Politics & Policy

Smart Guns Are Dumb

Attorney General Eric Holder
And Eric Holder is not exactly brilliant either.

Addressing the assembled congressmen in his inimitable style last Friday, Attorney General Holder told a House appropriations subcommittee that he wished to “explore” the opportunities that might arise were he to be given millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money and a copy of the movie Skyfall:

I think that one of the things that we learned when we were trying to get passed those common sense reforms last year, Vice President Biden and I had a meeting with a group of technology people and we talked about how guns can be made more safe.

By making them either through fingerprint identification, the gun talks to a bracelet or something that you might wear, how guns can be used only by the person who is lawfully in possession of the weapon.

It’s those kinds of things that I think we want to try to explore so that we can make sure that people have the ability to enjoy their Second Amendment rights, but at the same time decreasing the misuse of weapons that lead to the kinds of things that we see on a daily basis.

There is much that is remarkable about this rather ugly little disquisition, not least of which is Holder’s apparent inability to construct coherent, intelligible, and appropriate trains of thought. Eccentric syntax notwithstanding, the request is absolutely dripping with noblesse oblige, the clear implication being that the government remains prepared to indulge the exercise of basic liberties providing that it can find a way to ensure that the nation’s dilettantes don’t hurt themselves in the process.

As is sadly typical of his approach, Holder approaches his subject as one might if one believed that the Second Amendment outlined a privilege and not an unassailable right — that is, that the purpose of the Bill of Rights was to protect a hobby that can be “enjoyed” as one might enjoy gardening. Those who are dismayed at the administration’s prevailing attitude toward privacy, religious liberty, and freedom of expression will presumably recognize the mien.

The Second Amendment existing primarily as a last-chance check against the state, there is no reason whatsoever for Holder to be concerning himself with this question in the first place. “Governments” in Europe, James Madison wrote in Federalist 46, “are afraid to trust the people with arms.” But not so America, in which country the hands of the powerful were virtuously handcuffed to the wall. As the Philadelphia Federal Gazette made explicit in 1789, when outlining the purpose of the proposed amendments, “whereas civil-rulers, not having their duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as military forces, which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed by the article in their right to keep and bear their private arms.”

James Burgh, an English Whig who empathized with the American project and whose writings were widely disseminated in the new country, put it more bluntly. “Most attractive to Americans,” Burgh wrote, “the possession of arms is the distinction between a freeman and a slave, it being the ultimate means by which freedom was to be preserved.” Which is to say that, beyond a limited role in interstate regulation, the nature of the firearms that the public owns is none of the government’s damned business, and the suggestion that the citizenry might install GPS trackers and functionality disablers in their weapons is so self-evidently absurd as to inspire sardonic laughter and little else besides.

Holder’s faith in technology is touching. There currently exists a grand total of one “smart” gun — an expensive German product that comes only in a weak caliber that is wholly unsuitable for self-defense. Indeed, as Guns.com’s Max Slowik observes, the very idea of magically “safe” firearms remains something of a “myth”:

Smart guns introduce a layer of complexity that brings along with it several points of failure. They are battery-operated and generally default to safe. They are not water resistant. Biometric scanners require a clean scanner and a clean scan, and cannot be used with gloves. Radio-based scanners can be spoofed or jammed, and because they’re linked to a ring or bracelet, can be used by anyone with access to the key. Both systems are not instantaneous; it takes time for the controller to disengage the safety.

And they just don’t work 100 percent of the time. Which is precisely why both New Jersey and Maryland have enacted legislation that exempts them from being forced to issue smart guns to their police officers. For a target or recreational shooter, this might be OK. But for anyone who may want to use their gun for self-defense, police or otherwise, the failure rate inherent to smart guns — about one percent with the latest generation of smart safeties — is unacceptable. Smart guns aren’t.

The attorney general, in other words, has his work cut out. Even if smart guns did live up their moniker, the “common use” standard outlined in the D.C. v. Heller decision would put paid to any legislation that might seek to back up the government’s enthusiasm with legal force. Put crudely: Unless the public wants it, this isn’t going anywhere, Eric. And, at the moment, at least, they do not.


Legal questions to one side, the presumption that a government’s being able to make individuals safer means that a government should seek to make those citizens safer is itself inimical to the suppositions of the republic. Among the other “kinds of things that we see on a daily basis” are domestic violence (a woman is assaulted or beaten every nine seconds or so), child abuse (a report of maltreatment is made every ten seconds), and alcoholism (which kills 88,000 people per year). Presumably, the federal government could reduce the instances of all of these ills by mandating the installation of telescreens in all private homes, putting ankle bracelets on children, and more closely monitoring the supply of booze.

It will, course, do no such thing. Why not? Well, because such measures do not comport with the expectations of a free population. The United States not only has a culture that tends to privilege individual liberty above dependent security but a government that is categorically forbidden from relegating every question with which it is faced to a cost/benefit analysis. Firearms, which represent a considerably smaller problem and are protected by name in the nation’s founding document, serve as no exception to this rule.

#ad#In the interests of fairness, it should be observed that Eric Holder did not say whether he ultimately wished to “explore” legal remedies to the alleged problem of “gun safety” or whether he was merely interested in funding private research. Nevertheless, he was tapping into an idea that has caught the Left’s imagination of late — and that has even burrowed its way into a bill. Last year, fresh from watching the latest James Bond movie, Massachusetts representative John Tierney not only proposed mandating that all firearms made in the United States feature personalization technology within two years, but also that any older weapon that was sold or transferred by a business or an individual be retrofitted by force of law. Per Tierney’s coveted legislation, the considerable cost of modifying the nation’s existing firearms would be paid with funds taken from the Department of Justice’s Asset Forfeiture Fund, which is . . . controlled by Eric Holder.

Such proposals have proven extremely popular among reformers outside of Congress, too. John Rosenthal, CEO of the gun-control group Stop Handgun Violence, liked Tierney’s legislation so much that he took to the pages of the Boston Globe to postulate that, with “smart” technology, “we could reduce the majority of gun deaths in this country.” Even for the assembled hysterics of the gun-control movement, this was an impressively mendacious claim. The anti-Second Amendment outfit called The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence reports that 606 people were killed in 2010 as the direct result of mishaps. Being larger than zero, this number is clearly troubling. Nevertheless, it represents around 2 percent of the overall fatalities, paling in comparison to the 19,392 people who deliberately killed themselves and to the 11,078 people who were shot to death on purpose during the same timeframe.

Chasing after such pipe-dreams may well please a gun-control movement that has been disillusioned of late by a string of severe defeats. But it is unlikely to “reduce the majority” of anything much at all — save, perhaps, for the Democratic Senate. Of all the lessons to have taken from Skyfall, a 143-minute meditation on duty, patriotism, and tradition, it seems that Eric Holder has picked the wrong one.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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