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Smart Guns Are Dumb

When it comes to defending your life and property, the simpler methods reign supreme.

When the modern gun control scene picked up some momentum in the late 1990s, one of the concepts floated was of the smart gun. The whole idea was to use some sort of authentication mechanism to deny unauthorized users use of the firearm. From the hideously flawed and compromised Armatix IP1, to the current snake oil salesmen at Lodestar, each attempt has been clunky, unworkable, and not even worthy of being called a “beta” product. Of course, the media dutifully falls in line and every few years, they find some new “entrepreneur” or tech bro “who is into guns” that has come up with a smart gun solution that supposedly works. Coupled with a few stories of (legitimate) tragedies resulting from improperly secured firearms, and the pieces turned out are worthy of a gold medal from Minitrue.

Sure, the idea sounds good on paper, even to us Second Amendment Radicals. A gun that can only be used by it’s owner, I actually like the sound of that. But, the devil is in the details, and that’s why so-called smart guns are dumb

A Little History On Smart Guns

The concept of a so-called smart gun is nothing new. It came about in the 1990s during the nightmare years of the Clinton-era Assault Weapons Ban. One legitimate problem for firearms owners was the tragedies resulting from the misuse of firearms due to unauthorized users gaining access to them. It’s a tragedy, to be sure. The industry, and some politicians, theorized on technological solutions to the problem. What if a gun were like a computer, where one would have to be authenticated to use it? Again, it sounds really nice. A high-tech GLOCK 19 Gen 20, paired only to me. I press the trigger, gun goes bang. My dog presses the trigger (he’s very good by the way, and can shoot better than most government users…) and nothing happens.

The industry also took it under consideration, since they saw it as a way to shield them from frivolous liability lawsuits where their products were misused. This was pre-PLCAA (the law which shields gun companies from frivolous lawsuits) so the industry was looking for ways to combat politically-motivated legal actions against them. The idea was that if there were an authentication mechanism, only authorized users (and malicious actors) could use the weapon, thus liability for a “malfunctioning” product would be dismissed.

Ironically, under old ownership, Smith & Wesson signed an agreement with the government to develop smart gun technology. A subsequent boycott nearly drove them out of business. This eventually led to S&W being reorganized under it’s current ownership, where the company is unabashedly a supporter of the Second Amendment.

Since then, the attempts at developing a smart gun have led to less-than-stellar results.

Armatix iP1

The first smart gun of note was the Armatix iP1. Developed by Ernst Mauch in Germany, the iP1 was a pistol chambered in .22LR and it’s authentication mechanism consisted of an RFID-enabled watch which was to be paired with the pistol. Though marketed as a viable product at a staggering $1798 price point, the pistol was indeed a proof-of-concept unleashed on the public, who would have been unwitting beta testers.

The problems with the iP1 were numerous. The use of .22LR essentially made the firearm useless for defensive purposes. The bigger issues, of course, were with the authentication mechanism. The initial pairing of the weapon with it’s accompanying watch took approximately 20 minutes, and it would frequently lose sync, requiring re-pairing. Soon after the iP1 debuted on the US market, the authentication mechanism was bypassed. Noted security researcher Plore was able to fire the gun without the watch by simply applying a strong magnet to the slide. Furthermore, he was able to use $20 worth of components to jam the RFID system, and render the gun inert even with the watch present and paired.

And, to add insult to injury, Armatix has a patent on a remote kill switch for the firearm. Though purportedly not implemented, the technology to do so exists - whether it’s a government actor or a malicious party (both are the same, to be honest), an Armatix weapon could be remotely disabled with no knowledge to the end user.

The Armatix iP1, basically a uncooked turkey appeasement attempt.

SafeOp by Machine Inc

After the stinker by Armatix, others, of course, have tried to stick their noses in the space, like Machine Inc with their SafeOp system. Unlike Armatix, the SafeOp system is advertised as a retrofit for existing firearms, such as the GLOCK 19.

