Why Obama’s Smart Gun Push Will Misfire

In the gun control wars that erupted again in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre and subsequent mass shootings, there is one technology that Silicon Valley tech cognoscenti, East Coast media types, and progressive politicians from across America have all settled on as a viable part of a long-term solution to the nation’s gun violence problem: the smart gun. 

President Obama recently made funding for smart gun research part of his end-of-term gun control push, and it’s easy to see the idea’s appeal. The smart gun promises a technological fix for gun violence by keeping firearms out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them — thieves, children, and anyone else who isn’t the authorized user.

Unfortunately for the president and other well-intentioned advocates of electronically enabled gun control, the smart gun, in all of its incarnations, is a fantasy.

Not only is it impossible to produce a smart gun that gun buyers will actually purchase in large numbers, but even if the technological hurdles could be overcome, the results are sure to drastically disappoint everyone who has been looking to these weapons as some sort of silver bullet that can end gun violence.

In fact, many of the popular smart gun ideas that have been proposed could actually make us all less safe.

The objections to smart guns are as varied the proposed smart gun technologies themselves, and to cover every point and counterpoint of the debate would take a book-length essay. Besides, we’re all on social media, and we’ve heard it all already. Or, at least, we think we have.

What I’ve found in my past three years of straddling the worlds of technology and outdoors journalism is that there are many smart people who are deeply passionate about the issue of gun violence, and who grew up around guns and perhaps even own a few guns themselves, but who don’t have the nearly level of insight that they think they have into the defense- and performance-oriented mindset of the post-9/11 “Gun Culture 2.0” that now dominates the firearms scene.

Furthermore, these people’s earnest desire for a technological quick fix to gun violence has blinded them to the many obvious problems with mixing software and small arms.

This piece is a bit long, so here’s the TL;DR for those who can’t or won’t read the whole thing:

  • First, no electronic technology is 100% reliable, and very few people will trust a gun that can be turned into a brick by a failure of some on-board circuitry.
  • Second, whenever you attach software to some new category of things — especially software that has any kind of connection to the outside world, whether via RFID or an actual network — then in addition to whatever problems that thing had before, you’ve introduced a whole host of brand new security and identity problems that are new to that thing and that must be discovered and patched, and then the patches will have problems that must be discovered and patched, and on it goes.

In short, software security is a virtual arms race, and when you put software into a weapon, you turn it into a literal arms race. Ultimately, adding software to guns (or cars, or pacemakers, or anything else) does not make them safer or more secure — rather, it makes them less secure because it gives creative bad actors a whole new avenue for exploits.

But most smart-gun opponents aren’t primarily worried about having their gun remotely disabled by a tech-savvy criminal or a hostile foreign or domestic government.

No, their primary concern with new-fangled smart guns dates back to a time when men carried a large knife as a backup weapon in case one or all of their pistols failed to fire.

The Main Thing: Reliability


Photo courtesy of Flickr/DM


The single most important requirement for a firearm is that it shoots every time you intend for it to. If you don’t have absolute confidence that your gun will shoot every single time the safety is off and you pull the trigger, then that gun is worthless. So gun owners tend to hate anything that adds extra complexity and increases the odds of a failure to fire. (See the backlash against Smith & Wesson’s decision to integrate a mechanical lock onto their revolvers at the behest of the Clinton administration.)

Gun buyers are so obsessed with reliability that they will sacrifice pretty much anything — weight, capacity, accuracy, cost — to get as close to 100 percent reliability as possible. Indeed, apart from nostalgia, the main reason that there’s still a market for the old-fashioned revolver in a world where we have lightweight, high-capacity pistols like the GLOCK, is that there’s a common (but hotly debated) perception among shooters that a revolver is a dead-simple device that will always fire without fail.

There are no extra springs or gas-operated feeding mechanisms in a revolver that could cause a failure, and for this reason law enforcement and even Navy Seals still sometimes bet their lives on these simple, time-tested firearms.

When shooters do mix electronics with their guns, they do so very carefully. For instance, modern Special Forces rifles like the gun that killed Osama Bin Laden are festooned with many thousands of dollars worth of electronic wizardry, but if any or all of those gadgets fail then the gun is still perfectly usable.

Even the advanced optics on a modern military carbine are backed up by a set of old-fashioned iron sights, because despite their legendary durability those optics can and do fail in the field.

