructive, within about a week of a smart gun hitting the market, the software necessary to reprogram or disable the firearm's on-board firmware would be available all over the Internet. And I'm guessing a lot of LEGAL purchasers would disable the controls too (assuming aftermarket modification to your own firearm wasn't criminalized), for all the gun sharing and family member use reasons mentioned above. Or, depending on how restrictive the technological solution is, just to enable weak-hand shooting.

Final thought: in order for smart gun technology to really lock out unauthorized users, it's going to have to be restrictive enough to even limit how a firearm is used by its legal owner. If we assume Heller comes out strongly for an individual right to keep and bear arms, would mandated smart gun technology even necessarily survive a strict scrutiny analysis?
2.25.2008 10:14pm
BladeDoc (mail):
Dave,

Two points:
While Glock will happily take your money I bet that their REAL profit comes from the "regulars" just like at the neighborhood bar my uncle used to own. Generally speaking in my experience people who like guns buy more than one. Many people are wedded to a certain type while others mix and match. For example I have a friend who has a Glock in every caliber and some in multiple configurations of the same caliber (eg the G17 and the G19).

Secondly, wouldn't the manufacturer set themselves up for significant liability if the technology failed in a critical situation? IIRC that's why the whole seatbelt/ignition interlock thing came to a screeching halt when that lady was assaulted and couldn't get away b/c the car wouldn't start.

A weapon that doesn't work, first time, every time guaranteed is worse than none at all.
2.25.2008 10:22pm
Daniel San:
I don't think there is an incentive for gun manufacturers to develop such a technology. Certainly there would be a market for it, but the downside is huge. Develop it and it will be mandated on every gun you sell.

There are similar barriers to development of safety technology in other areas. And there is the liability issue: if it fails, is the manufacturer strictly liable?
2.25.2008 10:26pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I think that someone above pointed to the requisite standard: when the police are confident enough of the technology to start adopting smart guns, then the rest of us can start looking at them.
2.25.2008 10:35pm
billb:
What manufacturer would dare sell a firearm that claimed to only be usable by "authorized users"? Ignore the technical issues for a moment. The legal liability would be enormous! On both ends! Imagine the lawsuits from family members of a dead loved-one who has tried to defend themselves only to find that the mechanism failed. Now imagine the opposite scenario where the family of the dead police officer sues the manufacturer because the supposedly smart gun allowed the criminal to shoot the cop with his own weapon.

This is clearly a no win situation. For the time being manufacturers have survived defective-product litigation because guns do exactly what they're advertised to do. They put holes in just about everything, and their lethality is a foreseeable consequence of that. An actually defectively manufactured gun is, it seems to me, rather rare. Introducing a purportedly smart technology into these relatively simple devices is bound, more than anything, to bring out the lawsuits, and given the small margins the handgun industry runs on, don't expect to find this technology in their products any time soon.
2.25.2008 10:48pm
David Schwartz (mail):
Pretty much all of the engineering problems mentioned above are solvable. Reliability is the real killer.

The basic idea would be an implantable very short range RFID chip embedded in the owner's trigger finger. The amount of power required is quite low, and a small lithium rechargeable battery would work just fine. It could be trickle recharged by a magnetic field created by a "zone charger".

For the "friend at a range" issue, the simplest solution is probably just to have a simple pattern that unlocks the gun for ten minutes. It could be as simple as "finger on the trigger for ten seconds, off for ten seconds, on for two seconds".

The mechanism would simply be a solenoid-like one that pulls a pin back. The pin prevents the trigger from being depressed. A means to test the battery's charge and operation of the trigger interlock would not be terribly complex.

The "wife needs to defend herself" argument is trickier. For one thing, this only applies to home defense, not police. Police could easily use a group access scheme.

Note that none of this is intended to handle a stolen gun, just a criminal who takes your gun and tries to use it on you immediately. Also, reliability would be a *huge* issue, as would the fact that you'd need a chip implanted in your trigger finger.
2.25.2008 10:51pm
PJens:
I am not yet ready to buy a smart gun. I live in a rural area and our guns are used by my wife daughter and I, three people, to defend our livestock against preditors. Namely; racoons, opossums, and skunks. A few years ago I made new purchases of the the advanced technology .17 caliber Hornady Magnum Rimfire (HMR) firearms. I have never drawn a weapon upon another human being. I do live in a state without concealed carry laws, and wish I could have a loaded gun in my farm truck and tractor. Not to shot a person, but to shoot the skunks that cross the road in front of me. I mention all this because in the second admendment debates, it is often overlooked that a good part of firearm use is as tool to control nusiance animals, not to shoot people. Would I purchase a smart gun? Maybe, but certainly not as a substitute to educate the habitants of my house on how to use firearms.
2.25.2008 10:54pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
I tend to think this a valid point. The marketing limit to a gun mfr is market saturation. Cars wear out and get dinged up. Guns don't. I love to collect 1892-1899 Krags, and they function quite as well today as when they were made. Personally, IF a really reliable smart gun could be made, I'd certainly buy one. Kids in the house, and I'd rather not lock the gun in a safe.

