Friday, May 06, 2016

NPR Highlights Problems with "Smart" Guns

All Things Considered is an iconic program from National Public Radio (NPR).  They have a reliably "progressive" approach to the world, but sometimes they stumble onto inconvenient truths.  That is what seems to have happened a month ago when NPR ran this story on how a naive investor pushed Colt to develop a so called "smart" gun, which is actually a "stupid" gun.

First, the push for the "stupid" gun came from the new owner of the company, Donald Zilkha.  He was a banker from New York City.  He did not own a gun.  I suspect, he knew nothing of American gun culture.  He made a very human mistake.  He assumed that everybody thought about, and had assumptions about the universe that were the same as his.  From NPR:
ZILKHA: Initially, I thought this would be something that could be adapted over 20-30 years and everybody would say, wow, this is a good way to own a handgun.

ROSE: But almost right away, Zilkha discovered that the customers he imagined were not as enthusiastic as he was. Let's start with police. Stephen Albanese is a retired New York City police officer.

For 20 years, it was his job to make sure the department's guns worked like they were supposed to. Albanese says he and other officers weren't sure they could trust smart guns to fire every time.
If the owner of the Company tells you they want something, especially if they culturally have no connection with you, people are loathe to contradict them.  It takes great courage to risk your job in a shaky company with a new owner.  Somehow, through miscommunication or misunderstanding, Zilkha thought that Colt engineers had made the company's "stupid" gun reliable.  He scheduled a demonstration with a reporter from the Wall Street Journal.  I have a hard time imagining the pressure that the Colt engineers were under.

So, in a near laboratory environment, on Colt's terms, at their range, without weather, blood, hand to hand combat, or long storage times, the reporter, Vanessa O'Connell, watched the demonstration.  It failed.  Spectacularly.  From NPR:
ROSE: The timing was awful. Just when Colt needed to convince potential customers they could trust this new smart gun, here's a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal saying they can't. Not long after, Colt pulled the plug on smart gun research. Seventeen years later, no American gun company wants to pick up where Colt left off. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.
The fact is that "Stupid" gun technology is a really stupid idea, designed to make guns fail.  It operates under the assumption that it is better for a gun not to fire than to fire.  Proponents of the idea are either blissfully ignorant of real world problems with the idea, or they simply love the idea of making guns less reliable.

There is at least one simple, non-electronic, mechanical system called the Magloc.  It uses a magnetic ring.  If you are wearing the ring on the correct finger, it works pretty reliably.  It has had a limited commercial success, and is almost certainly much more reliable than the considerably more complicated electronic systems of "stupid" guns.

There are three basic problems for so called electronic "smart guns" that cannot be overcome technologically.

First, they use electricity, so they are dependent on batteries.  Batteries are one of the components most prone to failure.  Not because of the design of the batteries, but because of their nature.  They are time limited.  They have a shelf life.  They use up the power that they have stored.  All of these things mean that batteries introduce multiple points of failure into a firearm that are not there without them.

Second, because they are electronic systems, they are subject to jamming and interference.  Have you ever had your phone lose a call, for no apparent reason?  Similar problems apply to electronic gun controls.

Third, the design function of the system is to restrict the use of the gun to a very small number of people.  Yet one of the great positives about a gun is that it can be used by a large number of people, reliably.  Your partner may need to pick up the gun that you left behind to answer the door, now that you are down and fighting for your life with the home invader.  Your child may need to pick up the gun and defend themselves from the burglar that just broke in.  Your neighbor may need to use the gun as part of a neighborhood security system during a riot, or after a hurricane, tornado or flood.

Gun owners do not want so called "smart" guns.  They have demonstrated this in the marketplace with existing systems that are more reliable than proposed ones.  The very philosophy behind the design idea presumes that it is more valuable to stop guns from shooting than it is to make sure they shoot when they are needed.  Gun owners, from across the United States, including the military and police, reject the idea that this stupid idea is "Smart".  As usual, with many simplistic solutions to complex problems, it does not work.

It is nice to see NPR make this important point to its nationwide audience.

Many people who would reject the NRA as a source will accept NPR.

©2016 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice is included.
Link to Gun Watch


Thomas Waltz said...

Hi Dean -

Please don't publish this comment - I couldn't find a better way to contact you.

I met you at the Cease-fire gun buyback in Milwaukee in May 2014. I just saw in the news that Madison had a pitiful gun buyback last weekend:

This may be a good topic for a gunwatch post! Of note, as you know, is that Wisconsin does not require gun owner registration.

Keep up the good work! I read gunwatch every day and really enjoy your articles.


Dean Weingarten said...

Thank you for the link. I do not control the comments on Gun Watch. My colleague in Australia, Dr. John Jay Ray does that.

I appreciate your kind words.