A million dollar gun control contest

When I read this I was really annoyed:

Smart Tech Foundation, a new San Francisco gun violence prevention organization backed by tech investor Ron Conway, will start taking applications on Jan. 28 for a $1 million contest to identify devices for preventing gun-related injuries and deaths.

In particular, Smart Tech is focused on access control technologies that can reliably prevent unauthorized use of guns and ammunition.

Smart Tech was founded in 2013 in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre of children and teachers the prior year in Newtown, Conn.

Why didn’t he offer $1 million for ideas to make our children safer? By limiting his acceptable solution set to only those things that place limits on firearms he is showing his prejudice. It rules out things like firearms instruction for teachers and building designs that inhibit mass shootings.

After reading a part of his website I’m slightly less annoyed. It’s not quite as bad as I thought it was, but it still has lots of room for improvement:


On the gun side of things the solutions being suggested will never be retrofitted on hundreds of millions of existing firearms even if they are found to be feasible in new production guns. And I have my doubts that any biometric solution will be practical, ever. The hurdles to a biometric solution are very high and numerous. And they are all bypassed with 3-D printers and/or someone with access to hand tools in their garage.

On the brain health side of things short of mandatory examinations of a large segment of the population it’s not going to work no matter how accurate your examination is. And that gets into some troubling civil rights territory.

It will be interesting to watch and see what comes out of this. My guess is nothing anywhere nearly worth $1,000,000.


49 thoughts on “A million dollar gun control contest

  1. focused on access control technologies that can reliably prevent unauthorized use of guns and ammunition.
    That’s easy. Cast them in cement. One million dollars, please.
    Oh? You mean still usable?
    Ah, well, then…
    Please tell me, what’s the failure mode, bang or no-bang? That is, in the event of a “authorized user” detection failure, or a dead battery, does it shoot, or not?
    If it’ll shoot, then it won’t protect much.
    if it won’t shoot, then I’ll consider using it after you convince the police and military to adopt it. If it’s good enough for them, it might be good enough for me to defend myself with. Otherwise, no sale, metaphorically OR literally.

    • Yup — “Fail safe” versus “fail deadly” is the very first decision point in the tree. (And for all you budding “I have a degree in Comparative Modern Women’s Gender Politics” would-be engineers, if you cannot define both terms in clear, everyday English, you don’t get to play — try the room with the Legos and crayons next door, grownups are speaking.)

      In the case of a defensive weapon, “fail deadly” would be the logical default option this sort of control, whereas for purely sporting arms never intended to be used for defensive purposes (like an Olympic grade, “release trigger” free pistol) a “fail safe” mode might be acceptable.

  2. A million $$$ is a good carrot. It’s in keeping with the prize these guys offer: ://space.xprize.org/. Their competitions have been pretty successful.

    As far as what technologies could be advanced. Think outside the box, Joe. This is where brainstorming comes in.

    • The problem is two-fold. First, there is the reliability of the actual technology, which has some huge hurdles before it’s even close to being field-tested. But more importantly, ignore the details of the technology. Focus on the fundamental idea of it, as I did above. Forget how, just answer the question about “what is the failure mode, what are the consequences, and why is that acceptable?” If you can’t agree on that, then the technology is moot.
      FWIW, that particular question is addressed at the ending of my book.

      • About the only ‘smart control’ I could see feasible would be the fictional effect from Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Trigger’; wherein if a combustible chemical such as gunpowder enters an area affected by the device, it immediately initiates (later in the book, they fix it so that it simply won’t activate, essentially ‘jamming’ the chemical interaction).

        Hilarity ensues at the end, though, when research into the quantum mechanics of the process unlocks a way to kill a living creature stone dead, without a trace. Whoops.

  3. Good schools already have anti-shooter designs. Things like turnstiles to allow rapid exits while impeding entrance. Massive doors set into steel frames with a deadbolt. Small windows set into the doors, shaped and positioned so that a person looking into the classroom can’t see much, but a person in the classroom can see enough to decide whether to open the door or keep it shut.

    Maybe – sally ports, so armed teachers can gun down roving bandits. A built-in bench side for the teacher to stand on, to be higher than the gunman (so he can’t use the port easily).

    Abolishing gun free zones. Incentives for the PTA to organize two armed parents at the school at all times (9 months of school x 20 days of class per month – that’s only two days of volunteering per family per year if enough people help out).

    Abolish public school tenure. School shooters have been failed by their teachers and counselors. Mandatory 5% annual turnover of teachers and school administrators. Shift from hiring young college graduates to hiring people near or past the age of retirement. America already subsidizes the incomes of senior citizens; they should be allowed/encouraged to work in schools.

