January 4, 1999
As the leading designer and manufacturer of
high-quality firearms in the world, Beretta has recently been asked by several
news organizations about the feasibility and advisability of making handguns
that include so-called "smart gun" technology or
"personalized" internal locks. Beretta has considered this issue for
several years and has concluded that existing design concepts of this type are
neither advisable nor feasible.
Although the concept of a "smart gun"
or "personalized gun" has received public attention recently, we
believe that careful consideration has not been given to potentially dangerous
risks associated with these concepts. In our opinion, such technology is
undeveloped and unproven. In addition, Beretta strongly believes that
"smart gun" technology or "personalized" guns (hereinafter
also referred to as "smart gun" technology) could actually increase
the number of fatal accidents involving handguns.
To understand our concern, it is necessary to
first understand the purpose of "smart gun" technology. "Smart
gun" technology was first seriously studied a few years ago in conjunction
with law enforcement use. Approximately 17% of police officers killed in the
line of duty are killed with their own firearms, usually when the gun is taken
away during a confrontation. The Sandia National Laboratories and others have
expended significant effort and funds in studying and trying to develop a gun
which would not function when taken away from the police officer to whom it
belongs. The resultant technology has been dubbed "smart gun"
technology because of the notion that a police officer's handgun would not fire
unless it was being used by its owner.
The fact that "smart gun" technology
was developed for law enforcement use is significant because it is designed for
a situation where the owner of the gun has a gun within their control and
intends that it be loaded. Beretta has grave concerns about the suitability of
such a device for home use for the simple reason that civilian owners of such
guns, who would not currently do so, might believe that their weapon is now
childproof and could leave their guns loaded and accessible to children,
trusting the "smart gun" feature to prevent an accident.
The current storage practice recommended by
Beretta and all responsible firearm manufacturers, if a child is present or
might gain access to a gun, is to unload the gun, lock it, and store the
ammunition in a separate location. We believe that "smart gun"
technology represents a step backward from this prudent storage practice.
Devotees of "smart gun" technology
have, in fact, touted the notion that the technology allows the owner to store
their gun loaded. (One company which sells a type of mechanical lock actually
prints "Lock It Loaded" on its packaging.) Amazingly, even the Center
to Prevent Handgun Violence, which is the legal action arm of Handgun Control
Inc., argued in a recent court case in California that internal locks should be
included in handguns to allow owners to leave the gun locked and loaded, even if
children might gain access to the gun. Support for the notion that a
"childproof" gun could increase unsafe storage practices is found in a
recent study conducted by a gun control organization which found that up to 11%
of persons who do not now own a handgun would do so if they knew that their
handgun was "childproof."
Beretta's concerns about this potentially risky
situation might be assuaged if we knew that "smart gun" technology was
reliable, but it is not. The Sandia National Laboratories study found that
police officers rejected "smart gun" technology because it was
unreliable. Similarly, Beretta has studied "smart gun" concepts for
several years now and has found the designs currently under consideration to be
potentially unsafe and unreliable.
Examples of "smart gun" technology
include handguns which have fingerprint sensors on the trigger which are coded
to one person's trigger finger print, revolvers in which a magnetic ring worn on
the hand of an authorized user de-activates an internal locking mechanism, a
semi-automatic pistol which only fires if it is in close proximity to a
radio-frequency generating transponder, a revolver which operates only in
response to a pre-programmed pressure from the hand of an authorized user, a
handgun which is activated by voice recognition technology and combination locks
built into the gun.
If one carefully considers these devices, their
limitations become immediately apparent. A lock which depends on reading
fingerprints, for example, would not work with a gloved hand, requires exact
placement of the finger on the trigger (which might be missed in a
life-threatening confrontation), and prevents use of the gun with either hand or
by more than one authorized user. Moreover, such a device would require the
purchaser to travel to the manufacturing site in order to have the gun
Voice recognition technology is unreliable,
especially if the owner of a gun is being attacked and must try to match the
normal speaking voice with which their firearm is familiar. Someone being
stalked or a homeowner with an intruder present may also not want to reveal
their location to a potential attacker by having to speak to their gun to get it
A handgun that must be programmed to an owner's
handstrength, again, would require factory programming and might not work when
the owner's handstrength was altered by duress or injury. Another concern is
that a child with similar handstrength could still use such a gun.
Magnetic devices are internal to the weapon.
If, after use, the lock does not return to its "locked" position, this
failure of the device is not apparent, thus leaving the gun unlocked when the
owner believes it is locked. The magnetic rings used for these devices erase
credit cards and cassette tapes. One police department in Ohio experimented with
the devices and found that police officers routinely left their rings at home
because they did not like them. Most troubling is the fact that the magnetic
lock is non-discriminating, meaning that any magnet can release it. This means
that a child could unlock and use the firearm using a magnet from their kitchen
We understand that Colt's Manufacturing Company
has spent a considerable amount of money and effort during the past few years
attempting to develop a "smart gun". In our opinion, that device,
which is in the prototype stage only, is conceptually flawed. The Colt invention
activates the firearm only if a radio transmitter is in close proximity. This
would require that the owner of the firearms wear a radio transmitter at all
times. Since 71% of all gun owners own more than one gun, these owners would
have to wear several transmitters at all times, or one for each gun. If all
transmitters were set at the same frequency to avoid this problem, the locking
mechanism would suffer from the same problem as a magnetic lock, meaning that
many people could activate it, including children who might gain access to extra
transmitters. For both civilians and police, the use of a transmitter would mean
that, if an attacker obtained your firearm, your proximity to the gun would,
ironically, activate it, creating the very risk the invention was intended to
avoid. It is important to note that Colt has recently stated to the public that
their "smart gun" efforts are directed toward law enforcement use and
not for use in storing a firearm in the home.
