Do You Really Need a Smart Gun?

By Duncan Long

July 20, 2002

     Smart guns sound great on paper.

     The basic concept is that a smart gun would be a firearm which can only be operated by its legal owner. As such the gun would be useless in the hands of anyone else where criminal, toddler, or others that might through happenstance or intent misuse the weapon. A few such weapons have been successfully marketed; these depend on magnetic rings or a wrist transmitter to engage and unlock a mechanical system on the gun.

     The idea has never met with great interest from the public, for the simple reason that there is actually little use for such devices. Too, most of us have had experience with electronic equipment that failed; who wants a firearm that is as reliable as Windows 3.1?

     Police officers (who have in the past had a problem with being shot with their own guns after a criminal snatches them from a holster) have also seen the numbers of such shootings drop in recent years, in part due to better training and also due to the use of bullet-proof vests. (Even during the worst of times, there are only around 12 such shootings of policemen nationwide in the US during any given year, truly a tragedy, but hardly a problem of major proportions.)[1]

     Another bogus reason occasionally given for the need for smart guns is that they will protect against "accidental discharge." Modern guns have a variety of safety devices, but automatic as well as manual, that make it impossible for a gun to fire if dropped or otherwise abused. With very rare exceptions they only fire when the trigger is pulled and never at any other time. Today’s guns are among the best designed mechanical tools ever seen in terms of safety. Accidental discharges for the most part are caused by a careless finger on a trigger, or the insertion of a pencil or other object inside the trigger guard. Smart gun technology will not prevent many of them; teaching proper gun safety will.

     Another argument for smart guns is that they would prevent suicides. This is a noble goal, though the idea that if guns somehow couldn’t kill the person holding them would somehow bring an end to suicides is rather quaint. For example in cultures like Japan where gun ownership among citizens is rare, the suicide rate is even higher than in the US. If people don’t have access to firearms, they will still kill themselves (though perhaps not as painlessly).

     Even so, there’s no mechanism in the smart gun to determine whether or not the user has it pointed at a criminal or the user’s temple. That a smart gun would somehow prevent the user from shooting himself is way beyond today’s technology or any in the near future. In the 22nd Century such devices equipped with artificial intelligence might be practical.

     In the 21st Century it is a doubtful proposition. So like all the other "reasons" we need smart guns, this one is bogus as well.

     Yet the anti-gun crowd continued to push for the adoption of smart guns. The culmination of this push was seen with Bill Clinton in 2000 when the then-President asked congress for $10 million to help test and develop smart guns (after seeking but failing to get $4 million for this project the year before).[2] Fortunately for the American public and gun owners in particular, these measures were never funded; and those politicians speaking in favor of gun control during the 2000 elections discovered themselves on the losing side of the ballot for the most part.

     However it seems likely that with the next school shooting, rampage, or other criminal activity, like vultures circling the corpses on the playground, opportunist legislators will be trotting out anti-gun measures to pass into law during the hysteria. (The lengths congressmen will go to in order to stretch the truth in such circumstances is quite often nothing short of amazing. For example following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in which the criminals were armed with knives and box cutting tools, Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Charles Schumer trotted out an old anti-gun bill that would regulate gun shows — claiming the terrorist attacks mandated such an action, even though guns weren’t even involved in the hijacker and, indeed, might have been prevented had the captain, crew, or other passengers been armed.[3])

     So if there is no real market for smart guns, they are not wanted by gun owners, and they present no safety pluses, why are there so many calls for smart guns? And why are so many anti-gunners so enthused about smart guns?

Smart Gun Technology Today

     Many smart guns are based upon a magnetic or radio transmitter system which requires the user to wear a special ring or bracelet. However the next generation of smart guns may be equipped with a biometric sensor of some sort so it can truly "recognize" its owner through fingerprints, voice command, or some other unique identifier.

     Now the surprise to many is that some gun manufacturers have embraced the idea of the smart gun. However this isn’t such a surprise when one thinks about it: If legislators made it mandatory that all civilians must own only smart guns, those manufacturers having such products would have a huge market of buyers overnight. Furthermore, the smart gun, because of the need for extra parts and sophisticated computer chips, would wear a price tag two or three times higher than a normal gun costs. This would make it possible for the manufacturer to see a bigger markup and profit (and also help the gun control crowd out by making it impossible for the poor to afford guns, thereby immediately disarming a large segment of the population).

