Three’s A Crowd



Dateline September 18, 2017: Students from NYU Tandon win $1M smart gun design contest

On Monday, Brooklyn’s president, on behalf of Brooklyn, the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, and a gun policy non-profit, announced the latest technology prize, of $1 million. It went to four student inventors from New York University Tandon School of Engineering. Other finalists included a team from New York City College of Technology and a different one from NYU-Tandon.

The idea was to identify innovative methods make guns safer to have around, a laudable goal that all of us, from officers on the beat to families plinking, certainly could wish for.

The non-surprise was that this was actually a “smart gun” competition, conceived by the Borough President, Eric Adams, who is a retired New York Police Department captain. He is convinced that this advances “a future [of] smarter guns and safer streets.”

Also unsurprising was that the non-profit is New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, which one suspects put up the million. (However, Brooklyn taxpayers footed the $20,000 that went to the runners-up.)

The surprise is that the win was captured by a design for a “smart holster”.

The winners believe their idea “conquers” “accidental deaths and stolen guns” and intend to make “the technology affordable and . . . accessible to everyone”. They want “to reach out to law enforcement, civilians and possibly gun manufactures.” Patents are pending. They expect to produce a working prototype within a few months. Ah, unquenchable youth!

To those of us who’ve been around a few years, this is déja vu magnified. Several “smart gun” technologies have made it to market (for example, Maglocs and MagnaTriggers, the Armatix .22 caliber iP1and 9mm iP9 pistols, and the Jonathan Mossberg iGun shotgun). These have elicited little interest from gun buyers, because in practice they create problems rather than solving them.

Here are the “three security options” of the Tandon holster:

  1. “First, the gun owner’s fingerprints must match before the weapon can be removed from the holster.”
  2. “If that doesn’t happen a key card like sensor worn on the owner’s lapel can release the weapon.”
  3. “Finally, a voice recognition device can also be used to match the authorized owner and free the gun.’

Props to the Tandonites for realizing that these “existing technologies” need redundant work-arounds. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to realize that they need because they are each liable to failure. They are all bugs, not features:

  1. Fingerprints: Anyone who has ever used “existing technology” fingerprint readers knows that at best they work half the time. They never work with wet, dirty, oily or bloody fingertips, which are all too possible in a crisis. At least costs are coming down, as they are incorporated more commonly into smart phones (which still randomly stall and crash).
  2. Key-cards: When key-cards are slid into or swiped past readers, they work pretty well, albeit sometimes on the second try. At any distance, this is not really “key-card” like. It is actually a remote recognition device. The further they are, the less reliably they sense.
  3. Voice-recognition: Voice recognition software has been all the rage for years. Why doesn’t everyone use it now? The “voice” part (input) is OK; it’s the “recognition” (reception) part that isn’t. There’s a difference between “the art is taught, too” and “the artist ought to”.

Let’s add one more word that applies to all three methods: “battery”. With its associations—“weak”, “dead”, “change” or “recharge”, and maybe “catch fire”. And a second word: “circuit”, with similar connotations.

All these technologies require proximity of authorization device and the holster. Remote sensing has already used, magnetically and electronically. And has already been hacked, cheaply and easily. More directly, fingerprints are obtainable and fakeable. Shooting someone with their own gun tends to happen in bad-breath range, the same as these gizmos use.

Anything that requires over-the-air communication can also be hacked remotely. Like cars, with new ways still being discovered. And not only hacked but tracked, in an era of increasing distrust of government.

Of course, the Tandon magic could run afoul of the New Jersey law requiring exclusive sales of smart guns once they are demonstrably practical. Although that hasn’t succeeded in being done yet, and lawmakers then didn’t imagine holsters could be so smart.

None of these electronic miracles operate in the real world at the speed of light. And when, not if, they malfunction, the unexpected stumble (how to practice for that?) takes more time. While the idea of a 3-way backup plan is intriguing, piling one step on top of another before something works risks even more awkwardness and delay.

Despite these idealists’ excitement about multiplying “existing technologies”, “none of the above” is the fastest route between threat and firing. When seconds count, wasting any risks finding the bad guy who was at the end of the barrel, suddenly somewhere else.

Good luck to these young men as they “reach out to law enforcement, civilians and possibly gun manufactures”, none of whom find anything attractive in trading known, nearly perfected firearm function for the grave new world of technology fails. Fewer STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Math) courses and more history and political philosophy might have taught them more valuable lessons. The liberal arts still matter, for those who ask “why?” as well as “how to?”.

It would be fitting if the gun manufacturers’ National Shooting Sports Foundation would offer a $1 million prize for improvements to firearm mechanisms. But it’s a lot harder to surpass Mr. Browning than to kludge together the latest electronics into new combinations.

Good luck to Tandon Working Its Tricks (TWITstm). They’ll need it.


Robert B Young, MD

— DRGO Editor Robert B. Young, MD is a psychiatrist practicing in Pittsford, NY, an associate clinical professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, and a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.

All DRGO articles by Robert B. Young, MD.