PJ Media

Why no 'Childproof' Guns? Technology the Barrier, not NRA

In 1997, Congress finally shut off the use of Centers for Disease Control (CDC) funds “to advocate or promote gun control.” That prohibition has held until recently. Timothy Wheeler at the National Review reports:

In 1863 President Lincoln signed a congressional charter creating the National Academy of Sciences. Now, 150 years later, President Obama is enlisting NAS to implement an item in his January 16 plan to change the lives of America’s 100 million gun owners. He has directed the Centers for Disease Control to resume research on gun injuries and deaths, and the NAS’s Institute of Medicine (IOM) convened a public workshop last week specifically tasked with shaping the direction of the CDC’s firearm research.

One of the primary avenues of renewed CDC anti-gun advocacy was previewed at the workshop by National Institute of Justice director Greg Ridgeway:

Ridgeway put the audience on notice that his agency has made research into user-authenticated guns — which can be fired only by the designated lawful owner — a priority.

Joe Nocera of the New York Times also jumped on the “safe gun” bandwagon. In an op-ed titled “Saving Children From Guns,” he asks:

So why can’t we childproof guns? In an age of technological wizardry not to mention a time of deep sensitivity to the welfare of children — why can’t we come up with a technology that would keep a gun from going off when it is being held by a child? Or, for that matter, by a thief using a stolen gun? Or an angry teenager who is plotting to use his parents’ arsenal to wreak havoc in a mall?

Nocera obviously believes his questions to be rhetorical, their answers self-evident. He informs readers that the technology already exists, but its mandatory and widespread use is being thwarted by the usual suspects — “the National Rifle Association and gun absolutists,” and “pro-gun bloggers.”

Nocera is not alone. Rep. John Tierney (D-MA) has introduced a bill in Congress that would require smart guns for all:

Under his bill, guns made in the United States would have to be built with this technology two years after the bill becomes law. Older guns being sold by a business or individual would have to be retrofitted with this technology after three years.

Well-meaning as they may be, Nocera and Tierney are 40 years behind the state of the art in technology, obviously know nothing of firearms, and are ignoring human nature.

Research into so-called “safe gun technology” that would prevent a weapon from being fired by anyone but its programmed owner has been fitfully underway since the 1970s. The police comprise the largest and most enthusiastic potential market for this technology, however — despite a variety of technologies — not a single law enforcement agency has ever adopted these “smart guns,” which are actually quite stupid and don’t exist in any commercially viable form despite being researched by firearm giants such as Colt.

Early attempts focused on compatible magnets, one in the grip of a handgun and one embedded in a ring worn by the shooter. They had the advantage of relative simplicity. Unfortunately, if the ring shifted on the finger, it wouldn’t work, and wearing gloves also interfered. Weak-hand shooting was impossible absent a large ring on both hands. Law enforcement soured on this technology because of the realization that all a criminal needed to do to use one of these firearms was to steal it and the ring, or to simply carry a magnet.

The next technology — one that is still being investigated — is nothing more complex in theory than radio transmitters and receivers. Miniaturized systems are feasible in terms of size and space. A radio receiver is embedded in a handgun with a transmitter coded to that receiver carried by the shooter. Both receiver and transmitter must be battery-powered.

The problems with this technology — uncritically touted by Mr. Nocera — are legion. Radio transmitters use enormous amounts of battery power. Batteries small enough to be carried in a firearm have limited capacity, and must be constantly on, rapidly draining. If a battery fails — and all batteries fail in cold enough weather — the gun won’t fire. Additionally, there can be no lag at all between need and response, so a power-saving “sleep” mode to try to save battery power is impractical.

Early attempts with the technology made clear the problem of radio frequency interference. Radio sources abound, and since the widespread proliferation of cell phones, the problem has become more complex. And, as with magnetic technologies, criminals can use the weapons simply by stealing the gun and transmitter, or by scanning for and spoofing the correct frequencies, technology already used by criminals to open contemporary car and garage doors.

Cost is, unsurprisingly, a significant factor. The more advanced the technology and the smaller the market, the greater the price, adding potentially hundreds of dollars to the cost of already costly weapons.

Law enforcement has also never been able to get beyond another insurmountable problem: it is not at all hard to imagine circumstances in which a officer would need to fire a fellow officer’s gun.

The same is true for citizens, such as a wife needing to use her husband’s gun. Anything that would interfere would cost lives. Any gun that only a single person may fire is a very limited and expensive gun.

Mr. Nocera and Rep. Tierney are entranced by Hollywood technologies, and denigrate the supporters of freedom:

Pro-gun bloggers were furious when they saw James Bond, in Skyfall, proudly showing off his new biometrically protected weapon. They were convinced it was a Hollywood plot to undermine their rights.

