- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006

The desire to substitute technology for morality, as for example surveillance cameras for honesty, never dies. Often it simply doesn’t work. Examples:

In 2004 the New Mexico Legislature tried to pass a bill requiring that all new cars have an alcohol sensor connected to the ignition. In order to start the car, the driver would have to blow into the sensor tube. Should the level be above whatever the Legislature liked, the car wouldn’t start.

The objections are obvious. You take your kids on a camping trip with friends. While you sit around the fire eating hamburgers and sharing a case of beer, your 10-year-old gets bitten by a snake, or falls on a broken jar and severs an artery, or otherwise does something to require emergency care right now. You pick her up and sprint to the car — which doesn’t start. The child dies, but you didn’t drive after three beers. Better morality through circuitry.

The latest in such efforts is technology to keep a gun from being fired except by its owner. From the site of Popular Science, “Armed with $2 million in federal grants, researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) are close to perfecting the first commercially viable ‘smart gun.’

“The prototype pistol, unveiled last month, is designed to recognize specific people’s grips. When seized by an unauthorized hand — say, that of a child or a criminal — the gun locks its shooting mechanism.”

The pistol has sensors and microprocessors which together are intended to recognize the user in a fraction of a second.

Now, people who have weapons in the house often do so for self-defense. I suspect that the people who want to make unshootable guns do not really understand this, or don’t approve of self-defense and so don’t care whether the gun can be fired easily, or perhaps are motivated by simple disapproval of guns in any context. I don’t know.

But think about it. An earlier approach to the same effect was to try to require that pistols in a home have a trigger lock in place. You wake up at 3 a.m. to find an intruder in the house with a knife. “Honey, where did we put the key?” You ask the burglar with the knife to hold on a minute while you unlock your pistol. That’ll work.

In the case of the high-tech grip sensors, is the pistol going to recognize the husband’s grip, or the wife’s? Bill is out of town, and Sally wakes up to find three strangers in the living room. There intentions are indeterminate, but probably not anything she would approve of. She reaches for the pistol but … it won’t work. It only recognizes Bill.

I enjoy shooting, so when I get a chance I go to the range, taking my daughters, who also like to shoot. But they couldn’t, because the pistol recognizes only my grip. My buddy wants to fire a magazine to see what he thinks of the gun. He can’t, because … it begins mysteriously jamming, so I ask the range master to check it out. He can’t, because ….

Now, how does the gun learn to recognize its owner? “Users will probably program the NJIT gun at a local police station’s firing range. During the registration process, the owner will test-fire the weapon 10 times. Each trigger pull will activate the pressure sensors embedded in the gun’s handle. Microprocessors will analyze the data and create a permanent profile of the user’s grip.”

Note that if the use of grip sensors is mandatory, this amounts to de facto registration of all firearms. Maybe technology isn’t the answer.

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