How the History of Gun Safeties Frames the Future of Smart Guns

A revolver equipped with the novel Magna-Trigger. (Photo: Tarnhelm)

Firearms safety has always meant different things for the two sides of the gun divide. For gun owners firearms safety means responsible ownership. It means safe gun handling, safe storage, safe designs and easily available training. For gun control supporters firearms safety means restricting gun ownership.

Physical gun safeties blur the lines between the two. They add a layer of security as well as increased cost and complication. Things like gun safes and gun locks seemed like an easy way to raise the bar for gun owners — and were struck down as unconstitutional in the landmark Heller decision.

Before the Supreme Court decision, Washington, D.C. statute required gun owners to keep their guns locked up or disassembled and non-functional when not in use. The court found that this, along with a handgun ban, restricted gun ownership too far.

In light of new technologies there is a push to improve firearms safety with 21st century electronics. Small and getting smaller, again both sides want to tap near-field communications and biometric readers to make guns harder to use by the wrong people. Some of these people have the best intentions; they just don’t want kids or anyone unauthorized from picking up a pistol and pulling the trigger. Other people are looking to complicate gun ownership with a new take on the same old strategy.

How this will enter the world of firearms safety is just beginning. Realistically no electronic or “smart gun” security is ready for any kind of adoption outside of testing and fringe work at this time. But the underlying technology is improving, becoming more reliable, and could be put into limited use — by both sides.

In the ’80s and ’90s both gun manufacturers and gun control advocates turned to locks and other mechanisms to moderate gun ownership. Gun owners almost universally rejected the movement, boycotting major gun companies and shifting gun politics as a whole.

There are examples of both sides developing new kinds of safeties leading up to the recent call for smart guns, the Tarnhelm Magna-Trigger and the Smith & Wesson-related Saf-T-Hammer Saf-T-Trigger.

The Magna-Trigger uses a simple magnetic ring to pull a locking pin out of position in Smith & Wesson and older Ruger revolvers. Users put on their rings and the guns work. Unauthorized users don’t have rings and can’t shoot the guns.

Obviously this never took off. It’s security through obscurity; if police departments ever adopted Magna-Trigger revolvers agency-wide everyone would know about crooks and their knockoff rings. And they’d also be wondering why cops are still using revolvers.

Later Smith & Wesson implemented their infamous integral lock to their line-up, which uses a tool to lock and unlock revolver actions. Simultaneously the Saf-T-Hammer company developed the Saf-T-Trigger, a universal trigger lock that used a unique key.

None of these devices turned out to be necessary. The gun control movement stalled and the “assault weapons” ban lapsed shortly after. From a gun owner perspective they were frivolous at best. As far as safeties none really work better than established safe practices and at worst make guns fail during critical moments.

Smith & Wesson suffered badly after aligning with partizan politics. The company ground to a halt, only to be purchased by Saf-T-Hammer and re-branded into the company that rules the M&P brand to this day.

Looking back at gun safeties, it becomes clear what is there to promote responsible gun ownership and what has been fabricated to complicate any kind of gun ownership.

If you go back far enough, gun safeties themselves are a novel concept. The first rule of gun handling is always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction. For a long time, that was good enough. During 19th century the peak of gun safety was quality production standards as industry took gun manufacturing away from craftsmen. In the early 20th century manufacturers went crazy developing new and sometimes eccentric gun safety systems, and during the Cold War the better systems became standard in gun manufacturing to this day.

Almost all guns in production now have some kind of firing pin safety, sear or hammer safety and trigger safety. These safeties have made manual safeties entirely optional — you can take any good, modern handgun and fire it out of a cannon into a wall and it won’t go off by accident.

And this has been the case with quality guns for a long time. So long that the latest gun safety isn’t will or won’t it shoot, but who can make it shoot.

Movies, TV, video games and comics have had smart guns for a long time. Now that we have smart phones, smart televisions and smart speakers, why can’t we have smart guns too?

Because they don’t work. Let’s be honest about these smart devices. Fingerprint scanners take a few passes to get a good read, smart TVs are targeted by hackers big and small and smart speakers go rogue, ordering dollhouses and cookies while listening to their television overlords. Even in the best cases none of these systems are responsible enough to handle life-or-death situations.

