Smart Guns: An Effective Solution or a Waste of Resources?

  • Date:
  • June 05, 2020

This post briefly explores the potential to reduce certain kinds of firearms-related deaths through personalized smart guns: firearms that only designated users can fire. It looks at likely hurdles to smart gun legislation and proposes solutions to overcome such hurdles. This is part of a larger project that also analyzes the constitutionality of smart gun legislation, and will be posted on SSRN in the coming weeks.

Generally, there are two main types of personalized smart guns: (1) biometrical based trigger locks and (2) radio frequency identification (RFID) trigger locks. The former consist of fingerprint or palm-based readers that unlock the firearm when the user’s biometric information is recognized. This is similar to the technology used to unlock smart phones. The latter use electromagnets and radio waves to unlock a trigger only when the weapon is proximate to an electronically matched external device (such as a chip-enabled token). Once the gun’s locking mechanism is deactivated, the gun can be fired.

Proponents of smart gun technology have argued that smart guns could help prevent suicides and accidental firearm discharges, especially involving young people. 4.6 million children live in a home with an unlocked and loaded firearm. Thirty five percent of all gun-related deaths of young people (ages 10-19) were suicides in 2016. In 2017, 43% of youth suicides were committed with a firearm. Importantly, more than 80% of children and adolescent firearm suicides involved a firearm belonging to a family member. This statistic, coupled with the vast number of children in the United States who live in a home with an unlocked, loaded firearm, helps explain why firearm suicide among youths occurs at these rates.

Accidental gun deaths are another type of preventable tragedy. There have been at least 1,714 unintentional shootings of children since 2015. Unintentional deaths comprised 26% of all firearm deaths among children (ages 1 – 9 years old) in 2016. Additionally, studies suggest that there are strong correlations between the presence of a firearm at home and an increased likelihood of accidental child firearm deaths. The issue has become even more pressing with the recent increase in unintentional shootings by children during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has coincided with an increase in gun sales during quarantine.

By only allowing the authorized user to fire the firearm, smart guns have the potential to prevent youth suicide and accidental gun deaths, without preventing an authorized user from accessing a firearm in case of emergency.

However, smart guns are not a perfect solution. There are technical impediments: Biometrical based trigger locks, for example, may malfunction if the user’s hand is sweaty, dirty, or wet. More alarmingly, some RFID trigger locks can be easily hacked with the use of $15-dollar magnets, essentially enabling or disabling the firearm at the hacker’s desire.

To mitigate the risk of malfunction, the government could incentivize private companies to further develop the technology through grants, tax credits, and subsidies. For example, biometrical-based trigger locks have been improved by implementing grip recognition technologies that do not malfunction when the user’s hand is sweaty or dirty, as opposed to the fingerprint and handprint recognition technologies that tend to malfunction more often. Additionally, independent studies could be conducted in order to objectively determine the reliability of the currently available smart guns, and compare such reliability with traditional firearm malfunction rates. Assuming the right baseline in determining the reliability of smart guns is that they should at least be as reliable as traditional guns, there is evidence that some smart guns meet this threshold. For example, some advanced fingerprint scanners report false authentication rates as low as .01 %, which are lower than the rate of expected mechanical malfunctions in traditional firearms.

Another substantial hurdle to widespread adoption of smart guns is that the enforecement costs are too high.  Currently there’s an oversupply of  traditional firearms in circulation in the United States. The fact that 114 – 300 million traditional firearms are already in private hands makes it prohibitively expensive and practically impossible to replace these traditional firearms with brand new smart guns through a mandate. Biometrical based trigger lock attachments, however, could improve the security of millions of existing firearms without requiring gun owners to buy new smart guns or trade in their traditional guns. Though testing would need to be done, advocates claim that these external smart gun safety devices are reliable, can be attached to the most common types of traditional firearms, and would not inhibit the right to use firearms for self-defense.

An additional hurdle, even if the technical and commercial ones could be overcome, is the political one.  The backlash from gun rights advocacy groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) has been a significant obstacle to innovation, legislation, and sales of smart guns. For example, the NRA led boycotts against a gun manufacturer after the company agreed to dedicate some of its resources to developing personalized smart guns as a condition of settled litigation. Not only have gun rights advocates opposed the companies that attempt to manufacture smart gun technology, they have also fervently opposed the gun stores that sell them.

A chief example is the effect of New Jersey’s 2002 law which required “all handguns sold within the state to be personalized within two to three years after a qualifying personalized handgun is available for sale anywhere in the country.” While the goal of the law was to incentivize smart gun development by ensuring a market for smart guns, it had the reverse effect. Gun rights advocates boycotted gun manufacturers and retailers who expressed interest in the technology, thus effectively stopping the law’s implementation and ensuring that only a few smart guns be made available on the market.

One possible way to reduce the backlash would be to introduce smart guns through law enforcement and military use. If smart guns were commonly used by law enforcement and the military, consumers might take that to be evidence of their reliability. Additionally, encouraging law enforcement and the military to consider smart guns would both increase research and development in the technology and familiarize civilian gun owners with the idea of smart guns, signaling to consumers that smart guns are more reliable than what critics claim.

Another solution is to pass incremental smart gun legislation. While a mandate restricting the sale of guns to smart guns will be deemed too extreme by gun rights advocacy groups, a law encouraging the sale of smart guns without prohibiting the sale of traditional guns could help close the gap between the two extremes.  If firearm retailers sell both smart guns and traditional firearms, smart guns are likely to be less taboo, and consumers could realize the potential benefits of smart guns on their own, thus reducing the seemingly insurmountable backlash from gun rights advocates. Another potential legislative solution would be for a state legislature to enact a smart gun mandate that only goes into effect after a certain percentage of the police force in the state has adopted smart guns. This would be an objective and hopefully apolitical metric to determine smart guns’ reliability and would likely mitigate backlash to a smart guns mandate.

In short, smart guns may be useful in preventing youth firearm suicides and accidental firearm deaths. From a practical standpoint, however, smart gun legislation will likely have to overcome multiple hurdles before it becomes a reality.