Smart Guns: The smart way forwards or just a dumb idea?

Every year, 400,000 guns are stolen in the USA, fuelling violent crime, while opportunistic criminals frequently grab police officers’ guns and turn them against them.  Moreover, in 2015, there were 278 recorded incidents of a child under 18 accidentally shooting either themselves or someone else with a gun they found lying around at home or in a vehicle and, in the same year, more people were killed by toddlers than by terrorists.  Indeed, for every use of a firearm in a justified case of self defence there are 2 accidental gun deaths.

Clearly this problem needs addressing, but how? One solution is the smart gun, a personalised firearm which can only be fired by its owner.  Some smart guns use fingerprint scanning technology; others can only be fired when in close proximity to a watch or ring worn by the user.  This technology is not new – one of the first smart guns was patented in 2000 – but so far has failed to catch on.  Should the American government enforce the use of smart guns, as was attempted in New Jersey in 2002?

The Silver Bullet

The ethical arguments in favour of the forced use of smart guns are strong.  Firstly, take the number of accidental deaths, many of which are of children.  The US media is full of tragic stories of minors accidentally killing themselves or other children, something which causes an enormous amount of grief and guilt for the families affected.  If smart guns were to be enforced, then even if children did have access to guns, they would not be able to fire them.

A utilitarian – someone who believes that the correct ethical decision is the one that maximises human welfare or wellbeing – would certainly say that the number of deaths saved greatly outweighs any dissatisfaction or inconvenience caused to gun owners in adopting the new technology.

In addition, in the USA there is a widespread view that possessing a gun will make you safer, however there is a 32:1 ratio of homicides to justified killings in self-defence using guns. The FBI report for the year of 2015 highlighted 71.5% of the nation’s murders involved a gun, and in a study 37% of adults and juveniles in a state prison admitted to obtaining a gun through illegal methods. It follows that a large portion of murders committed were using a gun obtained illegally. Using smart guns drastically increases the difficulty of stealing and using a gun as there are security measures incorporated into the weapon, reducing the previously mentioned statistics.

Furthermore, homicides using legally purchased weapons could also be reduced as smart guns provide the ability to track gun usage. This constitutes a disincentive to maliciously using legally purchased weapons, as the authorities would be able to more easily track weapons and identify the user.

Using the principles of consequential ethics it is clear that great harm is posed to the public from gun thefts, therefore making it more difficult to use a stolen gun creates a safer society without restricting people’s right to bear arms.


A shot in the foot

With gun theft, violence, and nearly 2 million children living in homes with loaded, unlocked guns, it is easy to see smart guns as a logical solution to preventing accidents. However, numerous critics have pointed out that smart guns are not the ideal solution they are supposed to be, and may carries issues far larger than the ones they plan to solve.

For starters, smart guns may create more safety-issues than they promise to solve. Take tech failures for instance; every piece of electronic equipment which is added to a system increases its chances of failure. As techcrunch put it, in a gun-owner’s world, reliability is paramount. It’s the reason why some WW2-era weapons are still in use in some parts of the world today; because they are tried and tested, reliable pieces of weaponry. Think of how many times your phone’s voice detection system or fingerprint scanner has malfunctioned. Would such a failure be admissible in a life or death situation?

In addition, it is important to consider hacking. The past few years have seen countless news reports on the hacking of what are supposed to be the safest branches of numerous national governments, resulting in information leaks and data theft.  Is using electronic technology in weapons, making them not only detectable but vulnerable to hacking, not adding risk instead of removing it?

Then comes the issue of child suicide. Stopping children from getting hold of weapons and potentially injuring or killing themselves or others, is perhaps the clearest benefit smart guns bring, and was the objective of the 2002 New Jersey Childproof Handgun Law. But at this point, is it worth it? Putting aside that cheaper and easier solutions exist (such as gun safes), is the few incidents which this would prevent worth the thousands it would create? A hedonist, for whom pleasure is the most important factor in many ethical decisions, would perhaps suggest that the inconvenience caused to millions of gun owners would outweigh the potential benefits to a smaller minority.

On a larger scale, one of the main points of contention regarding smart guns would be that they are being forced upon consumers, as seen in the previously mentioned 2002 New Jersey Childproof Handgun Law, which sought to ban the sale of all non-smart guns three years after the first smart gun was available for retail purposes. Due to concerns, e.g. that the user identification system may create delays in firing, hampering the user’s ability to use the weapon in an emergency, public outrage and various boycotts have prevented the law from coming into application to this day. This shows that a significant part of the public does not want this piece of technology.

The freedom principle states that everyone is free to strive for their own happiness so long as they do hinder the happiness of others. Enforcing smart guns would effectively violate this principle and people’s personal freedoms, creating a major dilemma in a nation that holds freedom very highly.

Finally, regarding the nearly 2 million children living with access to loaded guns, the issue isn’t necessarily that they can fire the guns but that they have access to them in the first place. Shouldn’t this issue of negligence be tackled through social and educational means as opposed to masking it with an engineering solution?


All in all, there are a lot of potential benefits and drawbacks to the enforcement of smart guns, and as gun control continues to be a highly divisive topic, the debate concerning smart guns is likely to continue.

