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Smart Guns are Stupid Science

The power has been out for two months. Word of mouth, around the FEMA depots, says it should be back soon. That's what they said last month too. Suddenly, in the wreckage of your home, you hear the footsteps of a band of looters. You reach for your gun, but it won't unlock because its battery died last week...

You fell asleep on the couch. A burglar kicks down your front door and jams a cold pistol muzzle to your forehead. You realize that the gun your wife is groping for in the dark bedroom will only fire if it is within inches of the RFID watch. But the watch is on your arm...

The whole point of owning a gun is that you only need to use it in the most extreme situations (and you pray these never arise). You don't plug your gun into a USB port before going to bed, knowing that tonight is the night that you'll need it. You don't pop on your special RFID digital watch before slipping between the sheets. A gun needs to be ready for the only circumstances it is designed for: the unimaginably horrible ones.

A gun that is hamstrung by special technological conditions to fire is a liability to an owner who keeps it for protection from these terrifying moments. Science would say that smart guns are a stupid idea.

Murphy, author of the famous law, is unknown to history. It's a good bet that he was a scientist, or possibly an engineer. He stressed one of the most important things to understand as a practitioner of sound laboratory science -- and daily life -- is the minimization of extraneous variables. The fewer things that you need to happen perfectly right, the more likely your plan is to succeed.

Gun technology changes very little over time. This isn't due to lack of scientific progress or some conspiracy. Quite simply, a reliable tool should be as simple as it can possibly be. A cleaned, oiled, mechanically sound gun is extremely simple. It doesn't suffer from unnecessary complications that risk failure at a crucial instant.

A gun should not be like a high-tech complex scientific tool or tech toy. If your iPhone crashes or drops a call you can simply wait for it to reboot or call back. If the fancy lab microscope breaks, a technician can come and fix it, but you'll have to wait an hour or a day to use it.

When the moment comes to use your firearm, you need it to work perfectly with no delay or fiddling. There is zero margin for error. A more complex gun, reliant on batteries and chips and special mechanisms, is simply a gun that is more likely to let you down in the moment when your life hangs in the balance.

If we want to reduce accidental gun deaths, what should we do instead? The answer is training gun owners to strictly follow simple rules. In brief terms, there are two layers to this strategy.

When handling a firearm, it is imperative to operate by a few simple rules at all times. First, always assume a gun is loaded; never play with it, wave it around, or treat it as harmless. Second, never point the muzzle at a person unless you intend to kill them. Imagine that a laser pointer is taped to the barrel; anyone that the laser passes near is in the "kill path." Third, never place your finger on the trigger until you are pulling it; this way you can never fire unintentionally.

The second layer of gun responsibility applies when the firearm is not being handled. Obviously, put the safety on, and don't leave your gun in a place that is easy to find. Do not load it unless it is tucked away in that storage spot. If you fear a curious child, you can load a single dummy round into the chamber. This will prevent a child from discharging a live round, but only slow the owner a fraction of a second by requiring a single mechanical action without technological aids to clear that round and chamber a live one. Mechanical locks and safes can be used, but here again you are relying on complicated devices and tempting Murphy.

All the gun safety technology in the world is no substitute for absolutely serious and careful practice. What these techy guns really prevent is fast deployment in the very moment that they are most needed. The only moment that matters.

(AP photo)

Tom Hartsfield is a scientist and writer. He holds a PhD in physics from the University of Texas.

Tom Hartsfield
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