Some years ago there was a fellow with a sorta-smart gun add on, limited to a few forms of handguns. There was a component inside the grip that would only activate, and allow firing, if the shooter wore a ring that was magnetized. This had the upside that if shooting with a guest you could give them the ring, and the downside that you had to wear the ring constantly if concerned about self defense. I don't think they're sold anymore, suggesting that the idea never found adequate demand.
2.25.2008 11:02pm
Bama 1L:
Imagine the lawsuits from family members of a dead loved-one who has tried to defend themselves only to find that the mechanism failed.

Actual guns in the real world must occasionally fail to operate in such circumstances. Do plaintiffs actually recover from gun manufacturers on such theories? Don't you have a causation problem?
2.25.2008 11:03pm
Gregory Conen (mail):
@David Swartz: Now, I don't have kids around, so my concerns about gun misuse are less. But I must say, having to have minor surgery to use a gun is a big turn-off to your scheme for me.
2.25.2008 11:24pm
AnneS (www):
I don't think Glock is hurting for repeat customers. Law enforcement (and maybe the military?) is by far their biggest market and law enforcement IS a repeat buyer. Their second largest market is probably gun enthusiasts and, if my husband is any guide, they are also repeat customers. For various reasons, some of which have already been discussed, these two types of buyers don't really want the smart gun technology. They'd rather invest in models that function better.

So you're left with the much smaller market of individuals who purchase a single weapon for self defense, lock it in their safe, and don't really care about functionality beyond being able to have it shoot a bullet reliably. They might really want the smart gun technology. However, the size of the market that wants it may not be sufficient to justify the expense of developping it, especially when R&D dollars in other areas could draw in more buyers from the two larger markets.

That's just my guess - I only know what my husband tells me about guns, since I really have no interest in them beyond telling him he can't buy another gun until we get new windows.
2.25.2008 11:27pm
juris_imprudent (mail):
Smart guns are a dumb idea.

You have to take a reasonably simple mechanical system and DISABLE[/enable] it with a bunch of ridiculously complicated electronics.

A systems version of Occam's Razor in reverse.

Hell, even ST doesn't feature "smart phasers".
2.25.2008 11:46pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
I'd also agree that IF a reliable form could be developed, an mfr would have a leg up on cornering the law enforcement market. About a third of officers who are killed are killed with their own gun -- unlike a civilian self-defender, they have to grapple with bad guys and escort them away. The fact that a design would appeal to so large a market, yet has no one claiming it, is pretty suggestive that no reliable design has yet been devised.
2.25.2008 11:50pm
JB:
Even if workable smart gun technology existed, it wouldn't be adopted.

The major market for it would be "I can fire it, but my 6-year-old can't shoot his friend and create a sensationalist national sob story." There are way easier ways to stop that from happening, many of which are available today (safes), and all the others way cheaper and easier (trigger locks, etc).

I can't imagine a gun owner choosing smartgun as the optimal safety measure.
2.26.2008 12:07am
luagha:
The magnetic ring method had about a 95% success rate under stressful conditions when tested. It was deemed inadequate for any combat use by anyone who tested it. (It was better under controlled circumstances, but using a gun for self-defense is never a controlled circumstance.)
2.26.2008 12:58am
Vinnie (mail):
Radom P-64 has a 27 pound double action trigger. Pretty much kid proof. I have gun proofed my kid just in case but insurance is nice.
2.26.2008 1:40am
Jonathan Eisenman:
Has anyone ever produced any kind of data comparing the number of people killed or injured by intruders in their own homes when the home owner had an inaccessible firearm with the number of people inadvertently killed or injured by an improperly secured firearm?
2.26.2008 1:58am
gattsuru (mail) (www):
Even if you could make it reliable (a high technological hurdle) and difficult to break (an even higher one), you've still got some rather interesting issues.

The biggest is that gun owners are overwhelmingly conservative. It's not a field where neophilia is a good trait; new concepts and standards can and are regularly made obsolete or nonviable, while older standards have remained with us rather constantly. If you get a gun chambered in .45 ACP built around the m1911 concept, you know that the bullet's been around for a hundred years and, barring legal changes, will remain around, just as any gunsmith worth their tools will know at least the basics of repairs.
The same couldn't be said for new guns or gun designs. Most gun owners who've been around for long know that : I've seen a couple perfectly good types of guns wiped out because of it (the 1965-1968 13mm and .49 Gyrojet, the more recent case of electrically triggered ammo). New concepts, as a result, are held to a very high standard.

Secondly, both gun owners are purchasing and gun makers are selling devices intended to go bang when the trigger is pulled. Anything else is deviation from the norm, is in other types of firearms usually a sign of an underlying problem. It may be a lucky deviation, if the person using the firearm is doing so improperly, but that's not how your average gun owner is looking at things.

Finally, from an economic point of view, gun manufacturers may well worry about it being a very poisonous discovery. I'm willing to wager every single one of them has a particularly nasty vision of some liberal mecca finding out about an expensive to develop reliable 'smart gun' tech, force that company to give away the tech to competitors or sell it at a significantly loss, and only sell firearms within said mecca with said feature. The end result is massive sunk R&D costs, complete loss of existing inventory, and an increase in manufacturing costs that are extremely likely to result in decreased demand.