My ultimate point is that anyone who buys a gun and expects that they might one day trust their life to it — a list that includes home defense buyers, law enforcement officers, and even hikers or campers who carry a gun in bear country — will be very resistant to purchasing a gun with any kind of electronic technology that can prevent that gun from firing, because electronics fail. And electronics especially fail when they’re subject to the kind of abuse and adverse conditions that guns tend to encounter in the field.

But what about hunters, or target shooters, you ask. You might think they’d go for a smart gun, but you’d be wrong.

Think about it: If you’ve spent upwards of $3,000 on a guided elk hunt, and you’ve been in the bush tracking an animal for days, then you would never want to have an elk in your sights when the lock fails on your gun. That gun may have been subject to temperature extremes, gotten wet and muddy, and generally been abused over the course of the hunt. Are smart locks really going to stand up to that kind of abuse and still work every time?

Even a regular deer hunter who drives a few minutes from his home in Mississippi to hunt on his own property won’t go for a smart gun, because what if he runs into a brown bear while he’s out? Or what if he lines up a once-in-a-lifetime trophy buck in his sights, and the gun fails.

Then there’s the case of the competition marksman, a rapidly growing “Gun Culture 2.0” category of shooters. These enthusiasts spend thousands of dollars configuring and tweaking and customizing the guns that they compete with. They train year around for competitions. So what if you’re in the semi-finals of an out-of-state shooting competition, and your smart gun just stops letting you fire? You can’t borrow someone else’s gun and finish the competition. You’re screwed — months of effort and thousands of dollars in training ammo and travel are wasted.

I could go on, but my point should be clear by now: no gun owner who is serious about self defense, home defense, target shooting, or hunting will buy a smart gun voluntarily, because smart guns are critically dependent on electronics, and, once again, electronics fail.

This is why there is no market for smart guns, and why the gun industry will not make these weapons. It’s not because gun makers are all heartless, macho jerks who think that safety is for sissies — they’re capitalists like everyone else, and will go where the money is. Gun makers don’t make smart guns because the shooting public knows that adding an electronic device to a gun that can prevent the gun from firing is a bad idea that makes the gun useless for any serious purpose.

Of course, I understand full well that in the eyes of many, these reliability-based objections to the smart gun simply further the impression that gun owners are selfish fantasists who care more about their personal safety and hobbies than they do about keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous criminals. But that’s unfair, because gun people can see what should be blindingly obvious to any minimally tech savvy person: not only would 100% adoption of smart guns not have any impact on gun crime (which continues its multi-decade decline), but depending on the particulars of the smart gun tech, it could make things worse.

Hypothetical: We’ve Solved the Reliability Problem!


For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that Ron Conway’s Smart Gun Foundation has produced a totally reliable smart gun with electronics that cannot possibly fail in the field. Wouldn’t the world be a safer place, now that there’s a category of firearms that criminals can’t possibly use?

Ok, I can barely type that line with a straight face, because if you actually think that it’s possible to invent a piece of consumer technology that even the least savvy bad actors can’t “jailbreak” once they’ve had a little alone time with it and access to YouTube, then you haven’t been following tech very long.

When I started covering tech in 1998, Intel was determined to stop hobbyists and unscrupulous resellers from overclocking their processors. I wrote my first popular articles for Ars Technica about the fact that you could defeat these measures with a bit of tape over pin B21.

Intel was never able to stop ordinary users with minimal tech skills and Internet access from overclocking their chips, and this was Intel and these were CPUs. My point is that any kind of electronic lock, RFID identity beacon, or other doohickey that you add to a gun will be defeated in short order.

This is especially true of guns, because guns are made to be disassembled for regular cleaning and maintenance. So no matter where you put the RFID chip, biometric lock, or other electronics on a gun, anyone with a bit of time and information will either be able to grind it out with a Dremel, cover it with something that will prevent it from transmitting, or simply replace that particular part. Barrels, triggers, and every other part of a popular gun like a Glock can be bought on the aftermarket — you can even build an entire non-Glock “Glock” out of aftermarket Glock parts made by third-party vendors.

RFID-based Smart Guns: Making a Bad Idea Worse

Not only can electronic safety measures be defeated, but if those measures involve RFID or any sort of remote access to the weapon then they can also be turned against their users.

Every consumer electronic device on the market has at some point been hacked and totally owned by both civilians and state actors. Likewise, it would be very difficult to prevent bad guys from gaining the ability to remotely lock the guns of police or of potential victims, or from using any wireless signal that these guns emit to identify concealedweapons and target those weapons for theft.

