Lock step: the hazards of 'smart guns'

Jacob Sullum
Posted: Dec 20, 2002 12:00 AM
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.