So there are probably strong incentives other than the technical difficulties.

On that matter, technical issues include :
* The low power density of most small batteries, especially compared to the life-span of a typical bullet.
* The relatively low complexity of what non-electrical devices can understand : magnets can only deal with a single vector of force, for example, as can pressure-sensitive mechanicals. This makes such alternatives less than desirable, especially given that 'decent' security usually requires at least a thousand bits worth of data as a key.
* The high requirement for security. A system that can be bypassed by holding a magnet near it for an amount of time or from a direction easily observable is not going to be useful. Unencrypted RFID is obvious worthless. Encrypted RFID would require a fairly long string and hefty level of encryption, as well as techniques to fight against 'man-in-the-middle' attacks. Wireless range is highly dependent on antenna quality : a chip that's only supposed to broadcast for a few inches can be read quite a way away with the correct tools.

That's just for starters, obviously.
2.26.2008 1:58am
Eugene Volokh (www):
Daniel San: I don't quite see how your argument works. At most, it might suggest that some manufacturers who already have a large market share might be reluctant to develop the smart guns, for fear that it will cut too much into their market for traditional guns (and that not enough smart guns will sell because they are too expensive) -- though even for those manufacturers, their smart gun profits may still exceed their traditional gun profits for the reasons I mention.

But manufacturers who aren't yet in the gun business -- whether because they are start-ups or because they are in a different business -- don't care at all about the phenomenon you describe. Likewise for manufacturers who have only a small market share, and who with smart guns can get a vast market share. Likewise for manufacturers who have a large market share, but who don't want to fall behind the first company who would develop smart guns (since then the ones who fall behind would bear all the loss of the result you hypothesize, but won't get the benefit of the smart gun profits).
2.26.2008 2:48am
MXE (mail):
Pretty much all of the engineering problems mentioned above are solvable. [...] reliability would be a *huge* issue, as would the fact that you'd need a chip implanted in your trigger finger.

I see where you're going with this, but I think once we start talking about a solution that requires surgery, it's not solvable for present purposes. I mean, pretty much hitting it out of the reality ballpark here.

Also, if I have a large gun collection, my trigger finger's going to have a hell of a lot of hardware in it. Or I suppose each time I buy a new gun, the chip gets removed and reprogrammed? All I can say is ouch.
2.26.2008 3:02am
Avatar (mail):
Developing a smart gun would be a legal nightmare. You're talking about a piece of equipment that's used regularly in life-or-death situations. The technology of the equipment is completely mature - so much so that it's arguable that the best extant design is a hundred years old. There ain't much that new-fangled designs can add at this point.

You're going to add to that equipment a device that will prevent the equipment from working unless it detects the proper user. It must perform this check very quickly, under possibly negative conditions. The user's hand is on the grip of the equipment and is not available to enter a password. The equipment may be wet or dirty, as may the hand of the user. The equipment must be available for use instantaneously - when your user needs this equipment, he needs it badly.

If your device fails to authenticate the user, it renders the equipment non-functional. It more or less must do this through mechanical lockout, because the equipment has no electronic parts that are not a component of your device. The design of the equipment is such that there is a provision for such a lockout ("safety"), but that lockout is operated manually and thus must be completely redesigned for use with your device.

Oh, and you also have to design it in such a way that your device does not impede the function of the equipment - i.e. to fling a bullet downrange accurately. That means you can't throw a battery on the side and have done. The balance of the equipment must not be compromised. Most of the surfaces of the equipment are already committed - user grip, trigger operation, slider (keep in mind that the slider is a single hunk of metal that comes off the gun - you can't mount your device to it, as it's easily replaceable.) You cannot situate the device on top of the equipment, because that is where the user needs to see for aiming purposes. Below is no good - that's where the magazine goes. Obviously you can't put it in front. Just about the only available surface is the bottom of the barrel, which is highly non-indicated for balance purposes. In other words, you will have to completely design the equipment in a radically different fashion, which will make it visually distinctive (not a good thing in context) and quite possibly unattractive to large segments of the market, who will find it unaesthetic.

Other commenters have noted the power difficulty. Your device needs to function even if the equipment has been under a bed for five years with no maintenance.

When your device improperly authenticates, it will kill people. When it fails to properly authenticate the correct user, a significant percentage of the time the user or innocent bystanders will die. Since your design is perforce radically different from well-established principles of your industry, you may be held liable for -all- of those deaths. Further complicating the matter, if people believe your marketing, they may neglect to take reasonable steps to secure their equipment, leading to increased opportunities for failure. And, of course, a few failures will lead to the universal loss of confidence in your device, your company, and your investors.

Oh, and good luck with the resale market for your device...

Personally, I wouldn't want to design a shovel under those circumstances. A gun? Hell no.
2.26.2008 4:39am
wuzzagrunt (mail):
Assuming the engineering and reliability issues will one day be overcome (doubtful)--and asssuming product liability issues can be resolved to the satisfaction of manufacturers, consumers, and trial lawyers (HA!)--smart guns still present some knotty 4th Amendment concerns. Could police carry RFID readers, and match "hits" to a registration database? Would a hit on an unregistered firearm be grounds for a warrantless search? How much personal information would you be required to involuntarily broadcast to those in your immediate vicinity?

