Thursday, May 15, 2014

Smart Guns, Dumb Humans

Image credit: Armatix GmbH
Don't mean to go off too far on this topic, but it seems to be in the news. Everyone form Mark Shea to my dentist has been telling me that "just make everyone shut up and buy one." It's not that simple.

First off, what is a gun? The main stream media wants you to think it is an evil thing, made for destroying families and children. They want you to think the primary use for a gun is crime, and that millions of children killed playing guns each year.

However, gun owners see them as lifesavers. A gun shifts the balance of power. It can make a 90 pound young woman able to stand off a rapist. It can make a 90 year old man stand off a gang of young punks. It can stop the armed home invader, or carjacker. But in those situations it has to work, and work quickly and work reliably.

Fighting Fires
In  lot of ways, a gun is like a fire extinguisher. It's something that you hope you never have to use, but if you need it, you need it, and it can save your life. And that's an analogy worth exploring further.

You see, a fire extinguisher does a simple job, and it is made to be the simplest device that can do the job, and as simple to operate as possible, because when you need it you are panicking, and possibly injured, and not able to operate complex equipment.

Who in their right mind would design a fire extinguisher that required the owner to be wearing a special watch on their right wrist, and enter a 5 digit security code before they could use it? Who in their right mind would design a fire extinguisher that couldn't be used by their wife, neighbor, etc.? Nobody, of course. And yet, that's what the purveyors of "smart" guns want to impose.

Impose? Merely having a product in existence is not "imposing," is it? Sadly it is. First off, in New Jersey there is a law on the books that says within 18 months of the first "smart" gun being available, not "non-smart" guns will be legal to sell in the state. How many ways is this legislation bad? I don't have enough electrons here to go into all the details. Suffice it to say that the law is bad for citizens, for gun manufacturers, and even for smart gun makers (since it guarantees that recent events will repeat themselves whenever someone wants to bring the technology to market).

New Jersey Senate majority leader Loretta Weinberg (D) says that they will rescind the smart gun law if the NRA will stop opposing smart gun technology. No, sorry. You don't use bad laws a weapons to beat people into submission. Realize that the NRA is not some corporation like Apple, or even a group representing gun manufacturers. It is a group representing law abiding citizens who legally own legal guns legally. If the NRA is against something it's because millions of their members are against it. Besides, we know she will reintroduce the law as soon as the next thing comes along that the NRA opposes.

Saw Stop
But even if you don't live in New Jersey, smart gun technology is scary, because it might keep your fire extinguisher gun from working when you need it, and because we know it will become mandatory. Consider the case of Carlos Osorio. He defeated all the safety devices on his table saw, then cut himself. And as sad as that is, it gets worse. A court ruled in his favor and said that because saw stop technology existed and the saw didn't have it, it was the manufacturer's fault.

For those who are not wood workers, a table saw has a spinning circular saw blade sticking up out of a table (hence the name). The blade is covered by a guard to keep your hands away from it, a splitter or riving knife to prevent unexpected kickbacks, and the saw is generally plastered with other safety features and warning labels. There is one brand that has a proprietary technology called "saw stop" which electronically detects when flesh contacts the blade rather than wood, and slams a chunk of aluminum into the blade, stopping it instantly (and destroying it in the process).

Now, there's nothing wrong with saw stop technology, if you want to worry about an accident that can really only happen if you are defeating all the other safety measures and relying on it to save your fingers. But saw owners no longer have that choice, because all manufacturers will soon have to have the feature, which will add hundreds of dollars to the retail cost of the saws, and add nothing to saw owners who actually follow safety instructions.

And so it will be with "smart gun" technology. even more so. Of course when your saw stops working, you may be inconvenienced. If you need it for your job you may lose a day's pay while it is replaced or repaired. But you won't die like you will when your fire extinguisher stops working.

"But if it saves just one child..."
62 children (14 and under) died of accidental firearm discharges in 2012. That's 62 too many , but does it indicate a safety problem with the guns themselves, or with the owners? Because no matter how smart the gun is, it will still fire if the owner pulls the trigger (and does whatever the heck else he needs to do). And it will still fire if the user defeats the safety mechanisms (like Carlos Osorio).

