New Technologies and Gun Control in the US

25 Jan 2013

Following yet another massacre in the USA, serious attention is finally turning toward the control of gun use. In the face of strong opposition by the National Rifle Association (NRA), President Obama has issued instructions to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to do research on gun violence and its effects on society. New technologies have now also entered the fray: radio frequency IDs and 3D printing are being used on opposing sides of this struggle.

An Irish company, TriggerSmart, has been working on guns that can only be used by authorized users. To achieve this, they have embedded RFIDs in the grips of the weapons. The lawful user of the gun is issued with a transponder. When the transponder and the tag in the weapon signal each other, the gun can be fired (‘Are smart guns the clever option?’, Hodson, NewScientist, 26 January 2013).

Smart gun

(Source: Mark Roberti, ‘Keeping guns out of the wrong hands’, RFID Journal, February 1, 2012)

This is hailed as an improvement over biometric identifiers – such as fingerprints or grip on the gun – since the technology works much faster, which is crucial. The technology should enable the owner of a gun to use it quickly during a crisis. Research into the use of smart technologies and their potential impacts on the illegitimate use of weapons is clearly needed. Only time will tell if the NRA’s opposition to gun control would, once more, prevent legislation enabling such research to be passed in Congress.

In the meantime, new technologies have also been used to more nefarious purposes to escape gun controls. The online campaign group Defence Distributed recently created a gun magazine that holds 30 rounds through 3D printing. Obama is proposing to limit the sale of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds (‘Are smart guns the clever option?’, Hodson, NewScientist, 26 January 2013). Defence Distributed aims to spread the use of ‘wiki weapons’ by widely making available plans for 3D printable guns (not only parts of guns).

This gives a new meaning to the term ‘smart guns’, and alerts us to the fact that there are no simple technological fixes to the problems facing society today.

By Aletta Norval