On the reliability front: it seems that it would be a fairly simple matter to jam an RFID transmitter to disable any and all weapons so equipped. Will police demand to use such technology in the interest of officer safety? It's a fairly safe bet that some criminals would use readers/jammers to identify/disable the firearms of potential victims, thereby making their job of stealing firearms much easier--to say nothing of other crimes they may have in mind.

There are a lot of concerns to be overcome...unless you are a gummint goon seeking an easier way to effect confiscation. Let's agree to let the police be the guinea pigs for a period of 10 years, before we mandate the technology for civilians. They get paid to take these risks, after all.
2.26.2008 5:33am
FantasiaWHT:
To borrow rule from the Harry Potter universe - just cast a spell that makes the gun only "open" to the first person who touches it! (Like the Golden Snitch)


I wonder if smart guns are a bit like the V-Chip or those little finger print readers appearing on laptops? Does anybody actually use either the V-Chip or the fingerprint reader?


I have a $2,000 + laptop with a fingerprint reader. The reader is completely worthless, it takes me 20 tries to get an acceptable scan to input into the system (3 times successively) and it takes even more to get it read properly after it's set up.
2.26.2008 8:47am
trainer (mail) (www):
This is one thing we've been keeping our eyes on. In the November 2006 update we noted:

Revised estimates of the time required for all parties to complete product engineering and obtain regulatory approvals means that a marketable 'Personalized Smartgun' product is unlikely to be available until at least late 2007

MetalStorm doesn't mention the project in it's CEOs message of this past August. The company seems to have a few hot items going on but it's stock has been sliding for years and now trades around $2. A search of their site give no hits for "smart gun".

NJIT's last update was a note that they got funding from the state in 2005.

Below are my posts on the subject. Plenty of links there for background and posts going back 3 years.

smart gun links
2.26.2008 9:10am
yankev (mail):
Let's say the technical problems (range, direction, disabling technology) are solved. Let's say you're willing to have the surgery. Let's say you can legally have a gun reprogrammed when you buy it so that it will match your existing implanted chip for the guns you already own.

What happens when you fly? Does TSA single me out for a pat-down (or more) each time you go through the metal detector? Same question when you enter the courthouse or other government building.

I can't take my 1.5" Swissh Army Knife into our state Supreme Court Library, even though the biggest security risk it poses is a bad manicure. Anyone who sets off a gun user alarm is faces the prospect of constant nightmares at any security sites, even if he is not armed.
2.26.2008 9:46am
Houston Lawyer:
Being able to get that first shot off without a hitch is of supreme importance. Anyone who has attempted to fire a gun while its safety is on can attest to this.

I have two SIG pistols and neither has a safety setting. They have a 10 lb pull on the double action trigger, but no other mechanical safety.

The safe gun concept should be withheld until we get hand held lasers for self defense.
2.26.2008 10:01am
Sebastian (mail) (www):
I have no issue with smart gun technology per se, as long as it's allowed to succeed or fail on its own merits in the free market. New Jersey is the only state, so far, to pass a requirement that once a smart gun is available (determination to be made by the Attorney General) then that's the only type of gun that will be permitted to be sold in The Garden State. The police got themselves a special exemption from this general rule, though the law does permit the AG to make the determination for police as well.

The root problem with smart gun technology is that it will by necessity rely on electromechanical devices, which have the problem of relying on batteries, which can go dead. If I were instructing someone on self-defense with a firearm, I would be very unlikely to recommend a smart gun, even for a home with children, precisely because of the possibility of batteries going dead in something you'd be counting on to save your life. It would be one thing if there weren't alternatives for keeping self-defense guns away from children, like the several models of quick-open safes that are available on the market, but given that these alternatives exist, a smart gun will almost always be an inferior solution.

Mechanical firing mechanisms can be as reliable as the metal they are made out of. You'll never be able to match that reliability with an electromechanical mechanism. The industry has tried rifles that used completely electronic/electric ignition systems, and they failed. As much as I would not want to rely on smart gun technology to save my life, it also would not rely on it to protect children from gun accidents. Firearms are inherently dangerous, and should be treated as such by their user. There is no technology that should make a user feel that a loaded firearm is inherently safe. The standard precautions would still be warranted.
2.26.2008 10:47am
DonP (mail):
Us "Gunnies" are a fickle and capricious lot with very long memories.

The Smart Gun technoloigy, as previously noted, is a delaying tactic for gun control advocates. It (NJ for instance) generally requires citizens to buy them by a set date but does not require law enforcement to use the same technology. So their expressed concerns about police getting shot by their own duty weapon is a farce at best.

The Brady group Loves Smart Gun technology for ordinary citrizens because they know that it's not even close to available and fewer guns will be sold if it gets passed as another "common sense" gun law by a Democratic majority and signed by a Democratic White House.

But, FWIW, when Smith &Wesson signed on to Clinton's "common sense" gun control package the consumers of guns stopped buying them literallly overnight, retailers removed much of their existing S&W stock from their shelves and sent it back to their wholesalers. As a result S&W collapsed and the brand was resold to an American venture capital group. Taurus became a go-to manufacturer of wheel guns that came from almost nowhere in Brazil to become the major player they are today.

