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?