Gun Control: What About Technology?

Why don’t guns recognize their owners and not shoot when in other hands?

Loading the podcast player...

Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

The United States is currently engaged in a vibrant national debate about guns, gun violence, and the balance between gun regulations and the right to bear arms. But surprisingly little is being said about the various technologies that might be deployed to reduce the hazard of guns while safeguarding the freedoms of gun owners.

There are a number of potential biometric controls—ways that guns can be made to fail to fire if they don’t recognize the person holding them. Could they have spared the life or well-being of a Sandy Hook student? An Aurora moviegoer? A Tucson congresswoman? We can’t know till we ask the question.

One reason for the technological lacuna in the national discussion is that the technologies haven’t been discussed much, even among technologists. And they haven’t been implemented very much, either, apparently less for technological reasons than political ones. And so my guest today, Robert Spitzer, is more of an academic than a technologist. He’s a professor of political science at the State University of New York’s College at Cortland and the author of the book The Politics of Gun Control, now in its fifth edition. He joins us by phone.

Robert, welcome to the podcast.

Robert Spitzer: It’s good to be with you.

Steven Cherry: Let’s start by recapping some of the technologies. In the lab at least, guns have been made that read a fingerprint. Others won’t fire if they don’t detect the presence of a sensor built into a ring worn on your finger. And guns can even be made to the unique grip of the person holding them. An article in Wired back in 2002 described these technologies as experimental. Are they still experimental?

Robert Spitzer: Well, they are experimental to the extent that gun companies have not seized the opportunity to really work on these systematically to develop them. The technologies, as you suggested in the year 2002, this is now 10 years ago, that some of these technologies received much attention. There’s been no great leap, really, to working on these technologies, developing them further, and actually making them available to new guns being sold, but the gun industry by and large has shown no particular interest in pursuing these technologies and has tended to pooh-pooh them, in fact, even though there would seem to be good reason for pursuing them.

Steven Cherry: Now, a question could be raised about whether these technologies are foolproof enough that they work every time, or could be made to be so. If you’re a police officer, or even a homeowner confronting a robber, you need for that gun to work absolutely every time.

Robert Spitzer: That’s certainly true, and speed itself would be a possible question in this regard. And if you’re a police officer, those considerations would be extremely important, and presumably the technology would have to be ready to do so. Now, I’m reminded of another technological breakthrough of a sort that dates back more than a decade, which is holsters. New York state police officers, for example, all have holsters, where it’s very difficult for somebody who’s not wearing a holster to easily withdraw a gun from the holster. And a police officer will show you. In fact, I’ve seen demonstrations where an officer needs to make three fairly distinctive moves once his or her hand is on the service weapon, to remove it from the holster before it can be fired. But they can do that relatively quickly. But for someone reaching behind an officer to pull a gun from the holster, it’s virtually impossible. So that’s a good example of a technological advantage that’s helped reduce the number of police officers being shot by their own weapons, and having the weapons stripped off of the officers as well.

Steven Cherry: So bottom line: Would any of these technologies, suitably developed and deployed, have averted or lessened any of the 60 or so mass shootings in the past 30 years, or the 87 gun deaths on an average day in the U.S.?

Robert Spitzer: That’s a good question. There’s reason to believe that it would have had an effect on some of those shootings. For example, the shooter in, most recently, at Sandy Hook elementary in Connecticut actually used guns that belonged to his mother. I mean, indeed, he killed his mother before going to the school and shooting the schoolchildren. So had those weapons been fingerprint accessible only to the mother, the son would not have been able to make use of those guns.

It gets to the larger question of, do these individuals, especially when engaged in these mass shootings, but in other gun crimes as well, do they obtain their guns legally, or under what circumstances do they obtain their guns? And with respect to mass shootings, for example, there’s been a study of mass shootings in the last several decades, which reports that approximately 80 percent of those who obtained their guns and then committed mass shootings obtained them legally. Now if you obtained your gun legally, presumably you’re getting the identification technology that goes with it. So that’s a different problem, although it raises the question of how people with mental problems, as is true with many of these mass shooters, got these guns in the first place.

That’s not a technology problem; that’s a policy and a judgment problem. But clearly for guns that are stolen and guns that are lost, for those who are injured and killed through accidental gun discharges, such technologies would have clear benefits. And I don’t know how much that would show up in overall national statistics regarding gun harm and gun violence, but one could certainly imagine and hypothesize that it would result in a reduction in the number of gun deaths and injuries for the number of guns that are stolen or that hurt people as the result of an accident.

Steven Cherry: Now, it seems these technologies would add considerably to the cost of a gun, but you argue that cost is not the reason for the widespread rejection of smart-gun technologies.

Robert Spitzer: Yeah, if you look at technological innovation, and especially the imposition of safety devices in other manufacturing areas, automobiles, for example, there are a couple things you know right away. One is, for example, that with respect to automobiles, the big American automobile dealers resisted the imposition of new safety technologies and safety devices in automobiles bitterly. They said it would be extremely expensive, that it would be complicated, that drivers did not care about auto safety, but at this point, of course, we take for granted the fact that cars all have seatbelts. They have padded dashboards. They have collapsible steering columns. They have airbags. And ultimately those technologies proved invariably to cost far less than the automakers predicted. And they’ve had enormous benefit, resulting in the savings of tens of thousands of lives and uncounted injuries, and, you know, today we simply take them for granted.