S&W incurred the wrath and mistrust of the Gunnie world and today spends hundreds of thousands of $ on ads and sponsorship programs to earn that trust back by emphasizing they are a new S&W with new US management committed to the shooting sports.

Heck, Bill Ruger himself (God rest his soul) made Ruger sales plunge for several years when he came out and said; "No one really needs a magazine that holds over 10 rounds".

Nobody that knows anything about the shooting sports or self-defense takes the idea of Smart Gun technology seriously.

Are you willing to put your life or the lives of your family members at risk by trusting that the battery in your smart gun is OK, that the fingerprint, Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring or whatever technology they come along with, is working fine today?

You can answer that later if your computer didn't crash or if your cell phone didn't drop a call or if your blackberry network is up and running. Just trust the technology with your life, I'm sure the criminals will.

Of course I could be wrong ... Nah!
2.26.2008 11:37am
Dave in Alexandria (mail):
Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the Violence Policy Center opposed to smart guns? It seems to me that their reasoning was something along the lines of, "If it really works, then people who have never owned a gun will want one."
Sounds like the VPC isn't so much opposed to violence as to guns.
2.26.2008 11:41am
Spartacus (www):
The magnetic ring method had about a 95% success rate under stressful conditions when tested.

1/20 chance of failure in a life or death situation is unacceptable. Howabout a seat belt or fire extinguisher that fails 5% of ther time? I don't think so.
2.26.2008 11:45am
U.Va. 2L:
I think it's fair to say: (A) that the gun industry DOES have an incentive to develop reliable "smart guns." People would buy them--some repeat customers, some first-time gun buyers. (B) No known technology (or combination of technologies) provides an adequate solution. Nevertheless, I don't think we should think it's impossible or will never happen. How many technological advances have we seen in the past 50 years alone that would have been thought impossible in the first half of the 20th century?

I final point to keep in mind is not whether a "smart gun" would be "reliable," but whether it would be "reliable enough."

@MXE: "Now, consider your Glock, Prof. Volokh -- famous for passing the "Glock test" that involves being frozen in ice, run over by a truck, buried in sand, stripped and degreased, and then fired a few thousand times without a failure. Think a gun with all that fingerprint jazz in it would survive that kind of punishment? Zero chance."

Maybe, maybe not. I wouldn't be the least surprised if we had "smart Glocks" in 50 years. ... Obviously, passing the "Glock test" is cool. But, how important is that? If I'm buying a gun to keep in my home for self-defense, wouldn't the relevant consideration be whether the gun could sit in a drawer for years and then be fired quickly and easily? I don't know about you, but I don't usually freeze my stuff in ice, run it over with my car, bury it in stand, or strip and degrease it.

I think for the average homeowner interested in self-defense, a gun that worked reliably when not abused and which unauthorized users (e.g., the kids) could not use would be much more valuable than a gun that could be fired after being ridiculously abused.
2.26.2008 11:50am
Sebastian (mail) (www):
I wouldn't be so foolish to suggest technology will never advance to the point where a reliable smart gun could be made, but the battery issue is going to be pretty fundamental, even if the electronic and electromechanical parts can be made to function nearly flawlessly. To some degree, I think the smart gun is a solution in search of a problem for homeowners interested in keeping firearms for self-defense. Gun accidents are very rare, and even more rare among responsible owners. There are plenty of good options for securing a firearm, but keeping it ready for self-defense, that defeat the problem of children getting access.

The demographic most likely to benefit would be police officers, but for that the technology will have to be flawlessly reliable, and even in police work, there are methods for preventing an adversary from getting control of your firearm. The only state in the nation to pass a smart gun law exempted police, which give you an idea how they feel about the technology in its current state.

My main fear in all this is that once smart guns are available, without even having to work all that well, the gun control folks will force this technology on us by law, without giving it a chance to succeed for fail in the market. Hell, they already did it in one state where it was politically feasible, and it's still at the pipe dream stage at this point.
2.26.2008 12:17pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
In horse racing, the starting gate is set to open unless a current is detected; this prevents horses from getting stuck in the gate while they try to get it to work.

Similarly, a smart gun is actually pretty easy-- you set it to fire with any finger on the trigger, unless the system detects that the finger is not that of the owner. Then, you'll never have the problem of it not firing when you need it; if there is a malfunction, it will be one that allows someone else to fire it as well.

Suffice to say, I have no idea why such a gun isn't available.
2.26.2008 12:29pm
MXE (mail):
Suffice to say, I have no idea why such a gun isn't available.

This is a serious question: you're being sarcastic, right?

How many technological advances have we seen in the past 50 years alone that would have been thought impossible in the first half of the 20th century? [...] I wouldn't be the least surprised if we had "smart Glocks" in 50 years. [...] Obviously, passing the "Glock test" is cool. But, how important is that?

Your point is trivially true, but it completely changes the scope of the debate. In 50 years we could have sapient artificial intelligence, a cure for cancer, radical life extension technology, a colony on Mars. Who cares? I'd laugh in the face of any state legislature that tried to make a political issue out of the near-term introduction of any of these technologies into basic consumer goods. Wouldn't you?

