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.