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December 19, 2012

"Smart Gun Technology Could Have Blocked Adam Lanza"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Huffington Post commentary by David Shuster, which I view as a long-needed and welcome example of a new kind of discourse over gun control needed in the wake of the Newtown massacre.  Here are excerpts:

As our leaders begin the uncertain political debate over gun control, there is a simple and straightforward policy solution right now that would uphold gun owners' 2nd amendment rights and still keep our kids safer.  It's called "smart gun technology."

The system is similar to "smart technology" already in use for things like cars, iPhones and security doors.  A computer microchip measures the bio-metric details of the person attempting to activate the product. If the details match the rightful owner, the device is "enabled." If the details don't match, the device will not work or open.

Smart gun technology has been around for years. CBS News profiled a New Jersey institute that was perfecting it in 2009. Science Daily had a story about the emerging technology back in 2005,

The most reliable smart gun technology involves a grip recognition system.  There are 16 digital sensor chips embedded in the handle. The computerized sensors capture the unique pattern and pressure of your grip, plus the specific size of your hand.  If someone else tries to use the gun, the information will not match the stored pattern of the gun owner's — and the weapon will not fire....

[T]his technology, as well as similar versions involving fingerprint recognition, could be embedded in guns today.  But for years, the National Rifle Association has blocked these efforts, in part because they would make guns costlier to produce and purchase.  The NRA has also insisted that smart gun technology would infringe upon the Second Amendment. Constitutional experts say that argument is absurd.  The Constitution allows for all kinds of product regulations....

The best argument against smart gun technology is a logistical one. It could prevent a homeowner who wrestles away an intruder's gun from firing it back at them. I think we can agree, however, that such MacGyver-like situations are exceedingly rare.  And the fact is, 10 to 15 percent of guns used in home invasions, robberies and mass shootings are weapons that have been stolen.

Furthermore, smart gun technology allows for multiple biometric "identities" to be stored in one gun.  This would solve a problem for police or members of the military who may want to have the option of "sharing weapons."

In the case of the Connecticut massacre, is it possible that Adam Lanza's mother, a gun enthusiast who reportedly took her sons to the range, would have embedded Adam's biometric data on her weapons if that was possible?  Sure.  But family baby sitters have told reporters that Nancy Lanza repeatedly urged "caution" around Adam and was worried about his behavioral problems....

The weapons Adam Lanza relied on were not his. They belonged to his mother, the only person entitled to use them.  And while she may have taught her son how to fire the weapons at shooting ranges over the years, she was the sole owner of the weapons, not him.  If smart technology had been in place, the weapons would have likely been useless to Adam Lanza.

And that's the point. Congress and the President should begin their new effort at preventing mass shootings by mandating something that might have made a different in Newtown, Conn. — require smart gun technology in all weapons.  Just as our nation insists on basic quality standards for cars, houses, tools, air, water, and etc, insisting on basic features for all weapons that may be "fired" is perfectly reasonable.

It's not about taking guns away.  It's about making sure that guns can't be fired by anybody but their lawful owners.  Is that too much to ask?

As long-time readers know, I have been talking up smart-gun technology on this blog for years (examples here and here), and I have been sincerely hoping that the horrific shooting in Connecticut will start generating new and needed buzz on this encouraging front. This Huff Post commentary is a good start, and I sure hope the new leadership and initiatives coming from President Obama and VP Biden (basics here from the AP) will be focused like a laser on the potential pros and cons of smart guns.

Prior posts both old and new:

December 19, 2012 at 06:21 PM | Permalink


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The simple fact is that these technologies do not work. The stress placed on a gun and any attached technology is too great for something this sensitive. Colt spent millions developing a 'smart gun' but never fired it because the technology was too expensive and fragile. If it were practical, you'd see police departments doing it. Presently, none have used 'smart guns'.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Dec 19, 2012 6:47:47 PM

too expensive (at present maybe) and fragile (baloney)

Posted by: Raul | Dec 19, 2012 7:35:16 PM

This is literally too unspeakable, but there is this.

Uploaded on Mar 25, 2009


A psychiatrists (and Charlie Brooker's) insightful perspective on news coverage's perpetuation of mass shootings in schools.

The full version of this wondrous and though provoking programme is currently available in the UK via BBC iPlayer:

Posted by: George | Dec 19, 2012 7:41:27 PM

Please elaborate.

It's sad how people miss the fact that turning these people into grim celebrities causes more to follow them to murder. Weapons used by the military have been available since the 1930's (fully automatic, by mail and with no background check for many years) but large numbers of mass murderers like Lansa are a recent phenomenon.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Dec 19, 2012 10:24:30 PM

Smart guns are for technical illiterates. That includes most law professors.

Technology can almost always be circumvented or, more importantly, fail when needed most!!!

Posted by: albeed | Dec 19, 2012 10:59:42 PM

What a crock.

Its already trivially easy to secure firearms from unauthorized use.

If that's the goal, a cheap $10 gun lock, available at any sporting goods store, could accomplish the exact same thing as this as-to-date purely science fiction "biometric technology". The better locks are easy to use and actually fairly difficult to defeat

Many handguns now come with integral key locks that accomplish the exact same thing.