If smart guns fail they have to fail in such a way that gun owners can continue to use their guns. This is just as true for individual gun owners as it is for police departments and other agencies. Because of this, it doesn’t matter if they work in the first place; in this case the only purpose they serve is to increase the cost of gun ownership.

The most common smart gun systems use near-field communication, or RFID. These systems are not only vulnerable to jamming, regular ambient radio interference can confuse them. Hobbyists have built pocked-sized zappers that permanently destroy RFID out of disposable cameras and junk parts.

There is no way RFID systems can exist in the mainstream. The same goes double for biometric systems. Biometric scanners use fingerprints or any other unique biological key to identify authorized gun owners. These don’t work because sometimes shooters need to wear gloves.

If gloves weren’t enough to block them they aren’t particularly reliable in the first place. Cuts and burns, dirty hands and even changes in blood pressure and heart rate can all cause false-negatives with biometric sensors. And even with improvement, they won’t pass the glove test.

And ultimately, smart gun tech only stops the wrong users from using guns in the immediate term. Unauthorized shooters will figure out ways to bypass gun locks, whether they’re smart or not.

Is this really any different than Smith & Wesson’s revolver lock? (Photo: Armatix)

See Also: Armatix Plans 9mm ‘Smart Gun’ Over New (And Old) Concerns

Let’s assume that a law mandating advanced gun locks is passed. It will not apply to the literally hundreds of millions of guns already in circulation, and unless it also includes a fundamental shift in ammunition mechanics is included, it will be circumvented.

If you put a smart lock on a firing pin, you can replace it with a dumb firing pin. As long as guns need firing pins, smart guns can be made dumb. And even if you replace dumb ammo with smart ammo, someone will figure out how to make smart guns shoot “antiquated” ammunition.

So whatever happened with Saf-T-Hammer? They never made hammers, they barely made triggers and only stand out for buying Smith & Wesson and turning the company around. Tarnhelm, on the other hand, continues to make their relatively simple, completely optional safety system. There will always be room for new and novel safeties in the world of firearms as long as their real intentions remain pro-safety and not anti-gun.

Saf-T-Hammer’s real goal was different. It wasn’t about personal safety, or consumer safety, it was about corporate safety. If gun control was on the rise Saf-T-Hammer was in a position to sell a lot of locks. If locks were on the way out, the company was in a position to buy Smith & Wesson.

Anyone can tell real gun safeties apart from safety-themed agenda politics when gun owners and gun manufacturers together embrace new ideas and new technology. But when the push comes from a single source, especially a politically-motivated source, it’s probably not a real safety.

If someone develops real, working smart gun tech, you can bet gun owners will put it into use. For now, and for the foreseeable future, it’s a type of fantastic magic. It’s not technology, it’s best wishes. And while we can wish for the best, we can still recognize the difference between reality and fantasy.

About the author: Max Slowik is a writer with over a dozen years of experience and is a lifelong shooter. He has unwavering support for the Second Amendment and the human right to self-defense. Like Thomas Paine, he’s a journalist by profession and a propagandist by inclination.

{ 10 comments… add one }
  • jjkarn May 22, 2017, 1:39 pm

    I am a IT systems analyst. I earn a good living fixing technology when it breaks. In my line of work, we refer to computer problems as “job security,” due to the frequency with which technology fails. I am also a military combat veteran who knows firsthand that firearms can and do fail frequently enough as they exist today, without adding another point of failure into the mix. There is no way in Hell I would ever trust my life to any sort of “smart gun” technology, particularly in a gun I might need to use for defensive purposes. Maybe in a couple of centuries, when the standard carry gun is a Star Trek phaser, I might reconsider. Then we can reduce gun fatalities simply by leaving them permanently set to “stun.”

  • Mikki Dog May 20, 2017, 8:17 pm

    How many of you have had your ‘smart phone’ go dead on you when you needed it?

