Smart Guns: A Dumb Choice

Arthur C. Clarke's short story "Superiority" made it clear decades ago that overreliance on technology can kill people.  "We were defeated by one thing only – by the inferior science of our enemies. I repeat – by the inferior science of our enemies."  The story's lesson is that, when national security or human safety depends on a product, that product has to work 100 percent of the time.  This applies particularly to defensive firearms, cell phones, gun safes, and automobiles.

Dr. Ignatius Piazza of Front Sight reports that Armatix GmbH, a German gun manufacturer, is offering a "smart gun" that can be fired only by its owner.  It comes as no surprise that New York and California – the principal sources of the nation's anti-Second Amendment legislation – are pressing for equally reckless and irresponsible "kill switches" for smartphones.

Nothing in this article constitutes engineering advice, but common sense says that smart guns, smart cars, smart phones, and indeed anything else that relies on electronics can be disabled electronically.  There is already an electromagnetic pulse projector with which police can disable fleeing vehicles, or at least those with modern electronics.  Criminals and terrorists could easily adopt the same technology to, for example, shut down traffic on a bridge, close a highway, disable police vehicles, or take down airplanes.  It has already been proven that EMP weapons can wipe out computers and other electronic products.  They can conceivably be built for well under $1,000.

If smart gun technology were such a good idea, the police would be first in line to demand it.  Estimates of the fraction of police officers who are murdered with their own weapons range from eight to forty-three percent.  (That is, of every 100 officers who are murdered, 8 to 43 are shot with their own sidearms.)  Smart gun technology would indeed make it impossible for criminals to use officers' weapons, and for prison inmates to use those of corrections officers.  It would also enable sophisticated criminals to render police weapons unusable during, for example, a looting and rioting spree.  The police know this, and that is why they are not adopting so-called smart guns.  The same considerations apply to smart phones, smart cars, smart gun safes, and smart anything else that affects human safety.

If It's Critical to Safety, the Old Ways Are the Best

Failure Mode Effects Analysis (FMEA) categorizes product failure modes in terms of severity, likelihood, and chance of detection and mitigation.  Each is rated on a 1-10 scale, with 10 being the worst.  Severities of 9 and 10 are reserved for failures that jeopardize human safety, or compliance with government regulations (e.g., a toxic waste spill).  Failure of a car's brakes or steering, failure of a cell phone to place a 911 call, and failure of a gun to fire in a self-defense situation all qualify as a 10 severity.  Failure of a gun safe to open when the owner needs a weapon, and also failure to deny access to criminals or children, is a 10 severity event.  A product feature with a 10 severity failure mode is never acceptable if the failure can conceivably happen.

The bottom line is that, with the exception of special military equipment, anything electronic is subject to electronic interference, hacking, or both.  For Your Eyes Only predicted this more than 30 years ago, because Ernst Blofeld tried to kill James Bond with a helicopter's electronic remote control.  Hackers can do similar things to smart cars, such as turning off the engines or disabling the brakes.

Armatrix GMBH says openly that its smart gun relies on radio communication with an electronic wristwatch.  If criminals or terrorists can disable the radio technology, they can disarm everybody who relies on this kind of weapon for self-protection.  This puts the Armatrix product into the same category as the superweapons in the Arthur C. Clarke story – the ones that were too smart for their own good.  In this case, law-abiding citizens or police officers could easily be killed by the inferior science of the terrorists' or criminals' firearms – the inferior science that makes sure they will fire when their wielders need them to fire.

Recall also that in Tom Clancy's Red Storm Rising (1986), terrorists use an oil refinery's electronic controls to spill, and then ignite, a flammable liquid.  Clancy's scenario became reality when Iran's enemies used the Stuxnet computer virus to cause uranium enrichment centrifuges to spin out of control.  James Watt invented a very simple device to prevent mechanical equipment from spinning out of control more than 200 years ago:

The vertical shaft labeled D is connected to the engine whose speed is to be controlled.  If it spins too rapidly, the centrifugal force causes the two weighted balls to move away from each other, which in turn closes the valve that supplies steam to the engine.  Mechanical speed governors also make it impossible for an elevator to plummet dozens of stories, even if the steel cables snap.

