The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
I think "smart guns"—guns that can be used only by their authorized owner, perhaps because they use some radio transponder that reacts to a special ring that the owner wears, or possibly even fingerprint recognition—could be an excellent development. They could prevent many of the 100 or so fatal gun accidents involving kids that happen each year in the United States, and the greater number of nonfatal gun accidents. They could also help gun owners who have children keep their guns more easily accessible; better a smart gun in the nightstand than a conventional gun that you feel you have to lock up. They could prevent a gun from being used against its owner by an attacker. And they might help decrease gun theft.
But what worries me (and what leads me to be skeptical about calls to require that all new guns sold be smart guns) is reliability. I don't want a gun whose radio reception or fingerprint recognition fails when I need it most. (See also this post about "smart guns" and electromagnetic pulse.) And I certainly don't want a gun that hackers can turn off.
That's why stories such as this one at Wired (by Andy Greenberg), written about the allegedly smart Armatix P1 (which is controlled by a watch that the owner must wear), are so concerning (and see also the video embedded in the story):
[Hacker] Plore showed that … [h]e can jam the gun's radio signals to prevent its owner from firing it—even when the watch is inches away and connected.
Not a property you want in a "smart" gun. Nor do you want the gun to be fired by people who aren't wearing the control device, especially given that many people will rely on the gun's supposed "smartness" and take fewer other protective measures. Yet Plore also found that:
[H]e can extend the range of the watch's radio signal, allowing anyone to fire the gun when it's more than ten feet away…. And most disturbingly, he can mechanically disable the gun's locking mechanism by placing some cheap magnets alongside its barrel, firing the gun at will even when the watch is completely absent.
Plore notes that unlike many gun owners, he's not opposed to the principle of a gun with added layers of electronic authentication…. [But he says,] "If you buy one of these weapons thinking it'll be safer, it should be …. "In this case, it was so easily defeated, in so many ways, that it really failed to live up to its side of that bargain…. Misplaced trust is worse than no trust at all."
Of course, Plore is an unusually smart and knowledgeable researcher. But what he can do, others can copy; even if he is careful to omit certain specific details, others will be happy to distribute them (or sell them). The criminal who comes after you might be armed not just with a gun of his own but also with an off-the-shelf device that jams your gun so you can't use it.
Now this is true of this one particular gun, and it may well be that future smart guns will have much better security. But before we get too enthusiastic about the promise of this technology—and certainly before the law mandates any such technology—we ought to make sure that the smart gun is indeed reliable.