Blog: Smart Guns and Their Constitutional Concerns

By: Jill Smaniotto, Associate Manuscript Editor

Following the shooting death of eighteen year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri this past summer, the issue of accountability for police firearm use has been at the forefront of public discourse.[1]  A firearms technology startup in Capitola, California known as Yardarm Technologies recently announced that it has developed a product that may provide the real-time information necessary to maintain greater oversight of the use of police force.[2]

While so-called “smart gun” technology has existed for quite some time, technological advances, coupled with the growing concern over mass shootings and police abuse of force, have prompted further development of the technology.[3]  Yardarm’s new product is a two-inch piece of hardware equipped with an accelerometer and a magnetometer that officers snap into the grip of their firearms.[4]

The sensor records information about when, where, and how police officers use their firearms,[5] providing dispatchers with real-time data.[6]  Currently, the technology requires the officer to carry a smartphone; as the device transmits the data by sending a signal to the phone, which then sends the information to Yardarm’s servers for secure storage.[7]  The Yardarm sensor has capabilities to track the gun’s location, whether the gun is in its holster, when new magazines are inserted, and when it is fired.[8]  Yardarm also intends to develop the product further so that it may be able to tell in which direction the gun is fired.[9]  The technology does not feature a remote disabling mechanism.[10]

Initially, Yardarm intended to sell the device on the consumer firearm market.[11]  Early plans for the device focused on tracking in the event of theft or misplacement of the individual’s firearm and remote locking, but the potential political sensitivities of entering the consumer firearm market proved too great a challenge to the ten-employee startup.[12]  Yardarm then decided to switch its focus to law enforcement agencies, which were already showing interest in the burgeoning technology.[13]  The Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Department and Carollton (Texas) Police Department have begun equipping officers’ weapons with the sensors on a trial basis.[14]

            Discussion surrounding the announcement of this new technology has been divisive. Proponents of technology like Yardarm’s new sensor cite the potential benefits to officer safety in the field, as well as the hope for a pool of objective data that may be used to investigate incidents of alleged police brutality.[15]  Law enforcement agencies are hopeful that this technology will help to solve a problem that is “the worst nightmare for any officer in the field”: deputies in trouble and unable to ask for additional assistance.[16]  Additionally, those in favor of the technology expect that the sensors, like dashboard cameras, will provide objective records of incidents when officers used firearms.[17]  This information may run on a two-way street, though, as it could be used “to exonerate an officer accused of misconduct, or to prosecute a criminal in a court of law.”[18]

            Detractors, however, are not comfortable with the potential implications of widespread use of technology.  Guns rights advocates, such as the National Rifle Association (“NRA”) are wary of the impact of smart guns on Second Amendment rights.[19]  Specifically, the NRA has voiced concern that the proliferation of these sensors may open the door to government regulations requiring this technology on personal firearms.[20]  The American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) expressed concern that the sensors may present an invasion of privacy, but tempered that concern by also admitting that such invasion may be a necessary evil in order to attain some much needed transparency into police behavior.[21]

            While this technology is certainly new, the supposed ease of integration[22] and the volatile state of affairs surrounding police use of firearms may combine to create the spark necessary to ignite the widespread employ of such sensors sooner rather than later.  As Yardarm has made clear its intention to solely market the product to law enforcement and military,[23] detractors of the technology may find their criticisms lacking much weight as compared to the vast public safety benefits in the inevitable debate as to what place smart guns may have in our society.

 

[1] Hunter Stuart, Company Makes Gun Tech That Could Help Prevent Police Brutality, The Huffington Post (Oct. 24, 2014, 11:02 AM), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/24/police-gun-tracking_n_6040930.html.

[2] Id.

[3] Haven Daley, California Startup Unveils Gun Technology for Cops, Aol.com (Oct. 24, 2014, 6:57 AM), http://www.aol.com/article/2014/10/24/california-startup-unveils-gun-technology-for-cops/20983460/; David Kravets, Silicon Valley Startup Unveils Internet-Connected Smart Guns for Cops, Ars Technica (Oct. 24, 2014, 12:30 PM), http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2014/10/silicon-valley-startup-unveils-internet-connected-smart-guns-for-cops/.

[4] Aaron Tilley, Internet-Connected Guns Are the Next Step for Data-Hungry Police, Forbes (Oct. 24, 2014, 10:00 AM), http://www.forbes.com/sites/aarontilley/2014/10/24/yardarm-sensor-gun/; Stuart, supra note 1.

[5] Stuart, supra note 1.

[6] Kravets, supra note 3.

[7] Stuart, supra note 1.

[8] Tilley, supra note 4.

[9] Id.

[10] Daley, supra note 3.

[11] Tilley, supra note 4.

[12] Id.; Kravets, supra note 3.

[13] Tilley, supra note 4.

[14] Daley, supra note 3; Kravets, supra note 3; Stuart, supra note 1; Tilley, supra note 4.

[15] Daley, supra note 3; Stuart, supra note 1.

[16] Daley, supra note 3. See also Stuart, supra note 1 (“[T]he technology can be also used to keep police officers safer. When an officer draws his weapon, for example, the gun will send an alert to the police command center and to nearby officers, alerting them to a potentially dangerous situation.”).

[17] Stuart, supra note 1.

[18] Id.

[19] Krave
ts, supra note 3.

[20] Id. See also Daley, supra note 3 (noting that Gun Owners of California spoke to concern of future government mandated use of the technology on personal firearms).

[21] Tilley, supra note 4.

[22] See Tilley, supra note 4 (noting that Yardarm is designing its software to easily fit into existing dispatcher software); Daley, supra note 3 (indicating that the device can fit into the handle of most police guns and relies on Bluetooth technology for data transmission).

[23] Tilley, supra note 4.

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