How does this relate to smart guns, electronic gun safes, and smart phone kill systems?  If something is critical to human safety, the old ways are indeed the best.  Watt's centrifugal engine speed governor, and the elevator speed governor, cannot be hacked or disabled by electronic interference.  They are immune to electrical power failures.  Hydraulic brakes in automobiles cannot be hacked or disabled remotely; somebody who wants to sabotage them by cutting the hydraulic lines must expose himself to detection and apprehension by doing so in person.  Mechanical gun safes, such as those that use keys and buttons (simplex locks), open to authorized users regardless of dead batteries or electronic interference, and deny access to electronic safe cracking techniques.

This is not to say we should not welcome the conveniences that come with modern electronics, but rather that the older methods should always be available – and, in an emergency, they should have the final say.  As an example, if the electronics say an engine is operating normally, and the mechanical governor determines that it is going so fast that it will destroy itself or something else, the mechanical governor slows it or shuts it down, and also generates an alarm (visual and audible control) to alert those responsible.

Now let's see how the same principle applies to gun safes.  The bottom line is that electronic gun safes aren't safe.

California Gun Safety Rocket Scientists, 0; Three-Year-Old, 1

Responsible parents buy gun safes to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of children.  People without children buy them to keep them out of the hands of criminals.  Let's see how well some electronic safes, all of which are approved by California's Department of Justice for firearm storage, fulfill this role.

It's pretty obvious that if a 3-year-old child can open a California-approved gun safe, a criminal can do the same, and then turn the weapon on the homeowner or a responding police officer.  This video claims that it is possible to break into a California-approved electronic gun safe with a paperclip.  This video cites the California Department of Justice explicitly.  It seems that California, the same state that knows that just about everything causes cancer, and also regards itself as qualified to tell you what kind of firearms you "need" for self-defense purposes, also "knows" that safes that can be opened by small children are eminently qualified to secure deadly weapons from unauthorized users.

This again returns us to the observation that the old ways are the best.  Mechanical simplex locks cannot be opened by tapping them in the right manner, or by picking them with a paper clip.

The left's push for smart guns, cell phone kill switches, and so on is simply another manifestation of the gun control movement's dangerous incompetence.  It is the same incompetence that advises people to recklessly discharge shotguns if they feel threatened, or to use trigger locks that are likely to make their weapons unusable in an emergency.  It is past time that rational Americans call out this dangerous incompetence for exactly what it is.

William A. Levinson, P.E. is the author of several books on business management including content on organizational psychology, as well as manufacturing productivity and quality.

Arthur C. Clarke's short story "Superiority" made it clear decades ago that overreliance on technology can kill people.  "We were defeated by one thing only – by the inferior science of our enemies. I repeat – by the inferior science of our enemies."  The story's lesson is that, when national security or human safety depends on a product, that product has to work 100 percent of the time.  This applies particularly to defensive firearms, cell phones, gun safes, and automobiles.

Dr. Ignatius Piazza of Front Sight reports that Armatix GmbH, a German gun manufacturer, is offering a "smart gun" that can be fired only by its owner.  It comes as no surprise that New York and California – the principal sources of the nation's anti-Second Amendment legislation – are pressing for equally reckless and irresponsible "kill switches" for smartphones.

Nothing in this article constitutes engineering advice, but common sense says that smart guns, smart cars, smart phones, and indeed anything else that relies on electronics can be disabled electronically.  There is already an electromagnetic pulse projector with which police can disable fleeing vehicles, or at least those with modern electronics.  Criminals and terrorists could easily adopt the same technology to, for example, shut down traffic on a bridge, close a highway, disable police vehicles, or take down airplanes.  It has already been proven that EMP weapons can wipe out computers and other electronic products.  They can conceivably be built for well under $1,000.

If smart gun technology were such a good idea, the police would be first in line to demand it.  Estimates of the fraction of police officers who are murdered with their own weapons range from eight to forty-three percent.  (That is, of every 100 officers who are murdered, 8 to 43 are shot with their own sidearms.)  Smart gun technology would indeed make it impossible for criminals to use officers' weapons, and for prison inmates to use those of corrections officers.  It would also enable sophisticated criminals to render police weapons unusable during, for example, a looting and rioting spree.  The police know this, and that is why they are not adopting so-called smart guns.  The same considerations apply to smart phones, smart cars, smart gun safes, and smart anything else that affects human safety.