Anyone, repeat anyone in the gun control world who is talking about smart guns is hoping to have them introduced and mandated in the relatively near future, not daydreaming along the lines of, "Well, sure it seems impossible now, but flying to the moon seemed impossible 100 years ago, imagine the amazing places technology could take gun control in the next century," some kind of paean to human ingenuity.

As for whether full-on Glock reliability is needed for a home self-defense piece, not really. The point is to illustrate the difference in ruggedness between guns and electronic consumer products (which guns would be if you slapped in a fingerprint reader and a battery and an electric safety). The reliability issues have been discussed at length elsewhere in the thread with no reference to the Glock test in particular.
2.26.2008 12:55pm
Aultimer:
I recall some discussion around the implantable VeriChip RFID device that RFID jewelry (like a ring or watch/ bracelet) could achieve the much of thesame functionality without many of the concerns raised by implantation. Jewelry seems like a particularly good solution for smart weapons, although the tradeoff of securing the jewelry token(s) might be too much for some.
2.26.2008 1:06pm
gasman (mail):

Radom P-64 has a 27 pound double action trigger. Pretty much kid proof. I have gun proofed my kid just in case but insurance is nice.

Gun proofed your kid? What does that mean, cut his fingers off? There is no gun education program that can show it will lessen the little bugger's interest in playing with daddy's toy.
2.26.2008 1:06pm
john w. (mail):
I'm coming in late to the discussion, and probably just echoing what others have said, but I think that E.V.'s initial comment about gun mfgrs having a strong incentive to develop the technology is flat-out incorrect for the simple reason that their core customers have no reason to want this technology.

As the owner of a self-defense gun, I want just one thing: A 99.9999+ percent probability that, when I pull the trigger, I will hear a 'BANG' and not a 'click.'

The existing, 100-year old, low-tech technology comes pretty close to delivering that level of confidence, and any 'smart-gun' innovations are only going to lower the probability of firing; so why take the chance?

Even if the probability of a successful firing is 'only' reduced from, say, 99.9999 to 99.9998; that's logically equivalent to doubling the rate of mis-fires. Why risk it? If you're worried about your kids, keep your gun in a safe -- or, better yet, take your kids to the firing range and educate them on safe firearms handling at an early age.

The fact that the police, who are at the greatest risk of having their guns used against them, don't want anything to do with 'smart-gun' technology says it all.
2.26.2008 1:21pm
JKB:
This technology will never be sufficient. First is time to validate, in a life or death situation, ten seconds can literally be a lifetime. So without instantaneous validation, i.e., nanoseconds, the firearm will not be useful as a defense weapon. It must validate an individual who is stressed, sweating, shaking, dirty, gloved, bandaged, constantly moving their fingers, etc in less than a second.

Second, failure must be into operating mode otherwise the firearm isn't something to use for self defense. This would facilitate circumvention by the "children" as all that must be done is to pull the battery or somehow cause the validation system to fail in its instantaneous test. Failure to a non-working mode would render the weapon dangerous for defensive purposes as you would attempt to use a gun and find you had only a club. And you would not discover this until you were in open confrontation with the assailant. Think firedoors, they must always be able to be opened from the inside lest people be trapped inside.

Third, any system must be able to work reliable for decades while being exposed to firing, which causes violent motion due to recoil, creates dirty debris due to blowback and requires the use of solvents and oils to clean and maintain afterwards. Not to mention, abuse due to dropping, lack of routine care, spills, and humidity.

Any failure of this would turn off serious buyers who wanted a weapon for reliable self defense. In addition, any government mandated smart weapon would negate any right to keep a reliable firearm for self defense, render the weapon susceptible to governmental interference, i.e., disabling codes or jamming, negating the firearms usefulness as a tool against tyranny.
2.26.2008 1:31pm
john w. (mail):
" ... susceptible to governmental interference, i.e., disabling codes or jamming, negating the firearms usefulness ..."

Not just governmental interference. How long do you suppose it would take for some clever criminal to figure out a way to jam the homeowners' guns, or even the policemen's guns, while leaving their own weapons still functional?
2.26.2008 1:39pm
WHOI Jacket:
I was "gun-proofed" as a kid. My grandfather took me skeet shooting numerous times at his ranch starting when I was 10. Learned at always point at the ground or sky, check the safeties, check to see if it was loaded/unloaded, etc. Man, I loved that 20 gauge. I got the Rifle and shotgun merit badges from the Boy Scouts later on.

The idea is that if your kids don't think of your guns as that "cool mysterious thing Mom/Dad keeps hidden and away", they are far less likely to fiddle/misuse.
2.26.2008 1:46pm
lurker-999 (mail):
Hypothetical question:
You're looking for a self-defense gun, and you go into the gunshop, and there are two models for sale at the same price. One is a shiny new 'smart-gun' with little labels that say "Intel Inside" and "Software by Microsoft." The other is a slightly rusted Colt 1911 with most of the blueing worn away and a cracked grip. Which one would you buy?

'Nuff said.
2.26.2008 1:55pm
Vinnie (mail):
Gun proofed your kid? What does that mean, cut his fingers off? There is no gun education program that can show it will lessen the little bugger's interest in playing with daddy's toy.