However, much like the Armatix, the SafeOp system requires pairing with either a smartphone or a smartwatch. While laudable for using devices we already have to bring the costs down, the retrofit still would cost $398, and of course require the nearby presence of a paired phone or watch. SafeOp promised a May 2021 delivery, but it’s 2022 and there’s still no product. To their credit, SafeOp says they support 2A and want the “smart gun question” left up to the consumer. However, the points of failure are similar, since a SafeOp-enabled weapon requires a phone (with the SafeOp app) in proximity, or a similarly-configured smartwatch.

Lodestar LS9

Recently, the carnival barkers took up the “smart gun” rant once again, with the announcement of the Lodestar LS9. Like the Armatix, it’s a new gun built from the ground up as a smart gun. Unlike the Armatix, it’s chambered in a useful defensive caliber - 9mm. Like Machine Inc, Lodestar claims to support the Second Amendment, and unlike Machine Inc, Lodestar does have someone with some firearms knowledge on their staff. Though details are vague, the LS9 seems to support user-selectable authentication options such as fingerprint, RFID, and Bluetooth.

Lodestar’s offering starts at $895. In the real world, $895 would get you a pretty nice SIG P226 variant, an H&K VP9 with some upgrades, or a GLOCK with some custom work done. Also, as TTAG noted, Lodestar originally started life as a dealer for the Armatix.

To be fair, it does sound nice. But realistically, in the symphony of electronics, code, and gun - there seems to be many points of failure…

Vulnerabilities Of Smart Guns

The more complex a system becomes, the more prone it is to failure. Whether it’s cars, computers, or firearms, it rings true. In all cases, the idea is to keep things as simple as possible for maximum reliability. Reliable cars minimize failure-prone electronics in critical functions. Reliable computers use efficient operating systems and take out as many moving parts as possible. Firearms with less moving and wear components tend to be more accurate and reliable, as well.

Injecting components not usually designed for shock and heat, aka sensitive microelectronics, into a firearm, is a recipe for disaster. Now grant it, there’s hardened military electronics which live alongside heavy weapon in operation, but those are cost-prohibitive, and the military doesn’t care since the government has a bottomless ATM, aka we the people.

But on a mundane level, there’s scads of issues with even well-meaning smart gun concepts.

Consumer Grade Electronics Are Not Robust

Sure, you can drop your iPhone and it’ll keep working. It may even be waterproof. But a drop is a few gees of force at most. Electronics in close proximity to the action of a firearm have to repeatedly withstand repeated and violent shocks of a far greater magnitude, increasing their likelihood for failure. Increasing the durability of said electronics increases the costs substantially. As we’ve noted, even a basic smart gun setup can increase the price of a weapon enormously.

Fail Safe - Fail Deadly

If those electronics fail, the whole point of a smart gun becomes moot. Whether the failure is from use, hacking, or otherwise, the failure of the authentication mechanisms basically renders the point of a smart gun useless. If the gun “fails safe”, you’ve got a fancy paperweight. If the gun “fails deadly”, you basically have a regular firearm at that point, making the security functions useless. Failures in electronics are usually documented extensively by tinkerers, geeks, and other innately curious types. A “fail deadly” smart gun’s point of failure would be documented and uploaded fairly quickly. And once it’s out there, it’s out there. Can’t stop the signal, as much as the elites try to.

Mandated Use

Even if smart gun technology is prone to failure, it’s eminently possible that the use of such technology may become mandatory in certain jurisdictions. Only for citizens of course. The government would invariably exempt itself from the requirement, much as they do from restrictions on magazine capacity, automatic weapons, and the like. Certainly, in a free society, we cannot stop the development of smart guns, so the only thing we can do in this case is fight the good fight, and stop any lawmaking that would mandate citizen use of smart gun technology. Along those lines, any sort of “compliant” smart gun technology would invariably openly or covertly require a remote kill switch, enabling external parties to be able to remotely disable the firearm. The feature would undoubtedly make it into the wild, with bad actors (on the public payroll or otherwise), possessing the methods to use the kill switch function. Again, can’t stop the signal.

