Why I Would Buy a Smart Gun

Why I Would Buy a Smart Gun

Over at our sister site RealClearScience, Tom Hartsfield has a piece called "Smart Guns Are Stupid Technology." That's what "science would say," he writes.

I share many of his concerns, and I think mandating smart guns is a bad (and probably unconstitutional) idea. But he goes too far in opposing any "gun that is hamstrung by special technological conditions to fire." In fact, I could see myself buying a smart gun one day. Here's why.

The idea of a smart gun is that it can fire when an authorized person is holding it, but not otherwise. The current versions of these guns are pretty awful — the most hyped one, for example, requires the user to wear a special watch in order for the gun to work. For that clunky setup you'll pay about $1,800. (The Glock 17, a very nice gun, goes for one-third of that amount.) Oh, and it's a .22-caliber, a size more suited to squirrel hunting than self-defense.

I wouldn't trade my decade-old Ruger 9mm for that, even at no charge. But I would trade some chance of not being able to use my gun in an emergency for a greater assurance that the gun wouldn't fire in the wrong hands. In fact, Hartsfield himself encourages people to make that tradeoff — he advises storing guns somewhere they're "hard to find," with the safety on if one is available, which will be a problem if someone breaks in at night and you don't wake up until they're close.

I'm worried about three situations where an unauthorized person could fire my gun. One, a child — such as my own — could get hold of it. Two, someone could steal the gun, and that person would of course be a criminal. And three, in the event I use the gun in self-defense, someone could wrestle it away from me.

None of these problems can be completely addressed with current storage methods. You might forget to return a gun to its proper location immediately after carrying or practicing with it; a criminal could break into a safe, or steal the whole safe and deal with it later; and storage is irrelevant when you're wrestling with an assailant over the weapon. Smart guns hold out the promise of solving these issues.

I'm especially drawn to the idea of a gun that would be useless to a burglar, or even one with a security system that would be difficult to disable. Most criminals who pack heat aren't gun nuts; some don't even know how to load their weapons. Criminals usually don't carry guns they stole personally, but many procure weapons on the black market, and hundreds of thousands of guns are stolen each year in the United States.

Exactly how big of a risk would I take for a gun with these capabilities? I will say that this scenario, which leads Hartsfield's article, isn't high on my list of concerns:

The power has been out for two months. Word of mouth, around the FEMA depots, says it should be back soon. That's what they said last month too. Suddenly, in the wreckage of your home, you hear the footsteps of a band of looters. You reach for your gun, but it won't unlock because its battery died last week...

Here are some features I would demand, though. One, it can't require me to wear a device to activate it. Two, it must reliably recognize me — no technology works exactly 100 percent of the time, but if people who buy the gun say it fails even once on a typical trip to the range, I'm out. Three, it has to be available in an actual self-defense caliber. Four, if it relies on a battery, it must have a good system for warning me to recharge or change it. And five, it must be affordable when compared with non-smart alternatives.

If I ever decide to replace my current gun, and if guns are available that meet these conditions, I very well may get a smart gun. A lot of other gun owners say they'd consider a smart gun too.

Some of the backlash against smart guns is justified. Again, it will be some time before they're good enough and cheap enough to be a serious option. And New Jersey didn't do anyone any favors when it passed a law banning the sale of non-smart guns as soon as smart guns become available. (That law remains on the books, though the state's attorney general has decided that the .22-caliber described above doesn't trigger it.)

But smart guns are not inherently a bad idea. One day, they will likely present a tradeoff that's acceptable to many people.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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