Why would I lessen his interest? He can touch any gun any timeThat I am helping him. If the weather is good this could even lead to a trip to the range and even more work on the four rules of handling guns.
This robs guns of their mystery.
2.26.2008 2:09pm
Joe Bingham (mail):
Interesting note: this technology features prominently in Shoot Em Up, a very fun, very pro-gun-control movie. The guns in the movie use fingerprint technology. Clive Owen's character solves the problem by cutting off a bad guy's thumb to hold against the print-detecting pad. Good times.
2.26.2008 2:17pm
zippypinhead:
LOL! There's no such thing as a "gun-proofed kid."

I'm a Scoutmaster. Have worked with boys in the Scouting program for over a decade. Helped a lot of them earn the Rifle Merit Badge, including my own sons. Yes, the Scouts I've worked with know basic firearms handling and safety. Hopefully know to respect firearms as useful, but potentially dangerous, tools. And frankly, these boys are often "the best and the brightest" of their peer group (Boy Scouting tends to be a bit self-selecting that way, especially for kids who like the program enough to stay in to Eagle or Life rank).

But I'm also cursed with having a J.D. and having been awake in torts class the day we studied the "attractive nuisance doctrine." These boys are also adolescents. At times moody, impulsive, and prone to not fully thinking through the consequences of their actions. It's a basic matter of brain physiology -- the impulse control centers aren't fully developed in pre-teens and teenagers. There's a reason the auto insurance rates for 16-year old drivers are so high. And why Boy Scouting prohibits firearms use except on approved ranges under close supervision of certified instructors. And why I keep my guns locked, and make sure my sons don't know how to open the safe.

If there were no kids in my home, I might make a different decision. And there's the problem with mandatory inaccessibility/disassembly laws like the D.C. ordinance being challenged in Heller -- everyone's situation is different. Just like how "smart guns" may be smart for some people, but not for others.
2.26.2008 3:19pm
steveH (mail):

Similarly, a smart gun is actually pretty easy-- you set it to fire with any finger on the trigger, unless the system detects that the finger is not that of the owner. Then, you'll never have the problem of it not firing when you need it; if there is a malfunction, it will be one that allows someone else to fire it as well.


So just let the battery die, and it's no different from an existing gun.

Actually, it's worse, since it won't work for you if the mechanism functions, but comes up with a false negative on your finger.

Some bureaucrat will probably like it, though.
2.26.2008 4:43pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
So just let the battery die, and it's no different from an existing gun.

Actually, it's worse, since it won't work for you if the mechanism functions, but comes up with a false negative on your finger.

Some bureaucrat will probably like it, though.


You don't understand. There's ways to design things so that there is no chance of a false negative.

Simply put, you set the gun to fire unless a circuit is completed that locks it up. The circuit only gets completed if a finger is placed on the gun that the device is definitely able to detect as being other than that of the owner. If there's any doubt, the device is set to not complete the circuit.

I am not arguing the issue of gun control here-- I am strongly inclined to say that the government should NOT be able to force you to buy such a gun. But the belief that it is impossible to manufacture a gun where false negatives will not occur is an incorrect belief.
2.26.2008 6:25pm
mekender (mail) (www):
i cant believe that no one has yet mentioned that any and all of these technologies has to withstand immense pressures and repeated stresses the likes of which are rarely seen outside of the gun world...

i bought a brand new 9mm on the 1st of feb, after 400rds, the top of the barrel block has a 1mm deformation in it from the slide slapping the barrel... also both the front and rear sights have moved themselves almost 2mm to the left...

keep in mind that 400 rounds is BARELY enough testing to consider a gun 100% reliable in most self defense instructors eyes...

think of it this way... imagine a computer/mechanical/electrical device embedded in a baseball that was 100% reliable after being thrown up against a brick wall 400 times?

and what about competition shooters? i know guys that shoot upwards of 5,000 rounds a month... so far as i know, there is NO electrical device that can withstand that... hell most guns cant handle that much abuse, but these laws would make no exceptions for competition guns...

all of this is not counting the numerous examples where gun owners are hurt or disabled and a second person uses their gun to save both lives? hell ive even seen cases where cops were fighting a suspect and a bystander used the cops gun to stop the situation...

also, a lot of the proposals ive seen would include provisions that would make it to where the so called "smart technology" would be used as a form of childproofing, because in most of the anti-gunners eyes, a child is never an authorized user... as a father of three, i can assure you that my oldest one (9 years old) is at least 10 times safer with a gun than your average cop... he shoots with me all the time, he actually is a better shot than his old man... so in a situation where i am not home, he is completely unable to defend himself... no matter that it is already mandated by law that he is defenseless, what you are proposing is that it would be mandated by a technological block too...

in all, the technology is a really good way to get innocent people killed by technology that they think will save them
2.26.2008 9:06pm
BladeDoc (mail):

and what about competition shooters? i know guys that shoot upwards of 5,000 rounds a month... so far as i know, there is NO electrical device that can withstand that... hell most guns cant handle that much abuse, but these laws would make no exceptions for competition guns...


