Can Smart Guns Save Lives?

Zac Amos
Can Smart Guns Save Lives?
Illustration: © IoT For All

Gun violence is a controversial and pressing issue. Discussions around it and how to solve it pop up seemingly every day, often producing no real results. It’s undeniably a complex problem that likely requires big, complicated changes, but part of that solution could lie in new technology.

Several firearms companies have recently introduced “smart guns” in hopes of reducing gun violence. While the future is still unclear, these designs could make a significant difference if they catch on across the industry.

What Is a Smart Gun?

A smart gun is a personalized firearm that only its rightful owner can fire. The idea’s been around in movies and theory for years, but working smart guns have only recently gone for sale for the first time.

Early attempts at smart guns used radio frequency identification (RFID) to unlock the firearm. Owners would theoretically wear a bracelet or watch emitting a unique RFID signal that unlocked the weapon once they got close enough. The obvious downside to this approach, though, is that someone only has to steal the wearable to use a firearm that doesn’t belong to them.

Newer versions use biometrics instead. That means scanning users’ faces, fingerprints, or both when they hold the gun to detect whether they’re the authorized owner, just like many smartphones. If the facial ID or fingerprints aren’t a match, the weapon won’t fire.

How Can Smart Guns Reduce Gun Violence?

This technology is impressive, but in a country with more than 4,000 mass shootings in 10 years, its real-world implications are more important. Smart guns may not be able to stop every instance of gun violence, but they can reduce it in several ways.

Reduced Risk of Suicide

The biggest way smart guns could address gun violence is by making teen suicide less likely. Active shooter incidents may come to mind first when thinking of gun violence, but suicide accounts for more gun deaths than any other category. 

Sadly, many of these cases — and most of their recent growth — involve children and teens under 18. Smart guns would help prevent these deaths by making it impossible for young users to fire them. Because minors can’t legally purchase firearms, they can’t be authorized smart gun users, so they wouldn’t be able to shoot them even if they got their hands on someone else’s.

It’s important to note that smart guns wouldn’t prevent suicides from legal, authorized owners using their own firearms. However, youths account for a lot of these deaths, so smart guns would still enable a steep drop in suicide rates.

Less Gun Theft

Smart guns could also reduce homicides by tackling gun theft. These firearms don’t prevent theft in and of itself, but they render it useless because the thief would be unable to fire the weapon.

Criminals stole more than 4,000 firearms in 2021 alone, and over 6,000 more went missing and could have ended up in the wrong hands. These illegally obtained guns make violent crimes a bigger threat, but if they won’t fire, it’s less of an issue. If someone wanted to commit a crime with a smart gun, they’d have to obtain it legally.

Legal gun owners can and do commit violent crimes with their rightfully owned firearms. However, restricting weapon access to only legal owners makes these crimes less likely. In many areas, people must pass background checks to buy a gun, so ensuring only legal owners can shoot one ensures people who wouldn’t meet these standards can’t use them.

Fewer Accidental Shootings

Another way smart guns could save lives is by minimizing the chances of accidental shootings. Because only these weapons’ legal owners can operate them, they ensure that only those with sufficient safety training can pull the trigger.

There were 549 accidental gun deaths in 2021 alone. More than 100 of these involved people aged 15 to 24, and another 100 involved people younger than that. That trend suggests many accidental shootings happen when teens and children — who can’t legally own guns and likely don’t know how to operate them safely — get ahold of someone else’s firearms.

Smart guns prevent those deaths by making it impossible for these younger groups to fire them. Accidents can still happen from legal gun owners, but the overall total would fall dramatically.

Remaining Issues

Despite these advantages, there are some remaining obstacles for smart guns. Notably, hackers can fake fingerprints or get around biometric protections in other ways. This hacking isn’t easy, so it wouldn’t likely be a very common scenario, but it’s still possible. Consequently, smart guns can’t provide 100 percent protection against unauthorized shooters.

Anyone who’s used fingerprints or face scans to unlock a phone has likely experienced how biometrics aren’t always reliable, either. Even a recent prototype smart gun failed to recognize its owner twice in a demonstration. In an emergency scenario, legal owners being unable to use their own firearms to protect themselves could have costly consequences.

Technological improvements can help smart guns overcome these obstacles. But for now, they make the technology less effective than it may seem.

Smart Guns Are an Important Step But Not a Complete Solution

When they work properly, smart guns offer a far safer alternative to traditional firearms. They may not address every instance of gun violence, but they can eliminate a lot of it.

As biometric technology improves, these weapons will become more reliable and safe. If more manufacturers implement that improved technology, they could save thousands of lives every year.

Zac Amos
Zac Amos - Features Editor, ReHack
Zac Amos is the Features Editor at ReHack, where he writes about all things tech-related, from cybersecurity to AI to IoT.
Zac Amos is the Features Editor at ReHack, where he writes about all things tech-related, from cybersecurity to AI to IoT.