Of course gun banners don't like this "answer", because compared to James-Bond-movie biometrics, ordinary gun locks don't ridiculously increase the complexity and cost of manufacturing guns.

Posted by: looking closely | Dec 20, 2012 2:34:38 PM

What if you need your gun for legitimate reasons (self-defense, or even hunting) but your hands are wet/dirty/gloved, or you have to use your weak hand to fire for some reason, and the biometric device doesn't unlock the gun? That's one of the biggest concerns about this sort of thing. "Only" 98% reliability isn't good enough when lives are on the line, or even if a multi-thousand dollar hunt is on the line.

Even if this technology is perfectable (and again, its not even close to being there yet) all these "biometrics" just amount to another form of lock on a gun. Admittedly, a technologically fancy one, but a lock, nevertheless. Like any other, such a lock is a mechanical device that would ultimately be crackable by a dedicated hacker/gunsmith with the right knowledge and tools. Depending on design, it might even be trivially easy to defeat a lock like this.

Anyone legally able to obtain their own guns would still do so, and a biometric lock wouldn't prevent them from using the guns illegally. (EG Jared Loughner)

With enough work, someone able to acquire a locked gun biometrically coded to someone else would still be able to either crack the lock by themselves, or find someone else able to do it.

So this type of technology is never really going to prevent a dedicated criminal from getting their hands on a functional gun, even if it could magically could be applied to all guns. At *best* it might prevent a dropped, negligently misplaced, or stolen gun from being used *immediately* (say by a child or by an attacker who seizes a gun).

Of course, realistically, there are already hundreds of millions of "legacy" guns in the country that don't have this sci-fi technology installed. Since properly stored/maintained guns can literally remain functional for centuries, its unrealistic to think that adopting this technology would prevent criminal access to guns any time during the lifetime of anyone reading this post.

Add it up, and all this "biometrics" talk is still just a bunch of hot air. The point of these proposals isn't to keep guns from those with criminal intent, but mainly to massively increase their complexity and cost of guns, thereby decreasing their affordability and accessibility.

Posted by: looking closely | Dec 20, 2012 3:31:10 PM

Even if these biometric measures worked exactly as hoped, there is zero chance that they would be retroactively applied to the 300 million or so guns that already exist in the United States. Thus it's a stretch to say such "smart gun" technology would have stopped Lanza since the particular guns he used 1) already existed and 2) did not have "smarts". It's not very useful to say "IF every gun made in the last forty years had been made with biometric safeguards THEN Lanza would have been stopped" since the conditional is clearly not true.

Posted by: Carthago | Dec 20, 2012 4:17:16 PM


"Smart guns" show promise, but not readily available on U.S. market


Posted by: Raul | Dec 20, 2012 4:21:15 PM

Plenty of potential but no answer to the problem of reliability. It's sensitive electronics being subjected to tremendous shock and heat, sort of like slamming a laptop on the ground and sticking it in the microwave for 30 seconds and expecting it to work just as well as a brand new one. If you don't believe me then rent a gun at a range, fire a few hundred rounds down range and put your bare hand on the barrel for a minute. The layer of skin you'll leave behind will be the proof.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Dec 20, 2012 5:26:39 PM

I'm a recent law school graduate and I honestly feel Smart Gun Technology is the way to go. This debate we currently have on gun control is stagnant, with both sides vehemently staring at each other, but not accomplishing much. That's why i've made this petition, if anyone would at last check it out and pass it along that would be amazing.


Posted by: Carlos Q. | Dec 27, 2012 10:10:13 AM

Until they are reliable for the police and able to recognize the back-up officer whose gun jams as he reaches for his fallen comrade's gun to continue the fight, the gun will NOT be smart enough. As long as the POLICE aren't required to use the technology (because they know/believe it's untrustworthy), I won't.

BTW, what do you do about the 300,000,000 guns out there in the hands of people who loath "gun control"?

Posted by: 30yearProf | Dec 29, 2012 3:16:36 PM

The technology is there and has been used for years to start cars reliably 100s of thousands of times without problems another form of the technology is used regularly to track commercial parcels and military gear for years using RFID and UID chip tranducer technology try reading more and relying less on ill-informed excuses to stop viable safe solutions to this senseless deeds

Posted by: tito | Dec 30, 2012 5:15:31 PM

To suggest that any technology could've restricted someone like Adam Lanza from acquiring a firearm is ridiculous. When someone is willing to kill even their own mother to get a gun, there is likely no technological solution.

Technology is always evolving, however Apple Computer has spent billions of dollars developing the iPhone and the fingerprint recognition technology on my device works about half the time. That failure rate would be completely unacceptable when considering it's use in a defensive firearm. In fact, any firearms with that type of technology would not be used by the police or military unless the failure rates for those weapons were no greater than the failure rates for weapons without such technology.

Even if a very good solution already existed, it should be deployed within the police and military and tested there before being deployed in the civilian world.

If the police and military would not trust the technology with their lives, there is no way I would trust it with mine.

Posted by: TyrannyOfEvilMen | May 5, 2014 10:55:03 PM

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