Smart Cops Saying 'No'

The police will not put up with a gun that is 99% reliable.

By Dave Kopel
Mr. Kopel is research director of the Independence Institute.

4/19/00 11:15 a.m., National Review Online

The gun company formerly known as Smith & Wesson (now called "Clinton & Wesson" by Second Amendment advocates) has agreed that in a few years, it will produce only guns which have an internal computer chip, to prevent anyone except the owner from using the gun. Such "smart" guns might be fine for target shooting, but few people who want a gun for protection would want to risk their lives on a bet that the computer chip will always work perfectly in an emergency.

The best proof of the dangers of computer guns, in an emergency situation, is that police refuse to buy them. Notably, the agreement between Smith & Wesson and the Clinton administration gives S&W an exemption for sales to police and the military. Likewise, mandatory computer gun proposals which were defeated in 1999 in New Jersey and this March in Maryland, also contained police exemptions. That is because the bills' sponsors recognized that if the bills forced the police to buy computer guns, the state capitols would be deluged with police officers testifying against the mandate.

Were computer guns actually reliable, no group could benefit more than police officers; one-seventh of all police shooting deaths are perpetrated with a gun that was snatched from a police officer. And police guns are uniquely vulnerable to being taken away, since they are normally worn on an exposed belt holster. (As opposed to defensive handguns carried by ordinary citizens, which by law are usually required to be carried concealed.)

But when Sandia Labs in New Mexico evaluated every known form of personalized gun technology for possible police adoption, no technology was graded better than a "B" — because of reliability problems.

Simply put, the police will not put up with a gun that is 99% reliable. And since civilians, like law enforcement officers, have the legal right to use deadly force to protect themselves or others from serious violent felonies, when no lesser force will suffice, civilians are just as entitled to be able to purchase 100% reliable firearms.

Indeed, between police and ordinary citizens, it is the citizens who most need an exemption from the mandate. The firearms needs of an ordinary citizen who is being attacked by three gangsters are just about identical to the needs of a police officer who is being attacked by three gangsters. An ordinary citizen, though, may be more stressed during a confrontation, and thus more likely to have sweaty hands, or to shake while holding the guns, and thereby prevent a palm-print reader (one form of personalization technology) from working. A citizen away from home is much less likely to be carrying a second, back-up gun than is a police officer (police commonly carry back-up guns in ankle holsters), and thus the civilian is less likely to have an alternative if the first gun's technology fails to operate. While police officers handle their guns every day, most domestic users who keep a gun for home protection do not; thus, the police officer will be alerted when a battery has gone dead, and needs to be replaced. The home-owner may not find out about the dead battery until he picks up the gun during an emergency; the home-owner's widow may then discover a dead husband along with the dead battery.

If computer handguns really are reliable, then politicians who want to mandate them should add something to the mandate law — a provision waiving sovereign immunity, and providing full compensation for gun-owners (or their estates) who are injured or killed because a mandatory computer gun failed to function. If computer guns are reliable, then there should be no objection to assuaging the fears of skeptics; and this reassurance will not cost the government a penny. On the other hand, if computer guns are not reliable enough to put the government treasury at risk, neither should the safety of crime victims be put at risk.

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