All devices that use batteries -- whether it is
the Colt device, the fingerprint identifier or the voice-recognition device --
suffer from an additional problem. Most homeowners who have a gun for
self-defense rarely fire that weapon. A handgun, for example, might be stored
for years before it is needed to save someone's life. If that gun depends upon
batteries to activate the weapon, a serious question arises about the failure
mode of the device. If the batteries fail and the gun cannot be activated, the
homeowner who depends upon the weapon to save his or her life, may find that the
gun does not work. If, on the other hand, the failure mode of the batteries
leaves the gun unlocked, a homeowner might be relying on the batteries to keep
the gun locked and safe, only to discover that a child can now use the gun
Internal mechanical locks, such as internal
combination locks, require activation by the owner and, in that sense, are no
different than existing externally applied locks. They suffer the disadvantage
of being a part of the firearm, which means that the owner may not notice or may
forget that the gun is unlocked and thus leave it accessible to children,
believing it is safe.
These concerns raise a further, serious point.
No "smart gun", to our knowledge, has ever been subjected to real-life
testing. It is unknown whether these devices will cause the gun to malfunction
when it should not. It is unknown whether these devices will lock successfully
every time. It is unknown whether these devices can withstand corrosion or
exposure to the oils and solvents typically used to clean a firearm. We do know
that oil will destroy electronics and we do know that these devices complicate
the firearm in many significant ways.
We also know that people rely upon firearms to
protect their lives. The Fall 1995 Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology
reports that firearms are used defensively 2.3 million times per year. (A
subsequent National Institute of Justice study places the number of defensive
uses at 3 million per year and a Los Angeles Times survey placed the number at
2.5 million defensive uses per year.) Many of these defensive uses involved
warding off danger by simply displaying the gun, but in 15.6% of the defensive
uses, the person using the gun stated that they "almost certainly"
saved their life by doing so.
This means, for every life lost in a
firearm-related accident in that same year, 255 lives may have been saved
through defensive gun use. (It should also be noted that most firearm accidents
are hunting accidents or involve the owner of the firearm shooting themselves or
another person, none of which would be prevented by "smart gun"
technology or, for that matter, any lock.) For every accidental death, suicide
or homicide involving firearms in 1994, 10 lives may have been saved through
defensive gun use.
Most importantly, these studies document the
importance of firearm use in saving lives. A device that prevents or seriously
impedes such use -- such as current "smart gun" concepts -- would cost
more lives than it might save.
It is also important to understand that every
gun can already be locked. Trigger and cable locks are effective and have been
used with firearms for decades. Lockable gun cases and cabinets have existed for
centuries. Many of these locks are inexpensive and are readily available at
sporting goods stores, hardware stores and retail firearm dealers. In 1997,
Beretta and other major manufacturers of firearms, representing over 85% of all
such products, voluntarily chose to begin providing locks or security devices
with their handguns before the end of 1998.
The fatal accident rate in the United States
involving firearms is at its lowest level since 1903. This accident rate has
declined almost 40 percent in the past 25 years alone and the decline in fatal
firearm accidents has occurred in a century which has seen a four hundred
percent increase in the number of firearms in circulation in the United States.
Notwithstanding this remarkable record of
safety, gun control advocates had urged that locks -- such as trigger locks --
be provided for guns by firearm manufacturers (rather than through existing
retail channels). When the firearms manufacturers agreed to do so, the same
advocates declared that the very locks which they had proposed were suddenly
insufficient and that "smart gun" technology was now required. We
believe that these proposals are not motivated by safety (they do not call for
locks on shotguns or rifles, for example, even though these weapons are as
frequently involved in accidents as handguns), but by the desire to make private
ownership of handguns more difficult. The merits of that objective would provide
the subject for a separate discussion, but irrespective of its political
purpose, the call for "smart gun" technology suffers from technical
and conceptual errors that could cost lives.
The idea of a "smart gun" has appeal
to the unwary and has been promoted by gun control advocates who have no
technical understanding of firearms design nor, apparently, of the risks
inherent in their proposals. Beretta trusts that politicians and voters who
consider this issue carefully and objectively will agree that such devices
should not be required in handguns.
As long as Beretta stays on this side of the
battle for freedom, KABA will be their ally. I own a Beretta 92FS myself,
and find it to be a tremendously accurate, sturdy, and user-friendly
firearm. You can find out more about Beretta on their home page at http://www.Beretta.com,
including Career Opportunities with Beretta U.S.A.