What Are Smart Guns?

Armatix Smart System iP1 Smart Gun

Smart guns use a variety of tech to prevent unintentional use. This German-made Armatix iP1 will only fire if its accompanying watch is within range. The semi-auto pistol itself holds 10 rounds of .22 caliber ammunition. (Armatix photo)

TLDR: Smart guns use emerging technology to limit their use to pre-approved people and/or places. Feel free to explore them in fiction, but don’t expect to see them in reality all that much.

There are smart phones, smart TVs and sarcastic smart asses, so why shouldn’t there be smart guns? Well, there are smart guns – sort of. As proposed, these firearms would rely on biometrics, RFID, GPS and other tech to make sure only the right people were able to use the gun. Smart guns aren’t commonplace in fiction now, but it’s a good bet they will be in years to come. It might be a good idea to learn about them before that happens and pop culture does its usual crappy job at depicting things that go bang.

By the way, no, smart guns don’t fire bullets that guide themselves into targets. That’s for another post.

What are Smart Guns and Why Aren’t There More of Them?

Smart guns seek to answer a long-time question: How can society keep guns out of the hands of people who will use them for illegal activities? The smart gun in the image above, an Armatix iP1, offers a solution in its matching watch. Much like car keys that automatically unlock vehicles, the watch must be within a certain distance before the firearm will function. The Armatix iP1 is a handgun, which is the type of firearm most of this smart gun tech is focused on.

Biometrics, such as fingerprint scanners, are another avenue. Other models will only function within certain geographic areas pre-programmed into the firearm. However, there isn’t one piece of tech that’s clearly more effective than the others. It’s too soon to make that call.

Part of the reason for that is because of smart gun laws passed before the firearms had a chance to build consumer demand. New Jersey, for example, passed the Childproof Handgun Law of 2002 (CHL), which put a chilling effect on smart guns nationwide. Under the CHL, if a smart gun is available for sale to a New Jersey resident (meaning it could be for sale anywhere in the U.S.), then all handguns sold in that state must be smart guns. Sales of traditional, non-smart (dumb?) guns would be prohibited.

Since no domestic firearm manufacturer or retailer wants to be the one to inadvertently trigger a handgun ban in New Jersey, smart guns’ progress in the U.S. largely came to a standstill. Most of the smart gun models out there are either made in Europe or just prototypes. I’d be surprised if more than handful of people in the States have ever touched one. (Note: I’ve heard of a place in California selling the iP1, but I can’t tell how that plays into the CHL.)

Smart Guns in Fiction

The CHL isn’t the only example of smart gun legislation, but it highlights an important point: The U.S. is still a ways away from adopting this technology. Much like 3D-printed firearms and knives, I think this makes smart guns a prime avenue for speculation in fiction. Might a character chop off a finger to access a gun? What would it take to get that watch away from someone? Could a gun be “hacked?”

Beats me, but this is a frontier ripe for exploring tomorrow’s technology. That’s why fiction is so important, and why protecting free expression is critical. It allows readers to probe unconventional ideas from a safe distance.

Smart Guns: Real World Examples

My politics aren’t the reason I partnered with Writer’s Digest Books to write The Writer’s Guide to Weapons. I certainly have my opinions, but they’re not the meat of what I write. I’d rather give you information that stands on its own regardless of politics, because the bulk of what constitutes firearms and knives is bound to indisputable physics, technology and history. If I offer my personal POV, it’s to provide context. I think smart guns could use some of that.

I’ve never used a smart gun, but I have some experience with their precursors: smart safes. Unlike smart guns, laws aren’t standing in the way of new gun safe technology. Some use biometrics, like a fingerprint, while others use a watch or keycard that must be within a certain range for the safe to open. Sound familiar?

Most of the models we reviewed at Gun Digest were pretty undercooked. At best, operating the safes was cumbersome. At worst, they failed to function at all. Biometrics have a long way to go on the consumer market, and are far from being as reliable as traditional locks. Those watches and keycards don’t always work, either. That isn’t to say every model performed poorly. We liked one, the Quick Vent Safe, so much we decided to sell it in our e-commerce store. So the potential for this kind of tech is there. But remember, there isn’t an albatross like the CHL dragging down smart safe development.

For reference, here’s how the Quick Vent Safe, works:

However, there’s still the issue of relying on smart guns and safes that require electricity to function. In a critical moment, would you be comfortable with that? That’s not a question I can answer for you, but it’s worth considering.

Smart Guns: My Verdict

I don’t think the tech is there yet for smart guns, and I don’t anticipate it will be so long as legislation restricts their innovation. In a perfect world, only the “good guys” would have firearms. But the reality of making that happen via smart guns, for now, appears out of reach. As it stands, their best use is in the pages of fiction, where writers can speculate about emerging technology without government interference (hopefully).


Get the Book

The Writers Guide to WeaponsThe Writer’s Guide to Weapons: A Practical Reference for Using Firearms and Knives in Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books) comes with everything but the ammo. Pick up a print or digital copy from these fine retailers:

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