And I think today we’re very much in the same place regarding the gun industry. The difference is that the government is not in the same position to simply mandate the changes with respect to safety requirements be imposed. It could happen, I suppose, at some point, but because the government has kind of a hands-off approach to the gun industry, by comparison to other industrial sectors, we’ve not seen that happening. There surely would be a cost, but like any innovation, what tends to happen is that there’s an initial, fairly high, startup cost in your research and the initial implementation, but then over time the costs decline. As a percentage of the cost of a gun, it would be relatively modest, it would decline over time, and it would have obvious benefits.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, it’s an interesting comparison because the car companies now tout these various safety features that they initially resisted. And in fact, one gun-control-advocating group is kind of worried about smart-gun technologies, precisely because they’re afraid that the gun manufacturers would then turn around and tout how safe their guns now are.

Robert Spitzer: Well, that’s right, and this is part of the interplay between the technology and manufacturing of guns and the politics of guns, and politics of gun control. And we’re at a point in the political debate where the political side of the gun industry, which is the National Rifle Association, they’re not formally linked, but they’ve served as the political front force of the gun industry for many, many years. Their attitude is really a hardline attitude of no concessions, no changes, nothing from the government, and guns simply are dangerous, and people need to be careful with them.

But the only danger is people who use guns in a malicious way, and of course that sidesteps the fact that guns cause a lot of harm in other ways than a group like the National Rifle Association will admit. So in terms of the overall safety picture, there is much that can be done, but the political debate right now is one where the gun industry has been unwilling to kind of voluntarily step forward and say, “We can do these things. They will be helpful to our customers and a sale point to some of our manufacturers.”

I would add that in 1999 and 2000, one of the large gun companies voluntarily made an agreement with the Clinton administration that it would sell trigger locks, or, you know, box locks, with all of their new guns, because it was an initiative that the Clinton administration was pursuing by legislation. And that one company, it was heaped with scorn. It was ostracized by the NRA. The NRA told their members not to buy their guns. They suffered considerable loss in sales, and they were severely punished for, you know, voluntarily joining with the presidential administration to simply make uniform the availability of gun locks for all new guns that they were selling. So it’s an indication of how much in lockstep the industry and the political side of the gun world have been united in the past to avoid change, technology, and innovation.

Steven Cherry: One of the few attempts to bring smart guns into the national conversation was an article in the New York Times. Actually, I’m sort of flattering it. It was a blog entry in early January. The article quoted you as saying, “There is also no appetite by the government to press ahead with any kind of regulation requiring smart guns.” Why is that?

Robert Spitzer: Well, I think that it’s because the government, those who are pursuing stronger gun measures, are focusing on other things. Primarily they’re focusing on President Obama’s initiative and his supporters in Congress who want to restrict sales of assault weapons, of large-capacity bullet magazines, improvement of recordkeeping, making uniform the background-check process for all gun sales, and I think they’ve just got their hands full with that stuff, frankly, and they’ve just now turned their attention to the particular matter of the technology or requiring the technology, the technological advances for the gun industry.

They could do it by other than regulatory mechanism, that is, by providing money incentives to gun manufacturers. But I think they just don’t have much of a rapport with gun manufacturers to begin with. I think the NRA would squelch any dialogue between gun companies and the government, and so I think that it’s just been a nonstarter for so many different reasons from both ends.

Steven Cherry: The politics of gun control in the U.S. are tricky in part because the Constitution’s Second Amendment, it says, “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Is there anything there that would rule out smart-gun technologies?

Robert Spitzer: The answer is no. Now, I will add to that that some of the gun-rights community argue that any kind of restriction on guns, on gun technologies, things like that, does represent a de facto infringement on the right to bear arms, but I think that’s an argument that’s at best extremely thin. There’s certainly no case law, no court cases, that would support that that would be a constitutional problem. But it is a political problem, and here again, anytime any kind of government regulation is proposed regarding guns, it invariably includes, as a response, cries that the Second Amendment is being infringed.

Steven Cherry: You write in your book that just as too much order crushes freedom, too little invites social chaos that also threatens freedom. Would smart guns tip the balance against freedom?

Robert Spitzer: I can’t see how. Governance in the most general sense involves, just as you’re suggesting, a kind of a balance between freedom and order. We want the government to impose a basic degree of order in society, because otherwise we would have chaos, whether it’s driving on the right-hand side of the road, or obeying the speed limits, or doing many, many other things in our daily lives that we don’t really think much about, but that are framed by the laws of our society so that we can live together. And it’s just hard to see how any of the kind of technological innovations we’ve been talking about would have any adverse effect on that balance.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Well, thanks, Robert. It’s a tough issue that’s not talked about enough, so thanks for talking with us today.

Robert Spitzer: It’s very good to talk to you.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Robert Spitzer, author of the book The Politics of Gun Control, about the technologies of gun control.

For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 5 February 2013.
Segment producer: Barbara Finkelstein; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli.

Read more “Techwise Conversations or follow us on Twitter.

NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.