What do you think about this? Should smart guns be enforced in the USA?


11 thoughts on “Smart Guns: The smart way forwards or just a dumb idea?

  1. This is a no brainer, and should totally be compulsory when a viable solution is invented. A requirement by law to use these systems will encourage those manufacturers to innovate by creating the market to develop a solution. This also wouldn’t interfere with the second amendment, as enforcing storage of firearms in a locked safe would inhibit the ability for a citizen to defend themselves, for example if their home was broken into. If it stops innocent people from dying, surely it is unethical not to act?


    1. Firstly, nice article! Personally I think this is unlikely to happen in America due to the gun lobby and the massive numbers of guns already in circulation- and actually something that would have been nice to have known from the article was whether guns can be retrofitted with these safety devices? The New Jersey law was clearly a colossal mistake as it stifled any attempts to bring safer guns onto the market for reason that otherwise would never have been at odds with the gun lobby- like for parents who wanted a gun but were concerned that their kids might use it by mistake. Maybe if the idea were to catch on in a particular sector of the market it would slowly spread to other sectors. For instance, if law enforcement or police officers were issued with the gun as standard it would catch on more widely, as well as making their jobs safer and protecting their friends and family in the event that somebody other than the officer tried to use the gun.


  2. Any measure that has the potential to reduce deaths from firearms has to be a good thing! So yes I wholeheartedly support the enforced use of Smart Guns. However I think America really need to make owning a firearm illegal unless by special licence.


  3. The statistics are indefensible, and it’s clear that something needs to be done regarding gun control in the United States. I had never considered smart guns as an option, but seems that it may stem the flow of illegal gun trade, something that an outright ban would struggle to achieve, and yet still preserve the constitutional freedom that many gun users continue to fight to defend.

    The reliability of the new technology and cost of nationwide implementation poses a question, however – would all existing firearms be able to be converted, and would such a programme be feasible? If yes, it only seems ethical to implement – surely everyone could agree that preventing gun deaths is the biggest goal both sides could aim to achieve?


  4. I really like the article and I can understand the desire to reduce gun related deaths. However my worry with the design shown is that users will have to take time placing their finger correctly, the scanner to scan and the mechanisms to work. In an emergency situation that time could be critical, if not the time between life and death. I applaud the idea (in conjunction with changing gun culture) but I think the design should consider reducing this time as much as possible.


  5. Major resistance both from american gun owners and the lobby have prevented many overly due amendments to existing gun laws in the US, if I recall it correctly Obama himself failed with a project during his first term. What is interesting about intelligent guns is that they may provide a way to “make guns safer” without having to enforce a more restrictive law. They may appeal both to fans of gimmicky technology and the gun lobby, as they can provide a larger margin when efficiently promoted. In that point I agree zith M. Dwane, the New Jersey law was a mistake, of course, not because of it’s intention, but because of it’s poor chances of succes due to the current situation in the US. Promoting safer guns without imposing their use is the most promising path I guess.
    Hollywood has already done the world a favor, picking up the trend in Skyfall.


  6. Seems completely logical to use smart guns, I hadn’t thought about it until this great article! I do think the previous comments touch on a valid point of whether today’s guns can be retrofitted with smart technology. Even if they can, wouldn’t getting hold of said weapons, especially illegal ones, be a huge challenge?


  7. Smart Guns sound like an excellent start to tackling the gun problem in the United States. I would imagine the production cost would increase greatly, and perhaps therefore the cost of purchasing one. This could form into an argument that smart guns would still impede the second amendment, if lots of citizens couldn’t afford to ‘defend themselves’. I also wonder what would happen to all the currently not smart guns, and how hard it would be to get current weapons out of the market. I think this is a great idea and hope the States head in this direction. Great article!


  8. I’m all for new gun restriction methods, however in agreement with some of the comments above, this seems as implementable as circular runways… It’s effectiveness will rely solely on popular investment.
    The article already makes some great points of discussion and even goes as far to provide a cheaper alternative, a ‘gun safe’. So honestly, what’s the point?
    A gun is a gun, it only has one purpose… safety is not one of them.


  9. In my opinion the scale of gun violence and number of accidents in the US being what they are, it seems totally justified to try to curb them and take strong action to prevent it from happening, even if this means putting some rules, restrictions and extra cost that will hinder the ability of every citizen to own, buy or use a gun. I think this is so obvious from abroad and I am still appalled to see how the gun lobbies (NRA and such), with their financial and marketing might, can spread a distorted version of the situation and obviously confused the average american citizen so much concerning the possible solutions. It is time that an independant agency starts to evaluate the financial cost of such violence, for the society. It is time that the US governement listen to citizen feeling threatened by a minority of irresponsible and paranoid people, and take action. I think smart guns would be a step in the right direction, as the benefits largely outweight the costs. “One’s freedom ends where the others’ start” as the saying goes.


  10. From an engineering point of view I believe this is a potential solution. The use of gun has been around for centuries and currently not many people have tried to improve the design. I think from an ethical prospective, I agree as the benifts outweighs the limitations. One of the reasons for increase gun crimes is due to the ease of getting the gun. With the additional features only the registered user will be able to use it. Eradicating the use of guns will never happen so improving them is the only way forward.


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