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Every year in America, approximately five hundred children and teenagers are killed by guns. Another 7,500 are hospitalised. In many cases, the death or injury is accidental – a child finds a gun, plays with it and the inevitable happens.

Though tougher controls on the availability and ownership of firearms are often talked about – especially in the wake of the latest school massacre – America’s gun culture is deeply ingrained. But what if we could make guns that could only be used by their owners? It sounds like science fiction, but it would surely save many lives – including those of children.

Remarkably, just such a weapon exists – the Armatix iP1, which is the first commercially available ‘smart gun’. That, however, is not the twist in the tale – because something even stranger happened when a couple of gun dealers tried to sell the weapon in US.

Focusing on one of these dealers, Joe Nocera of the New York Times reports on the backlash:

“He thought that not only did he have every right to sell a smart gun, but that he was doing the gun world a favor by offering a gun that had the potential to expand the universe of gun owners. Instead, both Engage Armament and Oak Tree, a California-based gun dealer, backed away after receiving a torrent of hate mail and death threats from gun-rights absolutists.”

The hostility to smart gun technology is not limited to the lunatic fringe. The main gun rights lobbying organisation, the National Rifle Association (NRA) isn’t happy either. The NRA insist they have no objection to the technology itself, but they do oppose “any government mandate” for its use.

In the state of New Jersey, such a law was passed twelve years ago:

“…if smart guns became commercially available anywhere in the country, New Jersey gun dealers would be required, within three years, to sell only guns that had smart-gun technology…

“The New Jersey law was at the heart of the objections to Oak Tree and Engage Armament selling the Armatix smart gun. The fear of gun advocates is that if someone did start selling a commercialized smart gun, the three-year clock would start ticking in New Jersey.”

What might seem like pure ideological lunacy on the part of the gun lobby, is therefore more complicated. A piece of regulation that was meant to incentivise innovation, inadvertently places a huge amount of pressure on manufacturers and dealers not to be the first ones to commercialise a smart gun.

The full implications of the technology go even further. As explained in an article for Computerworld, smart guns are controlled through the use of radio frequencies:

“An RFID chip inside of a black wristwatch – the iW1 – enables the iP1 pistol. In order for the handgun to function, the matching watch must be within 10-in of it. The pistol can also be disabled with a timer or a PIN code entered into the iW1 watch. When the wristwatch is within 10-in, a green LED light on the gun’s grip indicates it is enabled. When not, the light turns red, indicating the weapon is disabled.”

Very smart indeed. But what if the police demand an ‘override function’ so that they can disable weapons that might be used against them? It would hardly be unreasonable for them to do so. Ditto schools and colleges, not to mention entire neighbourhoods were gun crime is a threat. The problem is that this would effectively repeal the constitutional right to bear arms. Arguably, this would be a good thing – but also a matter that should be decided democratically, not through a process of hi-tech mission creep.

Now, consider the application of smart technology to other things. Our cars, for instance; or the increasingly sophisticated systems that can be found in many homes – door locks, burglar alarms, thermostatic controls and so on. No doubt the authorities could make a reasonable case for an override function on all of those too.

The debate over state surveillance of electronic communications is still raging. But as systems that were once purely mechanical in nature are drawn into the realm of digital networks, governments will multiply their ability to reach into our lives and take direct control.

21 comments for: A bizarre twist in the story of America’s gun culture has profound implications for civil liberties back home

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