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Using Technology To Make Guns Safer 1013

Posted by timothy
from the cars-should-also-have-brakes-and-turn-signals dept.
Hugh Pickens writes writes "Farhad Manjoo writes that there are a number of technologies that gunmakers could add to their products that might prevent hundreds or thousands of deaths per year. One area of active research is known as the 'smart gun' — a trigger-identification system that prevents a gun from being fired by anyone other than its authorized user. Researchers at New Jersey Institute of Technology created a working prototype of a gun that determines whether or not to fire based on a user's 'grip pattern.' Gunmakers have been slow to add other safety technologies as well, including indicators that show whether a gun is loaded, and 'magazine safeties' that prevent weapons from being fired when their ammunition magazine is removed (PDF). That could save 400 lives a year. So why aren't gunmakers making safer guns? Because guns are exempt from most of the consumer safety laws that have improved the rest of American life. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, charged with looking over thousands of different kinds of products, is explicitly prohibited from regulating firearms. In 2005, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which immunizes gun makers against lawsuits resulting from 'misuse' of the products. If they can't be sued and can't be regulated, gunmakers have no incentive to make smarter guns." Note that gun safety features (not universally loved) like loaded-chamber indicators, grip safeties, and magazine disconnects are constantly evolving and have been available in some form and in various combinations for many decades, so gun makers seem to have some incentive to produce and improve them, and that the PLCAA does not prevent consumer safety lawsuits, but does shield gun makers from suits based on criminal conduct by gun buyers (though imperfectly).
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Using Technology To Make Guns Safer

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  • Safe guns (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 20, 2012 @10:28AM (#42347219)

    Are kind of missing the point. If you actually need to use a gun, you don't want a ton of hardware that will prevent it from firing when you pull the trigger.

    Ask the Army if they really want their guns locked to only work when they pull the trigger, so when they pick up a fallen soldier's gun in the middle of a battle after running out of ammo it won't fire.

  • Guns kill people (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 20, 2012 @10:49AM (#42347487)

    So a machine designed to kill people, and was recently used by a child to kill lots of people, can be made to kill fewer people?

    I have an idea, ban guns. Same as Europe, where the death rate from guns is a tiny fraction of the death rate from guns in the US. And before the Republicans and NRA talk their ***p, no the overall rate is far lower too.

    The gun enables kill options, that simply wouldn't be possible if you only were armed with a knife and reducing the number of guns means criminals with guns are a lot easier to catch spot and arrest.

    If the kid didn't have a gun, then the schoolkids would be alive today. The NRA caused those deaths with their lobbying.

  • Re:Guns (Score:1, Interesting)

    by squiggleslash (241428) on Thursday December 20, 2012 @11:29AM (#42348023) Homepage Journal

    OK, but I'm 6'2". How is it in my best interests for someone who's 4'11" to be able to attack me with equal force? Hmmm?

    Didn't think of that did you.

  • Computers in Guns? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by sycodon (149926) on Thursday December 20, 2012 @12:00PM (#42348403)

    It's probably safe to say that the vast majority of Slashdotters are programmers of some kind or are very familiar with computers and software.

    Which is why I am astounded that anyone with such a background would think putting a computer (microchip, etc) in a firearm is a good idea.

  • by langelgjm (860756) on Thursday December 20, 2012 @12:19PM (#42348657) Journal

    Good try on the car analogy though, somebody had to do it.

    Thanks :-)

    You can't add electronics to a simple mechanical device and make it more reliable. Electronics are less reliable than simple mechanical things, so any such change is a step backward.

    Okay, even if it is a step backward in theory, in practice, are we really not able to engineer something to an acceptable level of reliability? Guns already do not work 100% of the time. They occasionally jam and misfire. We tolerate this unreliability because it is infrequent.

    Let's say you have a gun that is 99.99% reliable... so one out of every 10,000 rounds it jams or misfires. And now, we add electronic safety components to it, and with testing and good engineering, we produce a gun that is 99.97% reliable. So it jams, misfires, or fails to fire 3 out of every 10,000 rounds.

    The question is, I think, whether that decrease in reliability is an acceptable tradeoff for the increase in safety gained due to only the owner being able to fire it.

  • by greg1104 (461138) <gsmith@gregsmith.com> on Thursday December 20, 2012 @12:52PM (#42349165) Homepage

    Jams and misfires often happen due to ammunition issues. Any drop in reliability for a safety mechanism is going to be additive on top of that. And just the ammo problem rate alone is inherently too high for some people, so a second component adding more risk is hard to justify.

