If we can put a man on the Moon...

Whenever a technological problem—something we haven’t yet achieved, something regarded as challenging or even impossible to do—the cliché often gets raised that if we can put a man on the Moon, we ought to be able do whatever wonder is under consideration.

This assertion often has an implied mockery, the desire to take smart people down a peg by pointing out that for all their genius, they can’t do X.  Or it’s a kind of hopelessness.  We can walk on another world, but can’t cure the common cold, cure HIV, build a flying car, or make fusion reactors work.

Nor can we make smart guns.  At least so far, the efforts have been mediocre for a lot of money.  But shouldn’t the likes of Colt be able to get a smart gun to work?

The answer, for several reasons, is no, as Robert Smith and Joel Rose of NPR’s Planet Money team report in episode 694, “The Gun That Wouldn’t Shoot.”  Or more precisely, Colt managed to come up with a gun that their engineers thought would work, except that like psychic powers, nothing happened when independent observers came to watch.

Why?  For one thing, the man who bought the company in 1994, Donald Zilkha, was someone who didn’t own a gun and didn’t understand gun owners.  He figured that a gun that could only be fired by its owner was a good idea.  As someone who took over a firearms manufacturing company not because he was a part of the gun community but for the fine capitalist motive of making money, he made the error of not learning his potential market.  Something that we owners value is reliability.  If we buy a gun for practical purposes, we demand that it works—not part of the time, but every time we need it to.  As the saying goes, the loudest sounds you’ll ever hear are a click when you expected a bang and a bang when you expected a click.  Both of those can refer to failures that broken or badly engineered firearms experience.  We also understand that we might have to pass a gun to someone else without having time to pass along the activation wristband.

But the actions of the gun control side did more to stifle Colt’s work on smart guns.  New Jersey’s law requiring that all guns sold in the state must only work for their owners within three years of that technology becoming practical is well known and widely reviled by people who support gun rights, and this law has led to a broad rejection of smart guns by those of us who buy guns.  The demand isn’t there, and in part, it is absent because we don’t want to encourage legislators to make smart guns the only ones for sale.

In an odd moment of agreement about a specific detail that comes from opposite purposes, Josh Sugarmann, founder and director of the Violence Policy Center, didn’t like Colt’s attempt because he worried that a smart gun would be something people would want to buy.  More people would own guns if they thought those guns were safe, in his view, and more gun ownership is a bad thing in his view.

I am by no means an early adopter.  I kept Windows XP out of a flat refusal to accept Vista on my home computer and only updated to Windows 7 when software I needed stopped working with the old operating system.  My first firearm was a cap-and-ball revolver, after which I got an M1911 and a Mosin-Nagant.  All of which is to say that just because some gizmo company decides to cobble together a new product doesn’t mean I’ll buy it.  But I’m not actually opposed to new technology categorically.  If some day, a firearm can be made to work every time for its owner but not for anyone else—and not subject to being turned off by third parties—I could see a place for that invention.  But that technology doesn’t exist now.  Like fusion reactors, it looks to be years in the future, always years in the future.

Make it work, make it within the budgets of most people, and leave it up to consumers to choose without being mandated, and I’ll be glad for the maker to sell it to anyone who will buy it.  I probably won’t be one of those people, but I also won’t oppose the freedom to buy, so long as it’s a genuine freedom.  When you shoot at the Moon, you won’t succeed by banning puddle jumper flights from city to city.  And this is the biggest concern that has prevented this technology from developing.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Guns.com.

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