The smart gun, a weapon that can only be fired by its owner or assigned user, is one of those gee-whiz technologies that many people believe could revolutionize the world like driverless cars, hypersonic jets, and autonomous humanoid robots. All of these technologies will probably be part of our lives sometime in the coming decades. But some people such as President Barack Obama, who announced in April a law enforcement smart gun initiative, are trying to rush smart guns into your duty holsters long before they are ready for duty.
Proponents of smart gun technology argue that it could reduce accidental shootings, the use of stolen firearms by criminals, and suicides, unless the suicidal person is using his or her own weapon. Most importantly, it's believed that smart guns would prevent deadly gun grab attacks against law enforcement officers. And that's of course a good thing that we at POLICE Magazine heartily support.
The problem with the push to develop smart gun systems and replace law enforcement duty weapons with firearms fitted with the technology is that it may do very little to prevent gun grabs and could make police operations even more dangerous. Worse, although proponents of developing smart weapons tout officer safety as a benefit, they may have far different agendas.
To understand why this particular cure for gun grabs may actually be worse than the disease, we have to take a look at the existing technologies for personalizing a firearm to a user or users.
Smart gun prototypes that have already been developed use radio frequency identification (RFID), magnetic locks, or biometrics to unlock their triggers and transform them from non-functional to functional. And all of them are likely to experience an unacceptable level of failure or authentication lag in a gunfight.
RFID and magnetic smart guns both require the shooter to wear an object such as a ring or watch to unlock the gun. In the RFID system a receiver in the gun picks up radio frequencies from the wearable object to identify the wearer as an authorized user of the firearm and unlocks the trigger. Magnetic systems use magnets to lock the trigger and the wearable acts as a key. These systems might work just fine on the range, but in actual operations they have numerous issues. They are electronic devices so they have to survive rain and dust and the shock produced by a firing handgun or they will fail. Also, the designers of these devices need to consider what happens in a gunfight and realize that the wearables that unlock the triggers in these systems could be damaged or even shot away from the user's body in combat.
Similar problems make biometric smart gun authentication less than practical on a defensive weapon. Smart gun advocates, including Obama, believe the same kinds of fingerprint scanners used on smartphones can be adapted for firearm authentication. Which is absurd. Half the time my iPhone fingerprint scanner doesn't work, sometimes because of a hair or dust. So I cringe to think about a similar technology on an officer's handgun when seconds count and there may not be time to wipe away the sweat, blood, water, and other fluids that might obscure it in a deadly force situation. Worse, even when the thing works there is a fraction of a second lag before it unlocks the phone. Fractions of seconds are really important in a shootout.
I firmly believe that eventually there may be a smart gun technology that works for law enforcement duty guns. But none of the current means of authentication used in smart guns is fail-safe enough to be practical on defensive weapons.
Maybe the inventors and designers will, because of the push from the Obama administration, create a viable smart gun that will eliminate the danger of gun grab attacks on officers. But I'm afraid the real deaths that the Obama administration is trying to prevent with its push for smart guns are those of so-called "unarmed" persons who try to take officers' pistols, not those of officers killed by such attacks.
No one on the anti-gun, anti-police side of politics seems to understand—or at least won't admit—that a gun grab is attempted murder. And now the same people fail to understand that the best way for people to prevent themselves from getting killed while grabbing an officer's gun is to not grab the officer's gun. Teaching people that lesson would save a lot more officer and suspect lives than any smart gun technology.