Not Everything Needs To Be “Smart”

The tech world, especially the “tech bro” sector, loves to attempt to make everything “smart”. Smart cars, smart watches, smart stoves, smart dog collars, and smart guns. If a tech bro sees a thing, invariably he wants to cram an ASIC into it, pair it to a phone, and supposedly make the world a better place. The usual motivation is to turn it into a service and collect subscription fees. Already, car companies such as the Big Three and Tesla make the “cool stuff” a subscription service. Already Tesla charges $99 a month (or more depending on the vehicle) for it’s autopilot feature. How long until a smart gun company charges to subscribe to it’s service? You’ll grab for your Boring Gun Co Smart Pistol at 3 AM during a home invasion, only to find the last subscription payment failed and now your gun is locked until you renew. Sounds like a real good time. Meanwhile the CEO of Boring Gun Co is guarded by men toting GLOCK 17s, since he knows his own product is failure-prone shit.

And yeah, even purely mechanical guns do fail. However, when a normal gun has a failure, usually an immediate-action drill can remedy the situation. SPORTS (learn it!), that sort of thing. Your smart gun crashes or someone cooks off the EMP? Not so much…

When your life is on the line, dumber is better. A fire extinguisher just has a pin and a squeeze grip. No one’s trying to make that “smart” (not yet…) - it should be the same general attitude within the firearms industry. And it is. You notice real gun companies aren’t exploring this avenue in any meaningful way. The “smart gun” scene exclusively consists of hucksters, politically-aligned bad actors, and people looking to make a quick buck.

Tech bros, find something else to do - please.

My Requirements For A Smart Gun

OK, tech bros, and anyone else, if you must develop a smart gun, it needs to work to an equivalent or greater level of reliability than the H&K VP9 by my side, the GLOCK on the side of a law enforcement officer, or the M4 wielded by a soldier in the field. It also should not even have the capability to be remotely disabled.

Anyways, my requirements are simple.

  • 99.99999 percent reliability. A failure of the mechanical components should happen first before the authentication mechanism fails.

  • The firearm’s authentication mechanism should fail deadly, but not be easily induced to do so. If the electronics fail, the gun should still be usable. Ideally the “smart” components should guard against casual threats like unintentional users, gun grabs during a fight, etc. It shouldn’t be hackable by a magnet or a teenager watching Youtube. Remember, the ultimate safety is you, whether it’s a traditional gun or a smart gun.

  • The authentication mechanism should not require a paired device of any sort. Initial setup requiring a wired connection to a computer is acceptable.

  • No wireless anything. No Bluetooth, RFID, or whatever. That leaves biometrics, I guess. Biometrics should authenticate at multiple points on the gun and return a yes/no result within 3 milliseconds. The “token” would be stored on the weapon so this is easy.

  • Open source documentation of code and hardware. I want to be able to go to Sourceforge and look at the code, subject it to peer review, and edit it myself.

  • No subscriptions of any sort. If I pay $700 for a smart gun it should work 10 years from now with no extra payments to the developer.

My idea basically recognizes the desire to prevent casual unauthorized use, whether it be from curious residents of the home or people looking to snatch your weapon during a fight. Due to it’s “fail deadly” compromise, it also places the ultimate burden of control on the end user. Which is something us who own normal firearms should be doing anyway.

We Aren’t Against Smart Guns

Us Second Amendment Radicals aren’t against technology. A lot of us are hardcore geeks about tons of things. Computers, cars, home theatre, that sort of thing. When we’re not geeking out about ballistics or caliber wars, we’re obsessing over the difference between Class A and Class H amps, or whether 8K displays are worth the squeeze at this time. However, since we know technology, we know how it can be abused by bad actors. If you’re a smart gun developer, do your thing. Ask for our input even. Just don’t approach us with mock sincerity in one hand, and your other hand out behind your back looking fo government graft in exchange for selling our human right to keep and bear any arms we deem necessary.

Technology Doesn’t Replace Education

A near-foolproof smart gun could make it to market under conditions favorable to us. However, technological enhancements in no way take the place of educating people on real gun safety and firearms handling. Take the time to instruct those who have access or potential access to your firearms in their safe handling. It’s your task, and not the government’s.

Also, by helping people with this, we help to demystify and increasingly make gun ownership “normal” in the eyes of the public who perhaps do not own firearms.

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