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Smart Guns: How Close Are We Really?

The Seattle Smart Gun Symposium revealed an ambitious community of technologists seeking to take on the feverish front known as the American gun owner, and unveiled more questions than answers.

SEATTLE -- If today’s technological revolution can save lives on American roadways and in hospitals, then maybe new technologies like biometric palm readers can put a dent in the nation’s 30,000 annual gun deaths.

That was the premise of the Seattle Smart Gun Symposium held in downtown Seattle on Jan. 28. Hosted by the Washington Technology Industry Association and anti-gun violence group Washington CeaseFire, the event showcased speakers from advocacy groups, smart gun device manufacturers, law enforcement, media and politics.

Washington CeaseFire President Ralph Fascitelli began by informing a room of about 100 attendees that gun deaths are “perhaps our nation’s most toxic public health plague," and that searching for a technological solution is a “no-brainer.” Panelists and audience members spoke passionately about smart guns in an American nation that leads first-world nations in handgun deaths, behind only a handful of South and Central American nations.

In the hours that followed, many topics surrounding smart guns were approached and many questions were fielded, but finding conclusions or consensus began to feel like a photographer’s pursuit of the sunset. Smart guns are a topic so mired in political dispute, technological uncertainty, arcane legal policy, and institutional avoidance and denial that each pursuit of an answer simply presented a sound of hemming and hawing that was accompanied by a new set of questions. 

One point of clarity was Washington CeaseFire’s mission: “We in the gun safety movement wish that fewer homes had guns, because nothing correlates with home gun violence as home gun ownership,” Fascitelli said. “But if you are going to have a gun in the home – and we do respect the Second Amendment and somebody’s right to have a gun – we wish it could be a smart gun, a user-authorized gun.”

Smart guns are guns that require some form of biometric or unique authentication before someone can fire them. The premise of smart guns, as illustrated by James Bond in the 2012 action-thriller Skyfall, is that they can only be used by the owner and never against him. Bond’s weapon employed palm recognition. Some smart guns use radio-frequency identification (RFID) that pairs with a ring or bracelet, some use finger and palm scanners, while others use a grip analysis algorithm. Smart guns are not sold in the United States today.

Technology has ameliorated so many other problems in recent centuries that pursuing smart guns is both a noble and logical course. But most speakers were either unwilling or unable to address the possibility that today’s technology is decades from being advanced enough to fight the intractable fanaticism of the American gun enthusiast. Gun ownership is an American faith second only to Christianity, and the technology community is ill-equipped to fight that crusade.

Ready for Prime Time?

Among those who shared their opinions and knowledge of the smart gun industry were King County Sheriff John Urquhart, and Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-N.J., who is known for introducing a controversial law that would require all firearms sold in her state to have smart capabilities within 30 months of the technology’s proliferation.

Urquhart said he was interested in the technology, but couched his interest in the manner of a tourist marveling at some foreign curiosity. “The technology isn’t ready for prime time,” Urquhart said, adding that while smart guns could be helpful in preventing criminals from using an officer’s own gun against him, the technology would need to be 100 percent reliable before he felt comfortable putting it in the hands of his officers.

Representatives from the industry included Omer Kiyani, the founder of Sentinl, maker of a biometric trigger lock; Robert McNamara, co-founder of TriggerSmart, an RFID-enabled smart gun technology; and Alan Boinus, CEO of Allied Biometrix, a startup seeking to license commercial smart gun technology. Kiyani said his company could have a smart accessory ready for the American market before the year is out.

As McNamara began his speech, an Irish lilt accented the emotion in his voice.

“I guess you’ve heard about the 2-year-old who shot his mom dead in Walmart a few weeks ago,” he said. “And you heard about the 5-year-old who shot his 9-month-old baby sister dead at his grand-dad’s house in Missouri over a week ago. Last week, a 2-year-old shot himself in the chest, also dead, with a gun he found in the back of his parents’ car. These kids would not be dead if it was a knife instead of a gun. Will these families ever recover? Do we simply shrug our shoulders and accept this, or do we take action to help prevent this from happening again and again?”