  • Joel Taylor May 19, 2017, 9:32 pm

    The day that law enforcement agreed to utilize a ‘smart gun’ as standard issue is the day I will consider owning one. Smart gun tech has literally shot it’s self in the foot by hanging their hat on the legislation tree vs just another consumer product. Any time something is legislated into acceptance, the back pressure will be enormous.

  • Carl May 19, 2017, 7:09 pm

    I have never seen a smart car or a smart gun. Inanimate tools aren’t smart or dumb. I’ve shot guns with safeties and guns without safeties. I’ve never bought a gun because it has a safety. I’ve never chosen to use a gun because it has a safety. I find magazine disconnect safeties to be outright dangerous. I try very hard to practice safe gun use consisting of: 1) I keep my gun pointed in a safe direction; 2) I keep my finger off the trigger until ready to fire; and 3) I keep my guns unloaded until I’m ready to use them. I also store my guns where they are not accessible to unauthorized individuals. So far, so good. I don’t understand why anyone would want more.

  • Ned Harrison May 19, 2017, 6:33 pm

    I have a quick rule-of-thumb for “smart guns”; when the cops universally adopt the technology, so will I. They use their guns WAY more than I do, and they’re a large pool of testers.

  • Norm Fishler May 19, 2017, 2:51 pm

    The first product recall in American history was the Winchester M 1903. Why, one might ask? It had no safety. (If you stumble across one of the early ones that was not retrofitted for a safety, you have a valuable item.) Winchester saw the problem & took action, correcting it. Always remember that YOU are the smart behind the gun. Forget it & tragedy will follow with monotonous regularity.

  • Ralph May 19, 2017, 2:01 pm

    Wait! The dumb guns are getting away with murder every day as the liberals continually point out that guns kill people. If we have smart guns, they won’t kill anybody because they will be obedient… And if the gun happens to kill someone because that person had ALL of the devices enabled, well, the gun being smart will tell the truth to the court and the gun, having admitted to killing the person, will graciously allow the human to be free, after all, the gun NOT the person is the one to blame according to liberal scum that want to take away a God given Right. Liberals always blame an inanimate object, and never blame PEOPLE, that are the REAL CAUSE! Start putting the blame where it belongs and use the laws that are already on the books not new feel good, or restrict legal ownership to the law abiding.

  • Muaer6863 May 19, 2017, 12:07 pm

    Liberal Gun Safety = No guns except in the hands of the police/military and our political allies.

    Real Gun Safety = Training and industry innovation, driven by customer wants and desires. Accepted of rejected by the free market.

    Smart Guns = Another in a series of Liberal initiatives to control and ultimately ban private ownership of firearms. Trigger locks, mandatory safe storage, etc. fall into the same category.

    The Arminius Smart Gun = An unsuccessful design, intended to solve a non-existent problem. Primarily promoted and advocated by Liberals who desire a complete ban on the private ownership of firearms.

    Note: The name “ARMINIUS” derives from the German folk hero Arminius who betrayed his Roman friends and allies by leading 3 Roman Legions to their deaths in an ambush in the Black Forrest. Arminius, a German Barbarian Tribal Leader, rejected Western Civilization. He was later murdered by his own people.

    Those of you who think smart guns are a good idea, that might save lives, need to remember Arminius.

  • Alkemyst May 19, 2017, 11:39 am

    I keep saying this again and again and again. I am not against technology. I LOVE technology, I think it’s great. There many people experimenting with this type of tech and applaud them and wish them well. BUT….do not tell me I HAVE to have it. Unless and until “smart” gun technology is, shot for shot, 100% as reliable as a mechanical trigger, if I have one on a gun, you can bet won’t be for hunting, EDC, or anything where I have to rely on it. As an experiment, no trouble. But this is a wrong headed law with kinds of good intentions that lead to 6 lane highways to hell.

  • Bill Nie May 19, 2017, 10:18 am

    ALL guns should be “Smart” guns! What do you want, a DUMB gun? It would be great if all firearms were dependent on electronics and wired to the matrix. What could go wrong? That way, if we needed to we could hack into the system and disable the firearm. Or, better still, use it to shoot a hole in the owner. Kind of like that Rolling Stone reporter and his Mercedes-Benz.

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