    The fact that jams etc. are relatively rare events is part of why I'm not optimistic about fancier electronic mechanisms. How often does software break because it's presented with a rare failure case the programmer didn't anticipate or test? It is amazingly easy to break a lot of software, sometimes permanently afterward, just by running out of disk space. If I have a threat serious enough that I'm arming myself against it, I'd prefer not to have a gun that crashes the first time an unusual ammo jam happens. We've had hundreds of years of evolution in mechanical firing mechanisms to resist problems seen in the field here; it will take a while to match that. And the disappointing track record so far for things like fingerprint security have not been encouraging.

    Yes, it's possible to put enough money into R&D to make this a negligable risk, eventually. But who wants to fund that work? It's not as if a unique ID trigger suddenly makes the firearm so safe that you can just leave it sitting out. That means you still need a secured safe instead...so that's what the market has been providing. People who are willing to pay for that safety measure already have options available. And those don't become unnecessary if this other problem is solved, which adds to why it's hard to cost justify.

  • by langelgjm (860756) on Thursday December 20, 2012 @12:55PM (#42349205) Journal

    There's no need to make things unnecessarily complex. The debate is really about what features we want.

    BTW, cars are a hell of a lot more expensive to maintain these days.

    I would actually like to see a historical dataset of automobile maintenance and operating costs (inflation adjusted), but I can't seem to find a decent source right now. However, even if that is true, again, there is a tradeoff. If there are gains in safety, efficiency, utility, and comfort, the added expense can be justified.

    Just because you can do a thing doesn't mean you should. This topic is kind of a straw man anyway; none of these measures would have stopped the bloodshed last week.

    I'm not saying we should do it because we can, I'm saying maybe there are in fact good reasons to do, AND we can (since so many people seem to argue that it's impossible). Why is there such defeatism and resignation about the potential of technology in this area? It's irrational.

    Second, the reason I was thinking about this RFID idea was specifically as a way to prevent what happened last week. If Lanza's mother had a key fob or implanted chip, Lanza would not have been able to use the guns without it. Could it still have happened? Sure. Maybe Lanza's mother would have given him his own fob. Maybe he would have taken her keys, or cut the chip out of her wrist. Maybe he would have cloned the fob himself. Any of those things are possible, but it would involve more time and effort, and introduce additional hurdles. If there is a process for obtaining a fob, maybe Lanza would not have met the burdens of the process. If he attacked his mother with a knife (because he couldn't use a gun), maybe she could have escaped and called the police.

    Or maybe it still would have happened. Is that a reason to not consider any policy change? No. Maybe new policies and technology can prevent or reduce the risk of OTHER tragedies.

    And if a hunter's gun doesn't fire when that nine point buck is in his sights, you're going to have one pissed off hunter who will never buy that brand of gun again.

    This is why I suggested limited the requirement of such technology to only certain weapons. E.g., we don't mandate it for bolt action rifles.

    But seriously, my main observation here is that so many people are spending lots of energy on inventing reasons for why nothing can be done.

  • by cayenne8 (626475) on Thursday December 20, 2012 @01:38PM (#42349821) Homepage Journal

    I 100% agree that we should look into non-lethal alternatives. I'd rather accidentally shoot my daughter with a taser when she sneaks in after curfew and watch her crap her pants than shoot her with a pistol and watch her bleed out.

    Sounds like you should worry about using a bit more parental authority.

    I never sneaked out of the house...never ever, ever, because we had guns in the house. For that very reason I would never sneak out of the house.

    From a very young age, my parents let me know where the gun was, I wash taken and shown how to use it properly. I also had the fear of God put into me if I ever even thought of touching it when not appropriate. I also knew not to sneak out to risk being shot as an intruder.

    One time I was home alone...it was raining, and some bum started ringing the doorbell, wanted some water, etc.

    I went to their bedroom, got the gun, cocked and loaded the chamber and safety off....and held that as I yelled through the door for him to leave immediately.

    When he finally left, I took the clip out, took the round out of the chamber and back into the clip, clip back into gun with safety on...put it back in place and immediately called my Mom at work to tell what had happened.

    Can you not trust your kids to be as responsible?

    If not, then I posit the problem is not guns...but a little more parental guidance is needed by the offspring.

  • by AK Marc (707885) on Thursday December 20, 2012 @03:35PM (#42351513)

    I find this to be an interesting sentiment coming from a technology oriented community like Slashdot.

    In my years in the tech industry, I've found that simple beats complex many times. Building a network without loops is more reliable than making one with loops and turning on STP. Having one high-quality router is more reliable than two in HA/VRRP/HSRP. Having one server is more reliable than two in a cluster (the clustering fails more often than any single server, lowering total reliability). Maybe a good bit of those problems are due to the proper usage being more complex, and those running them weren't sufficiently trained, but I've seen a lot more problems with complex redundancy than simple.

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