     One such manufacturer that appears to be hoping for such profits is Colt’s Firearms, a company that has for years been making money through sales of its M16 rifle and M4 Carbine to the US military and many federal agencies. The prototype smart gun offered by Colt’s was the Z40 pistol (which later led to the "iColt" pistol — both since taken out of development by Colt’s due in part at least due their unreliable nature). This design had a computer microprocessor embedded in its grip. This chip is then activated by a wristband that emits a coded radio signal.

     The only catch to this weapon is that, after years of development costing millions of dollars, it wasn’t reliable. Even during demonstrations when the gun had been carefully "tuned" and cleaned with fresh batteries in gun and wristlet, it failed with alarming regularity (much to the horror of political proponents of such systems as well as the Colt’s demonstrators).[4] It now appears Colts Firearms has abandoned its smart gun — or at least put it on the back burner for a while.

     Other gun manufacturers appear to still be in the running, however. Smith & Wesson also has been working to develop a smart gun of its own. The S&W prototype has a fingerprint scanner lock designed to read a shooter’s thumbprint before the gun can even be loaded. Of course the catch to this, even assuming it works flawlessly, is that a shooter must have clean hands without gloves — not a plus in northern states during the winter or for those fighting in less than pristine environments. Nor is it fast. By the time the scan is taken and the gun loaded, one might easily be dead if there was a need for quick defense.

     San Jose-based Smart Links Corporation is also said to have a prototype smart gun. And like Colt’s prototype, this one seems finicky with one trial involving a reporter having the gun fail to fire until the tester altered his grip so the wristlet would activate the lock — not an option one has when facing a burglar in the dead of night.[5]

     Yet another manufacturer with an eye on the smart guns market is German based SIG Arms. This gun has an even slower system for arming the gun, this type based on an electronic keypad into which a would-be shooter must punch in the proper combination of numbers, with the lock reactivating if the gun is left unused for anywhere from one to eight hours (depending on how it is programmed).

     Of course this presupposes a citizen would have the foresight to unlock the gun before a mugger or burglar poses a threat since punching in the numbers takes not only time but good lighting. And while the gun is unlocked, it is like the old "dumb gun" in that anyone can fire it. In other words one might argue it has all the disadvantages of previous guns coupled with all the downside of the smart gun.

     Finally, there’s the small Houston-based Fulton Arms (which has trademarked the name "Smart Gun" for its system). This company’s smart gun (make that "Smart Gun") uses a simple magnet on a ring to deactivate the lock. The catch, of course, is that there is some question as to whether or not one might create a "pass ring" simply by taping a magnet to ones finger. (The manufacturer claims that this would not be practical because the magnet would need to be a specific strength and orientation.)

     In short, all the current smart guns vying for the marketplace have little to offer and are either buggy, hard or slow to operate, and less than secure. Hardly the type of thing a citizen would want to stake their life on when facing a criminal with almost any other type of weapon.

     The old saw that "Only a fool brings a knife to a gun fight" may soon be modified to "Only a fool brings a smart gun to a gun fight."

Why Smart Guns?

     It should be painfully obvious that if the proponents of smart guns were really concerned about the safety of citizens, they would not be lobbying for smart guns, most of which fail to even work reliably when brand new and operated in clean environments during demonstrations. If owners were engaged in target shooting or other sports, such a system might at least be viable. But when people might be putting their or others lives on the line, the so-called smart gun is not such a smart thing to own.

     But of course "if proponents were really concerned about the safety of citizens" contains one big "if." With the obvious conclusion that they simply have anything but the safety of citizens in mind when lobbying for such weapons.

     On the other hand, if proponents of smart guns were intent on actually disarming the public, then pushing for the adoption of a weapon that couldn’t even past muster after being primed and tuned and brought before reporters would seem to be just the ticket. And with its price tag, it would immediately place itself outside the purchasing ability of many would-be, poorer buyers. If your goal is to give citizens less than adequate armament, then the smart gun is just the ticket, especially if you can hoodwink them into thinking it is a better, safer alternative.

     Little wonder then that New Jersey state senators who in the past have been notorious for their passage of anti-gun bills, would embrace this shaky technology in 2000, passing a bill that called for all handguns sold in the state to have smart technology. Nor was New Jersey the first. In fact Maryland had beat New Jersey to the punch, passing a law months before that required integrated locks on all handguns sold in the state beginning January 2003. [6]

     The New Jersey bill is interesting when carefully studied, and will very possibly serve as a blueprint for similar bills in other states and eventually the federal government should the anti-gun politicians get their way. Although a casual reading seems to suggest that older guns might be retrofitted to meet the new specifications, this isn’t the case. All guns must not only be smart but also new thereby making all older guns illegal to sell — and with a few more legislative modifications or new laws — illegal to own.

