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OPINION

OPED: Not so smart guns

JON STOKES
Tribune News Service
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, far left, speaks as, from left, Lee Shull, co-founder Sandy Hook Promise, Ron Conway special advisor to SV Angel, and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón look on at a news conference to launch the Sandy Hook Promise Innovation Initiative held in honor of the three month anniversary of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, March 14, 2013. The initiative is an effort by Sandy Hook Promise to combat gun violence through innovations in gun safety, mental health research, and related new technologies. Sandy Hook Promise is a national grassroots organization formed by those in Newtown, Conn. affected by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary that killed 20 first graders and six educators.

The gun control movement's latest hobby horse is the smart gun. President Barack Obama included federal support for smart gun research in his recent executive orders, delighting activists who insist that a locking mechanism capable of preventing criminals from firing stolen weapons would surely be popular with gun buyers — if only the gun industry would drop its opposition.

The bad news for anyone looking to the smart gun as a technological quick fix for gun violence is that, absent a government mandate requiring all guns to be "smart," a robust market is unlikely to materialize. And even if new laws were to require that all new firearms include smart gun tech, many proposed smart systems would actually make us less safe.

The primary objection that American gun buyers have to smart guns is that any integrated electronic locking mechanism will necessarily decrease a gun's reliability by introducing more points of failure.

Every gun owner who has put enough rounds down range has had his favorite firearm fail to go "bang" when he pulled the trigger. These failures can happen to the very best semiautomatic weapons in the final round of a competition, in the heat of battle, or when a trophy buck is in the hunter's sights.

Gun owners are terrified of anything that might make their guns less reliable. And when they consider the frequency with which their $700 smart phone's fingerprint scanner fails when presented with a clean, dry, perfectly-positioned thumb, they rightly conclude that putting any type of electronic lock on their Glock will likely make them less secure, not more.

As impossible as sealed electronic gadgets are to secure against tampering, guns are even more hopeless, because firearms are mechanical devices that are designed to be disassembled for regular cleaning and repair. Once a gun has been broken down, any component that prevents it from firing can be filed off, taped over, replaced, or otherwise circumvented.

Genuine improvements in firearm safety are always welcomed by American gun owners, who know exactly how dangerous guns are in the wrong hands. But electronic locks that are likely to backfire on gun users, and that are vulnerable to exploitation by criminals, will be rejected by the market and, ultimately, by Congress.

Jon Stokes is a founder of Ars Technica and the author of "Inside the Machine: An Illustrated Introduction to Microprocessors and Computer Architecture."