Smart Guns: Evolving Technology and Outdated Laws

Dru Stevenson - University of Houston Law Center

-- “Smart guns,” which originally meant personalized guns that only the owner could fire, had a false start as a promising new technology several years ago. The first generation of smart guns foundered on problems with the reliability of the technology, as well as political missteps and boycotts that led the gun industry to abandon development of the products. Newer technologies, however, such as improved biometric grip identifiers, precision-guided rifles that rarely miss, blockchain or “glockchain” automated tracking, and optical scopes that send videos to smart phones, have revived interest in the products. In my new article Smart Guns, the Law, and the Second Amendment, I explore the emerging second-generation smart gun technology, its potential for adoption by the military, law enforcement, and civilian markets, and the realistic prospects for improvements in safety or reduction in gun violence.

Electronically personalized guns (or, more technically, electronically controlled safety mechanisms, or ECSMs) could help reduce gun injuries and deaths, especially for children and teens, but they would certainly not solve everything, or even most of the gun deaths. It may be worth encouraging the development of the technology to save a few hundred lives per year, but advocates (and politicians) should not overpromise what the technology could achieve. Personalized guns would be unlikely to have much impact on the horrific rampage shootings in schools and other places crowded with innocent, unsuspecting civilians. Personalized guns, even if popular, may have little impact on domestic gun violence and elderly suicides, which comprise a huge share of annual gun deaths, or on interpersonal revenge. The promise these devices have for reducing firearm injuries and fatalities makes their deficiencies and unmarketability even more frustrating.

The second development in smart gun technology that I discuss is what I call Guns That Cannot Miss, though the technical terminology would be precision-guided firearms, a subset of autonomous weapons systems (AWS). These sophisticated weapons use computer processing and advanced optics to lock on targets – including moving targets – and to correct for wind, humidity, Coriolis effect, rifle cant, weight of the cartridge, and even the absence of light. High-end models can hit a moving target in the dark at 1400 yards (about eight-tenths of a mile), even with an unskilled shooter, and can enable an operator at a remote location to fire the gun while another person merely carries it on location and points it toward the target. Naturally, such weapons are especially appealing for military use (see also here), but they are available for the civilian market, though outside the price range of most gun purchasers. These next-gen weapons with super-lethality could force our legal system to revisit long-held assumptions about the proper line between intentional and unintentional homicides, attempted versus completed crimes, the right of self-defense, police shootings of fleeing suspects, and even the presumed sporting virtues of hunting. Precision-guided guns, due to their infallible lethality, might make traditional, mechanical guns seem more legitimate by comparison. It may be that the greatest harm precision-guided firearms do is not in how the owners use them, but that they make other guns seem (deceptively) harmless, tame, and unremarkable.

I also discuss the emerging technology of guns that track everything – not only audio/video uploads from the scope, but also nuanced movement tracking, similar to the “black box” in an automobile that constantly records speed, acceleration, braking, and turns. These guns record, often in encrypted form, obviously every discharge, but also the angle and location at the instant of discharge, every movement of the gun before and after discharge. Creating such a record presents enhanced accountability for law enforcement, like the policy rationales for police bodycams, but also could enhance justifications for shootings, validating a subsequent claim of self-defense by a civilian gun owner. A related emerging gun technology uses blockchain (now dubbed “glockchain”). The online, anonymous blockchain ledgers could assist with owner registration, tracing crime guns (chain of custody), locating stolen guns, and even with concealed carry permits, hunting licenses, and firearm purchase background checks.

Weapons, considered as a type of technology, inherently pose both moral hazard and adverse selection issues, as do some other technologies. From a moral hazard standpoint, having a gun brings a feeling of confidence, security, and sometimes even dominance. Whether consciously or unconsciously, those who believe they have reduced or eliminated their odds of injury or premature death will take more risks than they would otherwise. When we insure or ensure ourselves against some harm, we simply do not need to be as careful to avoid it. Adverse selection is a screening effect: the people you would least want to have technologically superior firepower are the most likely to want it, and are disproportionately likely, from a statistical standpoint, to obtain it.

There are other new or emerging technologies related to firearms that also fall outside the scope of this Article, even though they deserve more academic commentary. These are 3D-printed guns (which are in fact rudimentary, not technologically sophisticated, weapons), microstamping (serial number imprints on bullet casings that tie each bullet fired to the gun that discharged it), and gunshot or gun detection technology, which utilizes AI and other technologies to recognize and alert security or law enforcement personnel instantly to the presence or guns or where shots have been fired (see also here). It is also worth remembering that advanced electronics are not the only technological advancements happening in the firearm industry. Manufacturers are innovating to meet intense consumer demand for firearms optimized for concealed carrying, now that all states permit the practice. This means engineering with new materials and new designs to make guns smaller and lighter, but still powerful enough to kill an adult with one shot.

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