But to put that in perspective, 390 children drowned in swimming pools. Considering that about 9 million homes have swimming pools, vs about 35 million homes that have guns, the pool is about 24x more dangerous to have than a gun. And yes, there is smart pool technology, but nobody's forcing all pool owners to buy it. Why? Because pools are not scary.

To be Fair
To be fair, there are smart gun technologies that are not as offensive as the Armatix gun. NJIT is working with dynamic grip recognition, which senses how you hold the gun. Sounds like a good idea, but even that has its unknowns. Under extreme stress you may no hold the gun the same way you do at the range under calm conditions. You may be running for your life, firing at an odd angle from behind something, and you may have to hold the gun in an unusual manner. I heard of a gun owner practicing holding the gun upside down, with his pinky on the trigger, to simulate taking a gun from a holster that was facing the wrong way. It could happen and unless the owner trained his smart gun to recognize that grip I guess he would be out of luck.

And aside from worrying about the gun legitimately failing, we have to consider all the ways someone could make it fail. We have only recently learned that the government has been secretly forcing computer and communications technology manufacturers to put in features to let them eavesdrop. And we know they want to (or perhaps already have) put in technology to let the government turn off the internet when they deem it necessary. Should we give them the opportunity to turn off all the guns as well? Realize that's what the second amendment was supposed to prevent.

[UPDATE: Breaking news - Armatix has filed a patent for a device to remotely disable their guns via commands from a satellite or other signal. There's the government kill switch. I thought it would take longer before that came out.]

But we don't even have to go that far. For technologies like the Armatix gun, it is trivial to buy an RFID jammer, and thereby disarm everyone within range.

But Safety™!
I realize that the intention of the smart guns is to make firearms safer. And one strategy used by anti-gun groups is accusing the "gun nuts" of not wanting their guns to be safe.

But does technology really make them safer? There were around 600 accidental deaths from firearms in the US in 2010. That's out of 300 million guns, used defensively over a million times (and I don't know how many times a year guns are used for hunting or target shooting). That's really an incredible safety record. Anything that makes the gun less reliable, even a tiny bit, is going to have a negative impact on gun safety. For instance, let's say the smart gun works 99% of the time. Out of the 11,000 criminal uses of a gun each year (excluding suicides, who will just pull the trigger a second time), 110 times the gun will not work, and in some percentage of those cases the shooter won't have time for a second shot. So we have saved something less than 110 lives. But in the million defensive uses of guns, the gun will fail 10,000 times, and in some of those cases the defender will be killed by their attacker. Net result is more lives lost.

Then we have the issue of people growing to rely on technology. In this article on smart guns we see a video of one of the smart gun inventors showing the gun to a reporter. Note that he points the gun at her! He "knows" his technology is safe, and so he handles the gun in an objectively unsafe manner. How many people will assume the smart gun will take responsibility for keeping people safe, and disobey the four rules of gun safety (FYI they are (1) treat every gun as if it is loaded at all times, (2) never point a gun at something you don't wish to destroy (3) keep your finger off the trigger until you have decided to shoot and (4) be aware of your target and what's beyond it).

It may surprise you to know that most hand guns have no "safety" to speak of. Yes, they have safety features, but pull the trigger and they will fire. It may also surprise you to know that until recently most police did not carry semiautomatic pistols at all. The reason in both cases is reliability. It took close to 100 years for semiautomatic pistol technology to be reliable enough to not be a detriment. Likewise, the safety lever adds enough unreliability to make the gun less safe. These decisions were not made by "gun nuts" who want to cling to their weapons in the face of logic, or by gun manufacturers hell bent on profits at any human cost, but by the people who keep us safe, and the people who train the people who keep us safe - people who spend their lives analyzing criminal and defensive gun use and calculating how to save the most lives.

I could go on...
...but I won't. I could talk about the (un)reliability of computers in general, and how the arguments for accepting safe technology are being misused, but I'll spare you from them.

Suffice it to say that the smart gun issue is a complex one. In a world where everyone wants sound bites and quick fixes with high technology. On the one side, lawmakers and the public need to trust that when someone owns a gun they are still capable of making rational decisions. On the other side, gun owners have to stop couching every response in terms of the second amendment and explain how laws mandating untested technology are dangerous to the public safety.


Although a windows BSoD on a gun would make for a hilarious comedy sketch, it is less funny if you imagine it happening when trying to save someone's life:

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