McNamara talked about his company’s smart gun technology, and also said he could have a product ready for market within a year, given support from the gun industry and proper funding.

A scheduled, but never-to-occur phone appearance by Rick Patterson of the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers' Institute (SAAMI) is a telling representation of the gun industry’s interest in the current state of smart gun technology – they didn’t even bother to phone it in.

Boinus was more conservative in his estimates, saying he would rather be last to market with a technology that works well and is accepted by gun owners, rather than alienate the market further than the smart gun industry has already. But when pressed, Boinus would not commit to a timeframe for product release, saying that he simply didn’t know when the technology would be ready to compete with the reliability of existing handguns.

Some speakers, like Mark Burles, vice president of market research firm Penn Schoen Berland, suggested that gun owners are receptive to the coming of smart guns, and supported his claim with poll data. Eighty-seven percent of gun owners polled said they think gun dealers should be allowed to sell smart guns, he noted. And many, particularly those of younger age-groups, said they would be interested in trading their existing gun for a smart gun, given it worked as promised, Burles added. The poll also revealed, as expected, that smart gun mandates caused extreme polarization.

Challenges on the Path to Smart Gun Technology

A panel comprised of Boinus; Margot Hirsch, president of Smart Tech Challenges Foundation; and Juliet Leftwich, legal director of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, hosted a question and answer session to address the challenges facing the proliferation of smart guns today, like whether a smart gun manufacturer would be held legally accountable should a biometric scanner malfunctioned and an unauthorized user shoot himself or someone else.

It was as the event neared a close that the breadth of the issues began to settle on the audience like a heavy fog. During a lull, someone in the audience asked what RFID meant – many were still struggling to understand the basic mechanisms behind smart guns while others had already moved on to the intricacies of tort law. 

Speakers imparted insightful analysis of smart gun technology and legal issues, but the discourse was peppered with facile analogies that demonstrated a knowledge gap and cultural denial that does not bode well for the movement.

Politician and event moderator Alex Alben suggested at one point that the smart gun should strive to be as reliable as a television remote control.

McNamara noted that people trust technology to make automobiles and airplanes safer, so why not guns?

Throughout the day, event organizers made repeated references to a video they wanted to show that would demonstrate how smart gun technology works. Eventually, organizers admitted that they could not get the projector to work. In a subsequent question and answer session, local reporter Essex Porter of Kiro TV half-stood, leaned over his table and projected what many were thinking: “As you’ve mentioned, this group can’t even get the video to go today,” Porter said. “So why should gun owners trust that this technology will ever work?”

Technologists are seeking to right a societal tragedy, but are meanwhile pushing aside a treasured, centuries-old tradition cemented by Charlton Heston’s proclamation-turned-National-Rifle-Association-slogan: I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

Gun owners are as clear on their objections to smart guns as they are on their dedication to traditional firearms. An informal survey conducted by Government Technology in an online forum called Reddit Guns revealed a mindset typical of the average gun enthusiast.

“Say you are in a life/death scenario and the recognition system fails/malfunctions,” user Thedude3030 wrote. “’Smart’ guns just add another thing to go wrong in an already stressful situation.”

“When it works like my Sig and has been around as long as my 1911, I might be interested,” user Mac1822 wrote.

“I'll start using one when the Secret Service makes them standard issue,” user TheBlindCat wrote.

Of all speakers at the event, only Boinus and perhaps Sheriff Urquhart were willing to address the institutional challenge of smart guns head-on. In a one-on-one interview, Boinus said the smart gun movement has a cultural problem.

“They don’t get it. They really don’t get it,” Boinus said. “I think we [Allied Biometrix] were the only company at SHOT Show," he said, speaking of the annual Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show held the week of Jan. 19 in Las Vegas that draws more than 50,000 attendees. "I find that unfortunate. If we’re trying to gain the confidence of gun owners, we’d better talk to them. You can’t build a market unless you have a market that wants your product. And it’s not ready yet.”

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.