As technology advances, guns become deadlier, 'smarter'

Absurd idea: Use technology to advance safety of guns, not make us more vulnerable

August 26, 2014|Dan Rodricks

Through stunning advances in technology, guns are becoming more accurate and deadlier. They are also becoming safer. Crazy as it might seem, gun-rights activists are excited about the former, but opposed to the latter.

The gun-obsessed might admire computerized, laser-based rifle scopes that turn amateurs into master snipers at 1,200 yards, but offer them "smart gun" technology that limits a firearm's use to its rightful owner and they get surly.

Apparently, gun lovers think such a safety feature might become mandatory and, as we all know, anything mandatory constitutes a threat to their absolute Second Amendment rights to bear whatever guns they wish, public safety be damned.

In fact, when the proprietor of a Maryland gun shop offered to sell safety-first "smart guns" some months ago, he received threats and quickly dropped the plan.

More on that in a minute.

First, here's some delightful news: A Texas company that makes military-style sniper rifles with "smart scope" technology plans to market a model in a relatively accessible price range.

In other words, in a few years, for a few thousand bucks, you can be just like a Navy SEAL sniper, without the training. Just what the country needs.

Think I'm kidding? TrackingPoint Inc. has a YouTube video showing a 12-year-old girl hitting targets at hundreds of yards. In another, a blind Marine veteran armed with a TrackingPoint rifle kills an antelope on a game ranch at 375 yards with the assistance of a spotter using an iPad to set up the shot.

The company's new 500 Series rifle, based on the popular AR-15 platform, might look like something only the military should have, but it's intended for a wider audience. And it soon will be priced at a range comparable to rifles without a computerized scope.

Michael Theis, an editor at the Austin Business Journal, reported recently that the company hopes to bring the price down from the $25,000 range to $10,000, then to the $5,000-to-$7,000 range within about three years.

Theis, who used to live in West Virginia and had experience with firearms, tried the rifle at a shooting range near Austin. "I haven't fired anything more powerful than a BB rifle in at least five years," he wrote. "But that didn't prevent me from nailing every single target I aimed at from 250 yards out with ease. These are shots that would have been a challenge for me at half the distance with a low-tech firearm."

Having this kind of technology available for civilian sale — and imagining its potential role in violence — should give us all the creeps. It should be an outrage.

But, in light of the culture of guns and our do-nothing political climate, I doubt anyone will keep TrackingPoint out of the retail sniper market.

On the other hand, when it comes to the latest in gun safety, watch out. Gun activists see a real threat.

A few months ago, the owner of a gun shop in Rockville vowed to sell the nation's first smart gun, the German-made Armatix iP1. The handgun only fires if it picks up a radio signal from a wristwatch. The watch must be in close range; the gun's user must enter a personal identification number in the watch to unlock the firing mechanism.

Such smart guns, or personalized firearms, are designed to be used only by their owners. Some of the guns use radio frequency identification, some use fingerprint-reading or palm-recognition technology.

According to a new report prepared for the Abell Foundation by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the technology of personalized guns has advanced significantly.

The report — by Stephen Teret, director of the Hopkins Center for Law and the Public's Health, and graduate student Natalie Draisin — says smart guns have the potential to save the lives of children or other unauthorized users. One study in Maryland in 2003 estimated that personalized guns could prevent 37 percent of unintentional gun deaths.

Additionally, smart guns could limit the consequences of the staggering number of guns (500,000) stolen each year in home burglaries in the U.S.

So Andy Raymond, the Rockville gun store owner, was all set to sell the Amatix, figuring there might be a market for it, particularly among parents who had resisted introducing guns they considered unsafe into households with children.

But Raymond changed his mind after a day of protests and death threats, according to The Washington Post. At the same time, he said opposition to smart guns was hypocritical. "That's the antithesis of everything that we pro-gun, pro-Second Amendment people should be," Raymond told the Post. "You are not supposed to say a gun should be prohibited. Then you are being no different than the anti-gun people who say an AR-15 should be prohibited."

I have a better argument: Technology is supposed to improve life; it should make us safer, not more vulnerable to danger. But I know: Crazy thought.

drodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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