Skip to main content

Make guns smart

By Jeremy Shane, Special to CNN
January 9, 2013 -- Updated 1536 GMT (2336 HKT)
Today's guns are
Today's guns are "dumb," Jeremy Shane says, but he suggests we can make them smarter and safer with the right software.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jeremy Shane advocates changing the way guns work with "smart" technology
  • Shane: Today's guns are "dumb," and making them the same way is thoughtless
  • He says gun software can start with locational "self-awareness" and other simple features
  • Shane: Technologists should use their know-how to help reduce gun violence

Editor's note: Jeremy Shane, who served in the Justice Department during the George H.W. Bush administration, has led ventures in online media, energy and education.

(CNN) -- Voices across the political spectrum are debating how to prevent mass shootings such as the one in Newtown, Connecticut. Familiar ideological lines are being redrawn. Some want to renew the ban on assault weapons and expand waiting periods to buy a gun. Others want to place armed guards in schools. And then there is the challenge of preventing guns from falling into the hands of the mentally ill.

While the debate rages on, it's worth thinking out of the box for a moment. What if we could design guns to be smarter and safer -- with hardware and software? The right technology could neutralize the killing capability of an assault weapon, even in a madman's hands.

The root of the problem is that guns are "dumb." Pull the trigger and they discharge bullets mindlessly, regardless of who is doing the aiming or where they are aimed. Guns should "know" not to fire in schools, churches, hospitals or malls. They should sense when they are being aimed at a child, or at a person when no other guns are nearby.

Jeremy Shane
Jeremy Shane

Hardware fixes alone -- such as a ban on extended clips -- may mitigate carnage in an assault, but they will not change the risk that an event happens at all if the person holding the gun wants to harm others. Addressing that challenge with reliable precision requires a hardware and software solution.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Many complex products have been transformed by safety-enhancing technology. Look at airplanes, which have layers of computer-controlled safety features to temper pilot error. Cars, increasingly, have sophisticated controls to override drivers and avoid collisions. Guns, too, can benefit from technological advances.

Opinion: Take politics out of gun research

After the Newtown shooting, a number of Silicon Valley leaders signed the "Demand a Plan" petition for new gun laws. It is good to know how strongly they feel about tougher regulation. It would be even better if they would invest their know-how and wealth to create a new kind of gun control -- the software kind.

How might this work? Start with locational "self-awareness." Guns should know where they are and if another gun is nearby. Global positioning systems can meet most of the need, refining a gun's location to the building level, even within buildings. Control of the gun would remain in the hand of the person carrying it, but the ability to fire multiple shots in crowded areas or when no other guns are present would be limited by software that understands where the gun is being used.

Hoover: 'We do not need more guns'
Looking beyond assault weapons ban
Jones: 'We will not relinquish' guns

Guns should also be designed to sense where they are being aimed. Artificial vision and optical sensing technology can be adapted from military and medical communities. Sensory data can be used by built-in software to disable firing if the gun is pointed at a child or someone holding a child.

Building software into guns need not affect gun owners' desire to protect their homes. Trigger control software could be relaxed when the gun is at home or in a car, while other safety features stay on to prevent accidental discharges. Guns used by the police would be exempt from such controls.

Finally, guns should be designed to broadcast their location when they are loaded. Police could see if high-powered assault weapons are entering or getting close to a public place. Gun owners, too, could choose to broadcast their guns' locations publicly to increase deterrent effect.

Couldn't gun software be hacked? Perhaps, but the risk can be reduced by open-sourcing code, requiring software patch downloads, and notifying gun makers or law enforcement if software is disabled. Open-sourcing code is not foolproof, but it will build a community of lawful gun owners and code writers who value safety and Second Amendment rights. Enabling two-way communication between guns and their original makers will help guns to be tracked beyond the initial sale, putting greater long-term responsibility on gun makers.

Developing gun software and hardware adaptations could be hastened through a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency-style program. This Defense Department agency tries to solve difficult warfare challenges with cutting-edge ideas. It gave us GPS, among other things. In the private sector, rewards can be offered for specific technological achievements, such as what the X Prize Foundation has been doing. Gun makers, gun retailers, even the National Rifle Association could underwrite a similar prize.

Gun software could be phased in, starting with the most lethal assault rifles. Today's guns are componentized, creating possibilities for a vibrant aftermarket, with add-ons tested and certified by a consortium of gun makers or responsible gun owners.

Technology cannot end depravity or violence, but it can limit the evil a person can inflict on others. After this latest heart-wrenching massacre, enacting new laws may help us feel like we have done something. But smarter technology may actually do a lot more.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeremy Shane.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT