President Obama called for gun-control measures with tears in his eyes, but his words will put smiles on the faces of smart-gun makers - but can it work?
He asked why the “most technologically advanced nation on Earth” doesn’t use biometrics to secure weapons. “If we can set it up so you can’t unlock your phone unless you’ve got the right fingerprint, why can’t we do the same thing for our guns?”
Smart guns already exist. Armatix’s iP1 pistol will only fire if the user wears a watch with a matching RFID chip, whereas Mossberg’s handgun unlocks via an RFID ring. Identilock and Kodiak have also developed fingerprint scanners.
The appeal of smart guns is clear, said independent security analyst Joseph Steinberg: they reduce the likelihood of people accidentally shooting themselves or others; make it harder for stolen guns to be used; and make it tougher for criminals to take a police officer’s gun. However, they’re held back by politics and technical challenges.
Not so smart
Making a reliable smart gun isn’t easy. “There are complexities involved with putting sensitive electronics inside an object that absorbs quite a bit of force,” Steinberg told us. “Biometric authentication technology is imperfect, and electronics crash and malfunction, especially in cold and hot temperatures.”
Steinberg points to one fact: smart guns haven’t been bought by any police departments in the US. “If the professionals don’t trust the weapons to be reliable, why would anyone else?”
That said, certain complaints have been solved. One common query is what happens when the battery fails. Robert McNamara, co-founder of RFID gun safety firm TriggerSmart Technologies, told PCTA that modern designs have a ten-year battery life, and have microcontrollers and LED indicators to warn of low power.
It’s reasonable to expect the guns will be hacked. Critics point out that RFID tokens can be stolen, fingerprint authentication on smartphones has been cracked, and guns must be disassembled to be cleaned. “Manufacturers need to show evidence that criminals who steal smart guns cannot modify them to work with the technology removed or disabled,” Steinberg noted.
Moreover, he said there are concerns that the guns may be subject to government tracking or jamming. Sound paranoid? Steinberg says we only need look at the NSA’s record on network hacking: “Are firearms really less worthy of being tracked than telephone records?”
Politics also holds back smart guns. Safety measures have been criticised by the National Rifle Association (NRA), following short-lived laws requiring all weapons to be smart.
Ten years ago, New Jersey introduced legislation that would have banned normal guns once smart versions became available, prompting boycotts from the firearms industry.
However, none of this means that smart guns are a bad idea. TriggerSmart’s McNamara said that an intruder won’t have time to hack your gun, saying the aim is to reduce accidental “discharge” while still keeping guns useful for such situations.