When it comes to advancements in gun technology, many have been tied into an endless string of arguments from all sides of the gun control debate, especially in recent years. If and how new technology can be applied to make guns safer and more reliable is a constant part of the discussion. One of the most visible applications for smart gun technology is the very firearms carried by law enforcement. As body cameras become increasingly standard, the visibility into police procedures is under constant review by professionals, as well as the general public.
But even with this amount of attention, the path toward federal smart gun regulations for law enforcement has been a series of steps forward and backwards. That said, there are some underlying trends that show several potential areas of movement in the legislation of smart guns for police officers.
Smart guns are defined as any firearm that uses technology to prevent anyone but the authorized user from firing the weapon. They can also be referred to as “personalized” or “owner-authorized” guns. There are two primary types of technology applied to smart guns at this time: token-based, typically using passive RFID, and biometric technology. The token-based systems use an external device, such as a ring, to trigger the gun to fire. These devices typically use magnetic or radio frequency waves for communication or, in some cases, a mechanical key-like device can be used. Biometric technologies use sensors to detect the fingerprints or the grip of the owner and authorize the gun to fire. In some cases, smart guns can be set to authorize multiple users to access a single weapon.
Using any type of technology as a security check for a weapon can be a challenge. Gloves or dirty fingers can interfere with biometrics, and magnets could be used to crack some token-based devices. There have also been some concerns about the lack of firepower available for models equipped with smart gun technology. The main issue here is not that these challenges exist, but that they could interfere with law enforcement’s ability to act in an urgent situation.
Before any new technology is implemented in the field, it would need to be thoroughly tested and proven reliable. This is where the real challenge lies to date. The gun rights debate has stalled attempts to develop partnerships and perform testing and development of smart gun technologies. With the National Rifle Association (NRA) being openly skeptical of smart gun technology and with so much influence over the industry, a lack of meaningful direction has left the industry without a clear roadmap.
With some of the challenges mentioned above regarding the capability of smart gun technology and the ongoing debate over regulations and rights, exactly how they could be implemented by law enforcement remains an open question.
Politics aside, one very clear potential subset of law enforcement that smart gun manufacturers are targeting is plain-clothed officers. These officers typically do not have the usual safety holsters typical of standard police gear, which could leave them more vulnerable to unauthorized access. The implementation could offer a discreet and practical mechanism for protection. Some gun control groups have advocated for law enforcement agencies to take the lead in pushing for smart gun technology, while others have pushed back citing the lack of proven technology at the front line.
There have been several laws enacted over time aimed to protect law enforcement officers, such as the 2004 federal Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act (LEOSA). The LEOSA grants the right to carry concealed firearms at all times to both current and retired officers. While there are long-standing regulations related to the export of firearms and other defense-related materials, such as ITAR, there has been a lack of formal smart gun legislation, despite plenty of debate and proposals. In recent years, there has been a push at the federal level to standardize smart gun technology. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ), a division of the Department of Justice, released a report in 2016 with specifications for smart gun technology with guidance for manufacturers, government offices, and firearm users to reference.
There is no doubt that the gun control debate will continue well on into the future, but there are some signs that technology is catching up with expectations. With growing awareness about smart gun technology from the public, government officials, and law enforcement agencies, there now exist more and more opportunities for smart gun technology to flourish. Over time, smart guns could someday become a standard in the firearm manufacturing industry.