When I flip open my mobile phone, a pleasant female voice asks,
"Who would you like to call?" I say, "My office." A few seconds later, she
says, "Please repeat the name." Enunciating as clearly as I can, I repeat,
"My office ." After another pause, she informs me, "The
name cannot be recognized."
At worst, the unreliability of my phone's voice dial feature is
annoying; I can always enter the number by hand. But imagine a gun that
incorporates voice recognition technology, allowing you to fire only after a
locking mechanism is satisfied that you are the owner.
Now imagine that a burglar has broken into your home or a thug
is confronting you on the street while you pull out your gun and try to make
it work by saying the magic words just so.
Like my phone, your gun is so smart that it's stupid.
To be fair, voice recognition is just one of several approaches
to "personalizing" guns so they can be fired only by authorized users. Other
possibilities include rings containing magnets or transponders and devices
that recognize fingerprints or grip characteristics. But each of these
technologies has limitations, and none is ready for market.
That fact did not stop the New Jersey legislature from passing
the country's first "smart gun" mandate the other day. The bill, which Gov.
James McGreevey has promised to sign, requires that all handguns sold in the
state incorporate some form of personalization within three years after the
first such model is introduced.
"Are we, as a body, anticipating Star Trek technology?" asked a
legislator who voted against the bill. "Why not go all out and mandate that
all weapons in New Jersey be phasers set for stun?"
Unfortunately, the law may not be quite that ineffectual. If one
manufacturer rushes a "smart gun" onto the market before the technology is
perfected, the rest will have to follow suit.
Instead of having a choice between expensive, newfangled guns
that may not always work properly and cheaper, old-fashioned models with
known capabilities, New Jersey residents will be forced to test the beta
version, with potentially deadly results.
Revealingly, the mandate exempts police weapons, even though
research on personalized firearms was initially aimed at stopping criminals
from firing guns grabbed during struggles with cops. The exemption is also
odd because one of the bill's avowed goals is to prevent adolescent
suicides. "What children have more access to guns than the children of
police officers?" asked a lobbyist who fought the mandate.
Legislators must have recognized that police officers would not
want their lives to depend on batteries, electronic chips or recognition
devices that could fail in an emergency. As the Independence Institute's
Dave Kopel observes, "the police will not put up with a gun that is 99
percent reliable." Even if a "smart gun" always worked as designed, various
contingencies could prevent an officer from firing it. What if he forgot his
transponder ring, wore gloves, had sweaty palms, switched hands, or tried to
use a colleague's gun?
The bill's authors probably were also concerned about the cost
that "smart guns" would impose on police departments. Colt, one of the
manufacturers working to develop personalized firearms, estimates they will
cost $300 more than conventional models.
The mandate's supporters apparently did not worry about its
impact on the budgets and lives of ordinary citizens. Yet once the law kicks
in, it will effectively ban affordable handguns, preventing poor people in
dangerous neighborhoods from defending themselves.
The law will have no corresponding effect on criminals. Assuming
they do not find a way to circumvent "smart gun" technology, they may
occasionally find that they cannot use a stolen weapon. But there will be
plenty of other ways for them to obtain the tools of their trade.
Likewise, personalized handguns won't have much impact on
suicides, since Dad's pistol is only one of many ways to kill yourself. They
might prevent a few accidental gun deaths among children, except that it
appears there are none to prevent: New Jersey reported zero such cases in
the two most recent years for which data are available.
That doesn't mean there are no advantages to personalized guns.
But they should be weighed by consumers, not by legislators. It's bad enough
when politicians force you to make the same choice they would. It's worse
when they want you to take a risk they prefer to avoid.