Electromagnetic Pulse and Smart Guns:

I blogged about this nearly six years ago, but I thought I'd mention it again, especially since I have to decide whether to mention this in my forthcoming article on how courts should implement the right to bear arms. I'd love to hear what people thought about this subject more generally, but in particular it would be useful for me to know: Do you think that a law review article section on the right to bear arms and "smart guns" mandates should mention these risks? Or are they the sorts of risks that are too low or too uncertain to consider in such analyses?

Assume that smart gun technology does really develop to the point where, setting aside the risk of electromagnetic pulse, a smart gun is roughly as reliable and as costly as a comparable purely mechanical gun. Also, let's focus solely on the right to keep and bear arms in self-defense, and set aside the right to keep and bear arms as a possible deterrence to government tyranny; to make my article manageable, I am focusing solely on the self-defense side (and even so I'm at over 80 pages).

In any case, here's the issue:

1. A high-altitude nuclear detonation can generate an electromagnetic pulse that will basically destroy unshielded electronic circuitry in line of sight — potentially over hundreds of thousands of square miles. There has also been talk of e-bombs, which are nonnuclear devices that could create an EMP over a much smaller area.

This, it turns out, is one of the little-known twists in the debate about "smart guns." Smart guns, in theory, would only be usable by their authorized owner. This would be done using some technology, likely chip-driven technology — possibly some radio transponder that reacts to a special ring that the owner wears, or possibly even fingerprint recognition (though that would have been mighty quick and reliable).

I don't support laws that mandate smart guns, chiefly because there's no reason to think that such guns will be reliable enough any time soon. But I certainly see the advantage of such guns, as a means of preventing the 100 or so fatal gun accidents and the greater number of nonfatal gun accidents involving kids that happen each year in the U.S.

If I had a child, and smart guns were reliable enough, I might well be willing to spend some extra money to get a smart gun instead of my current dumb guns. And if (as I asked you to assume) such smart guns became generally about as reliable and about as costly as ordinary guns, I think smart gun mandates might well be constitutional under the theory that they do not materially interfere with the right to keep and bear arms in self-defense. I'll have more to say with this sort of "substantial burden" inquiry when I blog about my article, but right now I'm too busy writing it to blog more extensively about it.

But the concern about electromagnetic pulses puts a different cast on things. Naturally, I don't expect an e-bomb being set off in L.A. any time soon; but I also don't expect a fatal gun accident in my house any time soon, since those are rare events, too. But I do know that there's a nontrivial chance that in my lifetime, there will be some terrorist or military attack on the place that I live. When that happens, there might well be serious social disruption caused by the attack, and extra need for me to be able to protect myself and my family. It would be just the wrong time to be armed with something that used to be a gun but that's now just an expensive lump of metal.

Naturally, this is just one cost that one has to consider — both in one's personal buying decisions and in deciding what the constitutional rule ought to be — and as I mentioned the benefits of smart guns, if they become highly reliable, are nontrivial. Moreover, the cost might be minimizable, for instance if the guns end up being properly shielded (though I understand that creating such shielding is not easy, which is one reason that e-bombs are potentially powerful weapons), or if the guns are set up so that when the "smart" technology fails, the result is a working dumb gun rather than an inoperable one.

But I don't think that we can just ignore this cost. We've generally lived our lives in environments of peace and civil order, but there's no guarantee that this will continue; in fact, judging by recent human history, there's reason to think that there's a significant (10%? 20%? who knows?) probability that at least some time in our lives, our homeland will be attacked, possibly with sophisticated anti-electronic weapons, and civil order will break down. And when that happens, we'll both be in special need of personal defense weapons, and in special need of personal defense weapons that haven't had their innards fried to a crisp.

2. When I blogged about this, Matthew Yglesias responded:

So let me ask again: Should considerations of such extraordinary threats, of an uncertain magnitude, be part of the policy analysis when it comes to smart gun mandates? Of the constitutional analysis?

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. One More Question About Speculation:
  2. Speculation and Policy Decisions:
  3. Electromagnetic Pulse and Smart Guns:

Speculation and Policy Decisions:

I much appreciate the comments in the Electromagnetic Pulse and Smart Guns thread, and I wanted to follow up on one question.

Some commenters -- and others I've talked about this subject -- suggested that it's not sound to make policy decisions based on this sort of speculation about the possibility of an EMP attack. (I set aside for purposes of this post whether one ought to speculate about the availability of smart guns; let's assume that smart guns become available and reliable, as the New Jersey conditional smart gun mandate law presupposes they will be. I also set aside whether smart gun mandates are prohibited by the Constitution even if it turns out they don't materially interfere with people's ability to keep and bear arms for self-defense; that will be the focus of more posts in a few weeks.)

Let me probe this speculation issue a little. The existence of EMP is not speculation: EMP, unlike sex-starved velociraptors, is quite real, as are nuclear bombs, as is EMP that goes much further than the bomb's kill radius. The speculation comes in guessing about the per-year probability that America would be subject to an EMP-generating (but not otherwise immediately lethal) nuclear attack.

But is such speculation really improper -- or even reasonably unavoidable -- when it comes to policy analysis? Imagine that there's a proposal to spend tax money to shield American infrastructure installations against EMP. I assume we wouldn't condemn it as inherently unsound because it's built on speculation about the likelihood of an EMP attack. Of course we could always debate whether it's worth spending the particular amount of money that's proposed, given other possible uses for the money (including lowering taxes as a possible use). But to resolve that debate, either in favor of spending on EMP shielding or against it, we'd have to speculate about the risk of an EMP attack.

Is there some inherent reason that such speculation is (1) proper for evaluating the merits of spending programs, but (2) not proper when evaluating the constitutionality of regulatory programs (in the course of determining whether the programs excessively burden the exercise of constitutional rights)?


One More Question About Speculation:

Say you're a mayor, and you're trying to decide whether to get smart guns for your city's police force. (Assume again that such guns do become at least as reliable as purely mechanical guns.)

There's an upside to such a decision: About 10 percent of all police officer shootings happen with the officer's own weapon (according to 1990s data). Sometimes the shooter might have his own weapon and might use the officer's weapon just to make tracing harder; but sometimes the shooter starts out unarmed and seizes the gun from the officer in a struggle. If the officer has a personalized gun, the officer's life could be saved.

But there's also a downside, and part of the downside is EMP risk: The last thing you want is for your police force to be entirely unarmed in case of an EMP attack and its aftermath. Do you take steps to try to protect against such risk, for instance by insisting that you only get smart guns if they operate in "work mechanically if the electronics fails" mode, or if they can be "dumbed down" using some simple mechanical toolkit that all officers in the field will have on them? Do you make sure that each police car has a mechanically locked purely mechanical gun just in case? (You can't just store such guns at the station, I think, given that officers may be stranded far from the station.) Do you do this even if the steps involve some modest expense, or some modest delay in getting the personalized gun?

Or do you not focus on the risk, because it's too speculative? If the answer is that such speculative risks should be ignored, would you likewise ignore the risk if you're deciding whether to spend city funds to harden some local infrastructure against EMP?