     Little wonder then that Sarah Brady, chair of Handgun Control, Inc., would crow, "We applaud the action by the New Jersey Senate. For far too long, the gun industry has put profits ahead of public safety, and, as a result, too many guns have fallen into the hands of criminals, or have been used in terrible accidental shootings or suicides by children and teenagers. But the New Jersey Senate sent a strong message to gun makers: Make safer products or else you can’t sell them in the state."[7]

     Of course, as noted above, these guns won’t make you any safer and are a plus for no one but criminals.

     And there’s an even bigger danger.

     To see what might happen, we need a slight detour into the realm of physics and research done, strangely enough, on another type of weapon, the nuclear bomb.


     Some time after the US government started testing nuclear devices, an unusual effect was noticed: From time to time electrical devices suddenly failed to function following a nuclear test. Often these equipment failures resulted very great distances from the explosion. After some investigating, researchers discovered that this unusual effect was being caused by what has come to be known as EMP (Electro-Magnetic Pulse also sometimes called "NEMP" or Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse).

     EMP was kept secret from the public for a long time. Even now, information about it is a little sketchy. EMP occurs with all nuclear explosions but is normally absorbed by the earth so that its range is more or less that of the blast and heat wave of such a weapon. But the effect becomes more pronounced and wide spread in high-altitude blasts where there isn’t a "ground" to soak up the free electrons produced. In such a high-level explosion, when gamma radiation is released during the flash cycle of the nuclear weapon, the radiation will react with air molecules and strip electrons free from them, producing electromagnetic radiation similar to broad band radio waves (10 kHz-100 MHz) in the process.

     These electrons follow the earth’s magnetic field and quickly move toward the surface of the earth where they are finally grounded. Because the magnetic field of the earth tends to spread out EMP, one 20-MT bomb exploded at an altitude of 200 miles would blanket the whole US with the effects of EMP. And the electrical surge produced by the free electrons would be strong enough to knock out much of the civilian electrical equipment over the whole US. Since just one bomb can do so much damage, such high-altitude explosions would probably be used to initiate any major attack on a country and would have great potential as a terrorist weapon as well.

     EMP in the levels created by a nuclear weapon does not pose a health hazard to plants, animals, or man provided it isn’t concentrated. EMP can be dangerous if it is concentrated by metal girders, large stretches of wiring (including telephone lines), long antennas, or similar set ups. To avoid being fried by such concentrations, it would be a good idea to stay at least 8 feet away from large bodies of metal or long stretches of wire if there may be a nuclear war about to erupt.

     Because of this potential damage, most military equipment is hardened against EMP; however most civilian equipment is not, for the simple reason that most buyers wouldn’t be interested in shelling out extra cash for something they aren’t even aware of or, if they are, seems too remote to be a worry.

     During the Cold War, the US entered into a treaty with the USSR that provided for only limited testing using nuclear weapons. Because of this, testing equipment to see if it was EMP-proof because impossible; US scientists had to devise a way to generate EMP without an actual nuclear weapon explosion. Soon they had developed a system that would project a beam of EMP at aircraft, computers, or other equipment to determine whether or not it could withstand the energy that might be created by a nuclear weapon.

     However this EMP generating equipment held another potential as well: Since civilian equipment was not EMP proof, an EMP generator could serve not only as a testing device but a weapon in its own right, capable of destroying computers, car ignitions, or other equipment — including a smart gun computer chip.

     That’s right.

     That’s most likely the secret that some of the gun-control proponents of smart guns don’t want you to know. Smart guns could be knocked out by government troops, the police, or even a criminal welding such equipment.

     EMP devices capable of burning up the electronics of a smart gun aren’t just speculation, either. From 1996 police departments in the US and England have been deploying an EMP gadget created by the Pentagon’s Army Research Laboratory (Adelphi, MD). The unit focuses an intense EMP beam at a car or other target, burning out its electrical circuits and generally stopping the engine cold in its tracks in the process.[8]

     Of course such a device isn’t limited to the cars when it comes to burning out circuits and police have to be careful in deploying the device less they burn out all the TVs, radios, and computers in the neighborhood (and hope that the driver of the car doesn’t have a pacemaker running his heart).

     The reports you see on TV or in the newspapers don’t ever mention that most of the proposed smart guns that are built around radio transmitters, fingerprint recognition, or other systems with a central chip might be knocked out by such a system. But in fact there is little reason to think that would not be the case.