If It's Critical to Safety, the Old Ways Are the Best

Failure Mode Effects Analysis (FMEA) categorizes product failure modes in terms of severity, likelihood, and chance of detection and mitigation.  Each is rated on a 1-10 scale, with 10 being the worst.  Severities of 9 and 10 are reserved for failures that jeopardize human safety, or compliance with government regulations (e.g., a toxic waste spill).  Failure of a car's brakes or steering, failure of a cell phone to place a 911 call, and failure of a gun to fire in a self-defense situation all qualify as a 10 severity.  Failure of a gun safe to open when the owner needs a weapon, and also failure to deny access to criminals or children, is a 10 severity event.  A product feature with a 10 severity failure mode is never acceptable if the failure can conceivably happen.

The bottom line is that, with the exception of special military equipment, anything electronic is subject to electronic interference, hacking, or both.  For Your Eyes Only predicted this more than 30 years ago, because Ernst Blofeld tried to kill James Bond with a helicopter's electronic remote control.  Hackers can do similar things to smart cars, such as turning off the engines or disabling the brakes.

Armatrix GMBH says openly that its smart gun relies on radio communication with an electronic wristwatch.  If criminals or terrorists can disable the radio technology, they can disarm everybody who relies on this kind of weapon for self-protection.  This puts the Armatrix product into the same category as the superweapons in the Arthur C. Clarke story – the ones that were too smart for their own good.  In this case, law-abiding citizens or police officers could easily be killed by the inferior science of the terrorists' or criminals' firearms – the inferior science that makes sure they will fire when their wielders need them to fire.

Recall also that in Tom Clancy's Red Storm Rising (1986), terrorists use an oil refinery's electronic controls to spill, and then ignite, a flammable liquid.  Clancy's scenario became reality when Iran's enemies used the Stuxnet computer virus to cause uranium enrichment centrifuges to spin out of control.  James Watt invented a very simple device to prevent mechanical equipment from spinning out of control more than 200 years ago:

The vertical shaft labeled D is connected to the engine whose speed is to be controlled.  If it spins too rapidly, the centrifugal force causes the two weighted balls to move away from each other, which in turn closes the valve that supplies steam to the engine.  Mechanical speed governors also make it impossible for an elevator to plummet dozens of stories, even if the steel cables snap.

How does this relate to smart guns, electronic gun safes, and smart phone kill systems?  If something is critical to human safety, the old ways are indeed the best.  Watt's centrifugal engine speed governor, and the elevator speed governor, cannot be hacked or disabled by electronic interference.  They are immune to electrical power failures.  Hydraulic brakes in automobiles cannot be hacked or disabled remotely; somebody who wants to sabotage them by cutting the hydraulic lines must expose himself to detection and apprehension by doing so in person.  Mechanical gun safes, such as those that use keys and buttons (simplex locks), open to authorized users regardless of dead batteries or electronic interference, and deny access to electronic safe cracking techniques.

This is not to say we should not welcome the conveniences that come with modern electronics, but rather that the older methods should always be available – and, in an emergency, they should have the final say.  As an example, if the electronics say an engine is operating normally, and the mechanical governor determines that it is going so fast that it will destroy itself or something else, the mechanical governor slows it or shuts it down, and also generates an alarm (visual and audible control) to alert those responsible.

Now let's see how the same principle applies to gun safes.  The bottom line is that electronic gun safes aren't safe.

California Gun Safety Rocket Scientists, 0; Three-Year-Old, 1

Responsible parents buy gun safes to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of children.  People without children buy them to keep them out of the hands of criminals.  Let's see how well some electronic safes, all of which are approved by California's Department of Justice for firearm storage, fulfill this role.

It's pretty obvious that if a 3-year-old child can open a California-approved gun safe, a criminal can do the same, and then turn the weapon on the homeowner or a responding police officer.  This video claims that it is possible to break into a California-approved electronic gun safe with a paperclip.  This video cites the California Department of Justice explicitly.  It seems that California, the same state that knows that just about everything causes cancer, and also regards itself as qualified to tell you what kind of firearms you "need" for self-defense purposes, also "knows" that safes that can be opened by small children are eminently qualified to secure deadly weapons from unauthorized users.

This again returns us to the observation that the old ways are the best.  Mechanical simplex locks cannot be opened by tapping them in the right manner, or by picking them with a paper clip.

The left's push for smart guns, cell phone kill switches, and so on is simply another manifestation of the gun control movement's dangerous incompetence.  It is the same incompetence that advises people to recklessly discharge shotguns if they feel threatened, or to use trigger locks that are likely to make their weapons unusable in an emergency.  It is past time that rational Americans call out this dangerous incompetence for exactly what it is.

William A. Levinson, P.E. is the author of several books on business management including content on organizational psychology, as well as manufacturing productivity and quality.