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Atty. Ralph D. Sherman

130 West Main Street • New Britain, Connecticut 06052

tel. (860) 229-0213 • fax (860) 229-0235 • e-mail


Legal Opinion

December 1998

Computerized guns

Recently the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times ran stories on their front pages about "smart" guns - computerized guns that are supposed to fire only when held by someone who is wearing a special bracelet that contains some electronics. WTIC-TV (Channel 3) picked up the idea and interviewed me (and others) for a feature on the same subject.

Readers of this column ought to have a few basic facts handy for the next time someone says that computerized guns would make a safer world.

It seems these guns were originally conceived as a way to keep police officers from being shot by bad guys who manage to take the officers' guns away. The October 22 news coverage said that 16 percent of officers who are killed in the line of duty are shot with their own guns.

That figure sounds impressive until you find out the whole story. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, Inc., which gave out the 16 percent figure, the total number of officers killed in the line of duty last year was 160 - for the entire United States. Sixteen percent of that would be 26 officers, while there are about 700,000 sworn officers nationwide, according to the Memorial Fund.

And if you check the FBI's web site, the figures are even smaller - about six officers per year killed with their own guns. (See the report entitled Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted.)

The odds are that far more officers die each year from illness. And officers being overpowered and disarmed by bad guys is something that can be prevented through training.

But wouldn't computerized guns be safer anyway?


There are two basic problems with a computerized gun. It may not fire when it should, or it may fire when it shouldn't. Both situations are scary.

If something goes wrong with the computer, the gun may not fire when you really need it. Sure, computers are reliable - just like the ATM that always seems to be out of order when you're on your way to the airport at 6 a.m. When it comes to protecting my family and myself, I prefer to keep guns simple. I don't want to mess with reliability by adding computers and new software to the system.

On the flip side, a computerized gun may fire when it's not supposed to. The computer "safety" feature may tempt some people to store the gun where children could find it. What if the computer fails and the gun becomes shootable without the magic bracelet? Disaster.

Indeed, according to the Channel 3 story, if the battery goes dead, the Colt's computerized gun will fire without the magic bracelet. So if a child or a professional thief steals a computerized gun, all they have to do is remove the battery, and the gun will be ready to shoot.

Of course, you might say that an even more basic problem is that when an abusive ex-boyfriend breaks down a woman's front door, he isn't going to sit down and read a magazine when she says, "Please excuse me while I put my electronic bracelet on."

It's worth noting that the Violence Policy Center, the country's most visible total-ban anti-gun organization, is opposed to the idea of computerized guns. VPC says that when these guns become available to the public - or if the law is changed to require that new guns be computerized - the result will be a big increase in gun sales, as millions of people rush to buy the new guns. VPC says that the real motivation behind computerized guns is the desire of some gun manufacturers to boost sales in a slow market.

VPC may be right, but Colt has publicly opposed any law that would require all new guns to be computerized.

A final note: At one point while Channel 3 taped me in my office, the cameraman interrupted the interview. For some unknown reason the sound wasn't being recorded on the tape. Before the interruption I had been telling the reporter that the computerized gun is a kind of technology that isn't reliable enough to suit me.

"Technology," the cameraman muttered, tapping on the side of the video camera.

And he was talking about technology that has been around a lot longer than computerized guns.

Eventually he found the right place to thump the camera, and the sound started working again.

Maybe he'll have a future in gunsmithing.


Copyright 1998 by Ralph D. Sherman

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