     It gets worse.

Electromagnetic Bombs

     Currently the US military is developing bombs that employ a large copper tube and capacitors coupled with an explosive charge to generate a powerful magnetic field — in effect, an EMP bomb. This system covers a wide area and it is believed they will be capable of knocking out electrical equipment over hundreds of yards.

     Including any smart guns.

     This technology is also cheap. By one estimate such a bomb, capable of being delivered by an aircraft, would cost only $400.[9] In other words, one small plane could disarm any group of people armed with smart guns (and also stop cars, computers, and other equipment).

     Such a cheap weapon might also be easily created by a rogue nation, criminals, terrorists (indeed, several magazines have published detailed diagrams that resemble how-to pictures). Given that the first proposal for such a weapon came in 1925, one might argue that it is not beyond the capability of a terrorist group to create such a weapon. And, again, a population armed with smart guns would be disarmed once such a bomb was detonated close by.

     As Carlo Kopp, an Australian expert on electronic warfare put it, "Any nation with even a 1940s technology base could make them [an EMP bomb]. The threat of E- bomb proliferation is very real."[10]

     Yet those who claim to have your best interests as well as the security of our nation at heart are calling for smart guns to be the only type US citizens can own.

The Smart-Gun Killer

     The government has also created what could easily be called a smart-gun killer, even though it was supposedly created to demonstrate the potential danger of a terrorist attack on computers and other equipment. The research for this device was carried out by Schriner Engineering, Inc., a company based in Ridgecrest, CA. The company worked under a contract with the Department of Defense.

     The goal of the research was to determine whether it was possible to create a hi-intensity radio wave beam weapon that would result in effects similar to EMP without having access to classified information. That is, that would be capable of burning out a variety of electronic equipment with the energy it created.

     The company found that it was very possible to make such a weapon. Working with regular physics concepts and gear that, the researchers claimed, could be purchased at Radio Shack or E-bay, they created not one but two such weapons. One could be fitted into a Volkswagen van while the other could be fitted into two boxes that would be capable of being shipped by UPS via standard delivery.[11]

     In addition to the danger these devices present to all electronic equipment, it seems more than likely they would be capable of deactivating a smart gun — a fact that the mainstream news media as well as congress ignored. Yet one can bet that if the Department of Defense was involved in the research, this possibility is well on the minds of those who might one day be facing foes armed with such weapons.

     Equally chilling, once again, is the fact that terrorists or criminals might also employ such a weapon to disarm citizens or policemen unfortunate enough to be carrying smart guns. This alone should be enough to make the concept of a smart gun one that people would not embrace.

Jamming the System

     Of course smart guns wouldn’t need to be toasted with EMP from an electromagnetic bomb or a microwave projector mounted on a police (or terrorist) vehicle to make them ineffective. Other methods might be employed, depending on what sort of system was mandated by those wanting to "protect" us through smart gun technology.

     If wristlets generating a radio signal became the method of choice, then it would not be too hard to create a powerful radio transmitter to jam that signal. A criminal could simply dial in the right radio frequency and march into the area, confident that most of the mandated smart guns would no longer work.

     Or the government might require that a "backdoor" system be employed in the chip so that a coded radio signal could be sent to deactivate it. In such a case the equipment would not even need to be powerful. Just a small transmitter attached to the collar of a policeman, storm trooper, or whoever would keep him safe as he went on the offensive. Furthermore, it isn’t hard to imagine gun manufacturers going right along with such a design since, it would be argued, this would be a powerful weapon to save the lives of cops or other law enforcement personnel. (This might be true initially, but you can bet that soon the secret would be out, just as has happened in the past with other technology from nuclear secrets on down.)

     Conversely, a smart gun emitting a radio signal is like a beacon in the night. Anyone with the proper receiver will be able to detect the presence of a homeowner with a gun, be it a burglar in the dead of night or the newest version of the Gestapo agent checking IDs on the street corner.

     So smart guns equal instant gun control at the flick of a switch, and instant weapon detection if they emit a radio signal. Neither of these are pluses to those wanting a free society where citizens are able to defend themselves. They are pluses if you’re attempting to help criminals, disarm the public, or lay the groundwork for a government takeover. (This is not to say that those proponents of smart guns want these things, but rather that their proposals could lead to such things.)

     As gunsmith and political commentator L. Neil Smith put it,[11]

     "Smart" gun technology is just another thing — an unnecessary thing — that can go wrong [with a gun]. Anything that keeps your gun from firing if something gets broken or you don’t hold it just right, places a weapon in the enemy’s hand just as effectively as if you handed him your own….