I was at an IDPA match two weeks ago and my friend (CFP master class) was pissed off b/c his competition gun had a FTF -- he calculated how many rounds he had through the weapon and rounded off to 500,000 (he has replaced a barrel or two). John Browning RIP.
2.26.2008 10:11pm
wuzzagrunt (mail):
Dilan wrote:

You don't understand. There's ways to design things so that there is no chance of a false negative.

Simply put, you set the gun to fire unless a circuit is completed that locks it up. The circuit only gets completed if a finger is placed on the gun that the device is definitely able to detect as being other than that of the owner. If there's any doubt, the device is set to not complete the circuit.

So you develop a complex, expensive, and potentially unreliable safety technology that can be defeated by an unauthorized user wearing a 3¢ latex exam glove. If there's a point to all that, I must admit it has eluded me.
2.26.2008 10:18pm
David W. Hess (mail):
steveH, the point was that it would be better to have the firearm fail to a working state when the battery goes dead. That does not solve the false positive or false negative problem of course.

Authentication problems come down to something you are (fingerprint,DNA), something you know (PIN, password), and something you have (key, passcard). Baring an unexpected breakthrough, something you are will not be feasible in the foreseeable future for both complexity and reliability reasons. Something you know might work in place of a trigger lock or gun safe but not in any application where immediate action is required. Something you have (ring, implant, dongle) is the best bet using an RF inquiry and acknowledgment scheme however it will need to be resistant to RF countermeasures and be reliable. Even the last will not be a sure fire (sorry) method because distinguishing who is holding a pistol during a struggle would be next to impossible.
2.26.2008 10:35pm
juris_imprudent (mail):
But the belief that it is impossible to manufacture a gun where false negatives will not occur is an incorrect belief.

Only if you design so that the default is to operate, which is NOT the aim of a smart gun. The entire premise is that it only operates upon authentication, not as the default condition. If I really want something useless on my gun, I can mount an MP3 player on the accessory rail.
2.26.2008 11:11pm
Sebastian (mail) (www):
Simply put, you set the gun to fire unless a circuit is completed that locks it up. The circuit only gets completed if a finger is placed on the gun that the device is definitely able to detect as being other than that of the owner. If there's any doubt, the device is set to not complete the circuit.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess you're not an engineer. This would probably be the worst possible design, because basically your marketing a "smart gun" that has a failure mode of being a normal gun. There are so many ways this could end badly, it's not even funny.

How do you detect whether the finger is the finger of the owner? That's the hard part. We know how to make electromechanical mechanisms to engage or disengage a safety (though, we can't make them reliable enough to operate under the kind of abuse a gun has to take yet). Most solutions to date have used magnetism or radio, which are both prone to jamming. It's a very very difficult engineering problem to get a reliable instant finger print read and match in a lot of different circumstances. Even if you could, what if the person cut their finger the day before? Or burned it?

For now the technology is absolutely a pipe dream
2.27.2008 12:47am
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
Sebastian and wuzza:

No I am not an engineer. But this is the technology that has been used in horse racing starting gates since 1940, so I would say that it is a lot more reliable than you guys are positing.

At bottom, this is not about technology, but ideology. You guys don't want to admit a smart gun might work, because you are afraid that the government might make you use one. This is one reason (besides constitutional text) I support the individual right to bear arms; taking certain gun controls off the table might make you guys be a little less paranoid about everyone taking away your guns and then we can have an actual conversation about ways to improve guns.
2.27.2008 3:53pm
wuzzagrunt (mail):
I've seen enough "impossible" technology in my lifetime to deny that smart guns will one day be a reality. If you want to educate Luddites, then convince Obama and Kerry that missile defense technology will be viable someday soon. If smart gun technology becomes available, and its adoption is voluntary, then I have zero problem with it.

I see 4th Amendment and (potential) 5th Amendment problems with mandating any kind of user ID technology conceivable with the science of today. To say nothing of 2nd Amendment problems. The anti-gun bunnies have a long history of using any and all forms of subterfuge and misdirection to accomplish their hoped-for gun free utopia. It'll take a lot more than a SCOTUS decision affirming the 2A as an individual right before I will purchase a gun with a locator beacon and a remote shutoff switch. I didn't just fall of the turnip truck, ya know.

Smart gun technology is a solution, in search of a problem.
2.27.2008 4:49pm
Deoxy (mail):
But this is the technology that has been used in horse racing starting gates since 1940, so I would say that it is a lot more reliable than you guys are positing.

The problm is that you are describing a "fail to positive" system, which is actually beyond useless and actively harmful. A "fail to positive" system is ridiculously easy to subvert - you just get the system to fail, and you've got a working gun.

That you are comparing this to horse racing, a competitive sport with rules everyone must follow upon pain of disqualification, simply shows how out-of-touch you are with the basic concepts and requirements.
2.27.2008 5:23pm
markm (mail):
steveH, the point was that it would be better to have the firearm fail to a working state when the battery goes dead.

So just by removing the battery, it becomes an ordinary gun. It's not child-proof, nor resistant to being used by criminals if a burglar finds it. Sounds like an expensive useless add-on to me - except for the specific case of police officers, who would gain a few seconds when their own guns were wrested from them.
2.28.2008 7:13am