This last point is especially important, because much of the animosity that concealed carry proponents tend to have against the more radical open carry crowd stems from the former group’s belief that guns in public spaces work best as a deterrent when nobody knows who’s carrying and who isn’t.

The minute a criminal can somehow scan an area and identify who’s packing by picking up RFID hits, then anyone who’s armed becomes a potential target. Criminals can and do ambush open carriers in public and attempt to take their weapons; by putting an RFID beacon on a concealed carry gun, you’re effectively making everyone an open carrier.

And what about RFID-enabled guns stashed in cars or in homes? It’s not out of the realm of possibility that would-be gun thieves could case a row of houses for guns just by driving by them with some of the tools developed for stealing identies from RFID-enabled credit cards, just like crackers looking for an open WiFi network to hijack.

The Best-Case Scenario Isn’t That Great


So RFID is bad, which means we just use biometric locks, right? It’s definitely true that the best-case scenario for smart-gun proponents is the development of an ultra-reliable biometric lock that has absolutely no means of remote detection or manipulation.

Given that it would take a criminal some amount of time alone with the gun to disable any lock, there are two scenarios where such a smart gun would be better than a regular gun: 1) when control of the weapon has been suddenly wrested from its owner, and 2) when a child gets hold of a gun.

Regarding the first scenario, the only people who regularly find themselves in situations where they could suddenly lose control of their weapon are police officers and civilian open carriers. Such folks might be willing to trade some reliability for the added safety of knowing that in a street brawl their gun can’t be turned on them, and in fact some police forces have expressed interest in smart guns for this reason.

As for preventing children from firing weapons, this is by far the most attractive application for any reliable, biometric-based smart gun solution. The problem, however, is there are already two relatively cheap, popular technologies already in existence that can keep children from pulling a gun’s trigger: trigger locks and gun safes. These solutions add zero cost and complexity to firearms, and they’re backwards compatible with every gun in existence. In short, religiously locking up your guns, whether out of simple caution or because it’s the law, and using an on-body carry method (so that a toddler doesn’t pull a gun from your purse) would net you all of the advantages of a biometric lock, with none of the disadvantages.

I’m well aware that irresponsible gun owners don’t always secure their guns, but do you really think that someone who leaves a gun where a child can find it will be safety-minded enough to purchase gun with a biometric lock if such locks aren’t mandated by the government?

Again, apart from a government mandate, there is no market for smart guns. In the very best-case scenario of an ultra-reliable biometrically locked gun, you’ve produced a product that the target audience — i.e. people who are so irresponsible that they don’t secure their weapons — are almost by definition unlikely to purchase.

Not Gonna Happen


To sum up, smart guns aren’t gonna happen because electronic locks will never be reliable enough that the shooting public will embrace them. It’s possible that cops might eventually warm up to smart guns, because cops open carry and are at constant risk of having their own guns used against them. But for every law abiding citizen who’s not carrying openly and/or wearing a uniform that screams “guy with a gun right here!”, smart guns are just not going to be attractive for the reasons outlined above.

Even if the public warms up to smart guns, this won’t stop criminals from firing stolen weapons, because there’s no way to lock down a firearm or any other gadget in such a way that it can’t be “jailbroken”. Criminals will just remove the locks, or, even worse, they’ll learn to remotely disable the guns of victims and police. And for law-abiding concealed carriers who leave the electronic locks in place, any scheme that relies on wireless technology will effectively make such people open carriers for anyone who can eavesdrop on the signal.

If smart gun proponents are really serious about saving lives, they’ll quit wasting time on a doomed quest for a quick technological fix to a nasty set of social problems, and instead focus their efforts on changes that could actually save lives. How about ending the war on drugs, demilitarizing the police, advocating for prison reform, investing in street-level intervention programs, or stopping the drone strikes and the endless military interventions that kill countless civilians and radicalize the survivors. Even a small victory in any one of those areas would save more lives than the most advanced smart gun imaginable.

But all of that stuff that I just suggested is hard, and it involves politics, and our politics seem more hopelessly broken with every day that passes. So I certainly get the appeal of going around the system and throwing some Silicon Valley “disruption” at the problem of gun violence. And as the father of three beautiful little girls I wish to God that there were a killer app that could stop or even measurably reduce the killing. But there isn’t, and until someone invents a technology that can address the deeper, systemic problems that drive Americans from all walks of life to arm themselves, there never will be.