Tierney is proud to announce that his legislation was inspired by Skyfall, but what Tierney and Nocera apparently fail to understand is that such methods — that read fingerprints, sense DNA, or some other exotic technology — exist primarily in the minds of screenwriters. This frustrates those that actually understand firearm technology. Bond’s Walther PPK’s grip was supposed to read his biometrics via contact with his hand, yet in at least one scene in the film, he was handling the weapon while wearing gloves. One can get away with such lapses in a script, but in reality, they’re deadly.

Another likely insurmountable problem — at least with contemporary technology — is that all safe-gun systems have failed to display the necessary ruggedness. The mere act of firing the gun has been sufficient to damage some, and others have failed as a result of the conditions — heat, cold, sweat, water, mud, impact shock and more — under which police firearms, and the firearms owned by citizens, must operate.

The ultimate problem is that firearms, particularly those used for self-defense, must work with 100% reliability. If a weapon can’t be relied upon to fire when the trigger is pulled, it is more dangerous to its user than to the attacker. This is ultimately why law enforcement has not adopted these technologies.

As one might imagine, the CDC isn’t the only federal agency involved:

Last week, there were two important meetings about gun personalization technology. On March 13, in Washington, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. met with several dozen advocates, including Sebastian and Stephen Teret, the co-director of the Center for Law and the Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. The purpose of the meeting was to get Holder up to speed on the technologies so he could make recommendations to President Obama.

Tierney and Nocera’s point of view assumes that firearms are a net detriment to society, that if there were fewer firearms, and if those remaining could be used only under highly restricted circumstances such as magazine capacity limits, gun-free zones, “assault weapon” bans, and “safe” guns, society would benefit. As Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden have said, if only one child is saved, we must do whatever they want to deprive citizens of their Second Amendment rights.

Again, reality is quite different. Firearms are used far more often to save lives — usually without a shot fired — than for nefarious purposes: from 2.3 to 2.5 million times per year. Despite the presence of more firearms in private hands than at any time in history — around 300 million, with about 10 million added per year — firearm accidents are at historically low levels: 0.2 per 100,000 in population, which is down 94% since the 1904 all-time high.

In fact, firearms are far down the list in numbers of accidental deaths:

Firearms are involved in 0.5% of accidental deaths nationally, compared to motor vehicles (29%), poisoning (27%), falls (21%), suffocation (5%), drowning (3%), fires (2%), medical mistakes (1.7%), environmental factors (1.3%), and pedal cycles (0.6%). Among children: motor vehicles (34%), suffocation (27%), drowning (17%), fires (7%), environmental factors (2.3%), poisoning (2.2%), falls (1.5%), firearm (1.5), pedal cycles (1.4%), and medical mistakes (1.3%).

Mr. Nocera also assumes there are absolute solutions for problems that are driven by human nature and that these solutions are legislative in nature. He wrote (prior to Tierney’s bill):

Congress has been hopeless and then some, unable to even work up the courage to vote on an assault weapons ban for fear of offending gun owners. … It took years, after all, for Congress to overcome the car industry’s resistance to air bags, ultimately requiring a law that made air bags mandatory.

Congress once cared enough about the safety of its citizens to pass laws about air bags and childproof bottles. We’ll soon find out if it still cares enough about the safety of its constituents to make childproofing guns the law of the land. It should.

The regulation of motor vehicles and medicine containers is possible and constitutional because the infringement of a fundamental constitutional right is not involved. Driving is a privilege, not a right, and so is car ownership. But even so, there are unintended consequences to even these safety mandates. Air bags and “childproof” pill bottles have actually caused people to be less careful, resulting in more accidents.

Congress is indeed afraid of “offending gun owners,” and that’s a good thing as gun owners insist Congress uphold and defend the Constitution, a document about which many in that august institution seem never to have heard. In addition, as ownership of so-called “assault weapons” has dramatically increased, violent crime has been cut in half, and semiautomatic rifles — which is what Nocera is actually talking about — have been used in only 1% to 2% of violent crimes.

Finally, Tierney and Nocera apparently didn’t watch all of Skyfall, for later in the movie, Bond escapes a death trap by relieving a villain of his gun and shooting a brace of cutthroats. If Tierney and Nocera had their way, James Bond would be dead — the “safe” gun he grabbed would have been non-functional — and the Bond franchise would have suffered an untimely demise.

Why aren’t guns “childproofed” as Rep. Tierney and Mr. Nocera demand? The necessarily reliable technology doesn’t exist. One would think the “newspaper of record” and a member of Congress would be capable of telling fact from fiction, but it seems James Bond’s Walther is as poorly grounded in reality as the New York Times and Congress.