     Once the technology is "perfected" (you know, like the version of Microsoft Windows I’m using to write this column?), politicians and bureaucrats will rupture themselves trying to make it mandatory. Do you doubt that the suits in Los Angeles would have hesitated, even for a picosecond, to switch off the weapons Korean merchants used to defend their otherwise undefended shops during the Rodney King riots, neatly ridding themselves of those folks annoying enough to insist on keeping their lives, property, and rights?

     Firearms rights advocates Aaron Zelman and Richard Stevens summed up what they think is behind the push for smart guns this way:[13]

     The latest "gun control" lobby trick is to call for mandatory "safety devices" on firearms. That lobby wants everyone to agree that federal and state "gun safety" laws are "sensible gun control."

     This ploy convinces many Americans because they believe that the government can legislate safety, and that technology can solve any problem… Every American should question this safety-technology rhetoric. Everyone should understand that this "safety technology" produces "restricted-use firearms." A firearm with an electronic lock should be called by its more accurate name: "electronically- restricted firearm."

The 20th Century Success Story of Gun Control

     Now it is tempting to think that folks speaking out against gun control go overboard in their fears. Ditto with the fear of smart guns (or other regulations). But such fears are based on a very real history: During the last century every single holocaust and genocidal slaughter was preceded by a wholesale disarmament of the civilian population. These slaughters included the following "body counts":

  • Ottoman Empire, Turkey, 1915-1917, 1.5 Million Armenians
  • Soviet Union, 1929-1953, 20 Million Anti-Stalinists/Anti-Communists
  • Nazi Germany and Occupied Europe, 1933-1945, 13 Million Jews, Gypsies, Anti-Nazis
  • China, 1949-1976, Anti-Communists, 20 Million Rural Populations, Pro-Reform Groups, 20 million, 1935
  • Guatemala, 1960-1981, Maya Indians 100,000
  • Uganda, 1971-1979, Christians and Political Rivals, 300,000
  • Cambodia, 1975-1979, Educated Persons, 1 million
  • Rwanda, 1994, nearly 1 million Tutsi tribesmen

     While the various wars through the 20th Century get most coverage when one things of deaths in the world, in fact the great slaughters of the last 100 years haven’t been through war between nations but rather deaths of citizens at the hands of their own government during various pogroms and genocide. Surely 57 million bodies suggest a that governments are often far from benign. And the fact that gun confiscation from the targets of these government pogroms suggests that the last thing a person should do is give up his right to own a firearm.

     How then can anyone then argue for gun control? How can anyone suggest that the Second Amendment to our constitution isn’t an essential element for the preservation of our freedom? How can anyone want smart guns capable of being defeated in a variety of ways?

     That is one that individuals calling for the adoption of smart guns or other gun control regulation should be required to answer.

     Until that answer is given and it proves satisfactory, the best advice is pretty simple: Avoid buying a smart gun, and work to prevent the adoption of legislation requiring such weapons.


     [1] Paul M. Barrett and Vanessa O’Connell, "Personal Weapon: How a Gun Company Tries to Propel Itself Into Computer Age," Wall Street Journal, May 12, 1999.

     [2] "Clinton Seeks $10 Million to Develop 'Smart Guns'," Reuters, January 2, 2000.

     [3] Susan Page, "McCain: Terrorists bypass laws by using gun shows," USA Today, November 27, 2001.

     [4] Ibid.

     [5] Daniel LeDuc, "Shooting for a Safer Deadly Weapon," Washington Post, February 28, 2000; Page A01.

     [6] Jon E. Dougherty, "Smart guns not smart enough?", May 24, 2000.

     [7] Ibid.

     [8] Giles Whittell and Nigel Hawkes, "Police prepare stunning end for high-speed car chases," London Times, August 10, 1996.

     [9] Jim Wilson, "E-Bomb," Popular Mechanics, Sept. 2001.

     [10] Ibid.

     [11] "Everyday Materials Used in Radio Weapon," United Press International, April 27, 2001.

     [12] L. Neil Smith, "Smart Guns are for Stupid People," The Libertarian Enterprise, Number 124, June 4, 2001.

     [13] Aaron Zelman and Richard Stevens, "Dead Batteries Make Dead People: The truth about restricted-use firearms and trigger locks," JFPO Alerts, April 28, 2000.


     Duncan Long is an internationally recognized firearms expert. If the article above was of interest, chances are you'll also enjoy these books by the same author:

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