Friday, January 30, 2015

It might be a while

Smart Guns: How Close Are We Really? (Government Technology)
[...M]any topics surrounding smart guns were approached and many questions were fielded, but finding conclusions or consensus began to feel like a photographer’s pursuit of the sunset. Smart guns are a topic so mired in political dispute, technological uncertainty, arcane legal policy, and institutional avoidance and denial that each pursuit of an answer simply presented a sound of hemming and hawing that was accompanied by a new set of questions.
The challenge of smart guns is interesting on many levels.

First, the basic function of a firearm — a mechanical force applied to a primer and igniting a propellant that forces a projectile from a tube at high speed — hasn't changed much in the last hundred and fifty years and it doesn't require electricity. The energy used in the function of a firearm is provided kinetically, by cocking it, and then chemically in the ignition of the primer and powder.

Adding biometrics or other 21st century security technologies to a system like this requires a power source and the power sources that come with the basic function of the firearm aren't obviously well suited to powering microprocessor-based identity solutions.

So adding ID technology to firearms requires either a way of harnessing the energy already available to power the ID technology, or adding a power source that can supply the ID technology with the energy it needs to work. Those are both fairly significant challenges. The preferred solution to the power supply issue in smart guns seems to be the addition of a battery for the ID technology. But a battery-reliant firearm is a very different piece of hardware than current models that can be left stored, ready for instant use, more or less indefinitely. That feature of the current hardware set-up is highly relevant to the way many firearms are used by their current owners. "Wait, I need to charge my gun" probably isn't something most firearm owners are looking forward to saying.

Then, there's the corollary to the fact that modern firearms are essentially a nineteenth century technology: Actual firearms manufactured in the nineteenth century still perform their intended function just fine. Since firearms are fairly easy to maintain, it's not clear how long it might take for smart guns to account for any significant proportion of the total number of firearms.

Given these challenges (and there are others), it seems pretty clear that smart guns are destined to be a niche product. There still may be a niche or two where smart guns make a lot of sense. But what would that niche look like?

People in frequent contact with a unique firearm would be accustomed to maintaining it frequently and would not be constrained by having to "enroll" on new hardware so often as to cause annoyance. Many who use a firearm in the course of their profession fit this description.

Professionals who carry firearms along with other rechargeable electronic equipment (flashlights, walkie-talkies, handheld computers, etc.) might not find plugging another piece of hardware into a recharger at the end of a day's work too inconvenient.

People who are at a heightened risk of having their own firearm used against them might find smart gun technology more valuable than those with lower risk.

Those interested in smart guns should keep niches like these in mind as potential early adopters of smart gun technology. If the cost/benefit of the technology doesn't work there, it's hard to see it taking off anywhere.

For other firearm owners interested in using new ID technologies to make owning a firearm safer, there are a range of solutions and the good news is they're backward compatible for use with dumb guns.