At frustratingly regular intervals, the debate around gun control crops up, and every time there is a discussion about smart guns. The general idea is to have a gun that will not fire unless authenticated and authorized. There’s usually a story about a young person who invents a smart controller and another company that is struggling because they just can’t get “Big Guns” to buy into the idea. We aren’t going to focus on the politics; we’re going to look at whether the technology is realistic, and why a lot of the news stories about new tech never pan out.
Let’s start with an example of modern technology creeping into established machines: the car. These are giant hunks of metal with nearly constant explosions, controlled by sophisticated electronics that are getting smarter and more connected every day. Industry is adopting it with alacrity, and the vehicles are getting more efficient and powerful because of it. So why can’t firearms?
There are some giant differences between a car and a gun. First, failure is just not an option with guns. They are expected to function flawlessly and are judged on their ability to do so. It’s a stretch to say the same thing about vehicles. If a car won’t start it’s a disappointment. But cars are judged on their reliability, not on their ability to operate flawlessly.
Second, cars are big and have lots of room for electronics, and ample power to keep them running. With a smart gun every millimeter matters, and you can’t press pause on life because your gun battery is dead.
Finally, despite the constant explosions and motion, vehicle electronics aren’t subject to as many stresses as a firearm may be.
The biggest concern from people is that at the critical moment, a firearm cannot fail. With that in mind, designing a piece of technology gets more difficult by an order of magnitude. Wireless becomes tricky because of the possibility of jamming, biometrics becomes tricky because of gloves, dirt, sweat, and all kinds of things that usually prevent biometrics from working, and timing becomes tricky because it has to work just as quickly as taking the safety off. Guns already fail for lots of mechanical reasons, but adding in electronics and electromechanical components adds dozens more points of failure.
Firearms are designed to be ergonomic,space efficient, and light. There are extremely small and carefully machined components between the trigger and the firing pin. Introducing a circuit board with components as well as a mechanical component that prevents or enables the trigger to fire the weapon will take up space.
Additionally, a battery may be necessary, and that takes up space as well. On a handgun the grip has a magazine inside it, so there’s not much room there, and keep in mind that any design will only work for a single gun; getting it to fit into other brands or types will be a significant redesign.
Take a look at the Colt 1911 cutaway as it fires and try to figure out where you would put electronics, batteries, and actuators without interfering with the operation of the weapon or adding significant bulk.
Firing a weapon is rough. Peak acceleration can exceed 500G; enough to rip components off of circuit boards. In addition, the gunpowder and smoke from the explosion permeate the weapon, getting into every possible opening, and requiring regular cleaning for proper operation. After firing, some parts can get extremely hot. It’s a tough place to put electronics, and limits where in the weapon the parts could go.
Just like a bike lock, there is the idea of a lock that attaches to the gun and prevents it from being used but can quickly and easily be removed. These make sense for weapons that spend most of the time tucked safely away. The lock is a bit bulky and fits over either the trigger or inside the chamber. It can be unlocked in a variety of ways and removed. This way the stress and reliability and room issues are mostly circumvented.
But these have been around for decades and are a cheap and easy solution. They may be getting fancier with Bluetooth and biometrics, but in an important moment, something you know (a password or combination) is often faster and more reliable than something you have (a phone, key, or ring) or something you are (biometrics). Considering the trifecta of security (something you know, something you have, something you are), the combination lock is still going to win. Besides, these solutions are currently $15 or less; why would someone be motivated to spend more than that on something “smarter” but possibly less reliable?
Solving the room, reliability, and stress problems entirely are gun safes. Large amounts of power can be provided to run electronics which deliver ample security. Some even offer cameras that automatically upload images, or shake/open detection to alert the owner. And all of this security could be used in a single installation to protect many guns at once. It seems if there is a technological solution to be had, it should be most adopted in gun safes first.
Because of these challenges, I think it’s unlikely that a weapon with embedded electronics and electromechanical safeties will succeed. It’s just too easy to defeat, too easy to break, and adds too much complexity to a very efficient machine.
Setting aside politics, there are lots of technological problems with smart weapons that will prevent them from being accepted. Even if they did have widespread adoption, though, there will still be risk from non-smart guns; the cat is out of the bag on guns. Putting more parts on them will just weigh the cat down, not put it back in the bag.
Gun locks and gun safes are a much more practical solution for protecting a weapon, but have limited use. They won’t keep someone from having their own gun used against them, and they have no application for people who carry a weapon around with them, but they will go a long way towards protecting people from the lion’s share of accidental deaths and to make it more difficult to steal and use weapons without permission from the owner.
Of course, all this is based on the fact that guns fire bullets. If we get to a point where we have energy weapons or hand held rail guns, where electronics are necessary and recoil and gunpowder and room are no longer as big a concern, then we’ll see a shift.