    Online highschool. Khan Academy type lectures, with kids only coming together when it serves a purpose -> help with homework, laboratories, sports.

  4. Fund Home Firearms Safety classes and rifle/pistol teams, similar to other competitive team sports. This teaches everyone basic firearms safety, and the team members respect and discipline.

    Nah, never happen……way too simple……

  5. Gee-whiz inventions like the TrackingPoint help stop gun violence, by making sure the right people get shot, quickly and accurately with no collateral damage. They also prevent mass shootings – one bad actor at a time.

    Maybe design a sight that detects brain waves of the target – criminal intent enables the mechanism to fire. Happy thoughts locks up the sear.

    • In a word, no.

      It is theoretically possible but not even close to being practical. As mentioned in the thread the magnet would have to be incredibly strong to just deflect the bullet let alone capture the bullet. The magnets would have to be so strong that a person walking into and/or through the magnetic field would be at risk of being injured by flying metal objects accelerated by the magnets.

    • To elaborate on what Joe said:

      It’s difficult enough to do that with projectiles that have a large chunk of STEEL in them (steel jacketed or steel core). Basically, projectiles commonly referred to as “armor piercing” by gun banners (and often are LEGALLY defined as “armor piercing ammunition” and thus banned from sale if in a caliber that an off-the-shelf pistol is or ever has been produced for commercial sale in the United States, with a few VERY specific exceptions) Even then, the fields required are LETHAL to many people, even those not in the “protected” zone. Think, “stronger than an MRI”. . . (http://www.jcmg.org/jcmg.nsf/All/57611D54069B6F9286257885005AF8C0?openDocument — and the threat goes further than just people with pacemakers — try people with implanted ferrous metals or fragments)

      To do it with non-ferrous projectiles (i.e., the OVERWHELMING majority) at the kind of ranges involved in almost all mass shootings (including mass shootings) requires field strengths that are lethal to pretty much everyone, causes Really Bad Things to happen to electrical circuits and metallic objects both inside and outside the “protected area”, etc.

      Either way, even if you’re willing to accept the fact that your “antibullet shield” kills more innocent people than it protects, causes massive property damage to the area you’re trying to protect (fires, absolute destruction of electronic devices and digital media, random impact damage from any loose ferrous objects anywhere near the protected area, etc.), will ONLY work to protect extremely small, “point” areas, etc, — you have to face the problem of the UNGODLY expense of the system, including the electrical infrastructure to feed it, AND the security problems to ensure that someone cannot activate it without authorization.

      The magnetic “solution” is literally more dangerous than simply hanging a loaded shotgun on the wall next to the door of every classroom with no training for the teachers and no security to ensure only th teachers could access the shotguns (as an absurdly over the top example of what I think 95% of us, even those of us who support allowing ANY teacher to legally carry a gun if they want, can agree is a Bad Idea). And less likely to work, as well.

  6. I haven’t put a lot of thought into it. Just the general concept. The solid doors and small windows described by dustdog is a good start.

    Other ideas I had were elimination of long straight expanses where people congregate and where any bullet fired is going to hit someone. Make hallways angle back and forth or curved. Put “bullet barricades” every few feet so that bullets get stopped after skimming along of skipping off of a wall. Lots of nooks that provide good cover and allow ready access to another place of cover/escape and good ambush points to take out the lone shooter. Lots of emergency exits.

    • And that same interceptor will be a hazard to people. One of the fundamental problems is that bullets injure by delivering momentum (energy is almost irrelevant and a pet peeve of mine) to their target. You must remove that momentum from the bullet in order to render it ineffective. In the Israeli video they neutralized the explosive warhead, perhaps with an infrared laser or a “shotgun” type weapon. They did not appreciably slow down the projectile.

      A laser capable of delivering enough momentum to counteract bullet momentum would be incredibly power hungry, expensive, and dangerous. And it would have to attack the bullet nearly head on to be effective.

      I don’t want to discourage you but a lot of very bright minds have been thinking about these sort of things for decades. If they could be made to work they would have military application. But various types of armor are about the best anyone has come up with so far.

      • “…are about the best anyone has come up with SO FAR.”
        (Capitalization is mine.)

        Nothing precludes someone smarter coming along and coming up with a better idea though…. That’s how we get all these great new inventions!

        • I agree with the part, “Nothing precludes someone smarter coming along”. But there is a lot of physics precluding anything being feasible. And since a lot of smart people have spent a lot of time on the problem for decades probably means some technological breakthrough is required. Sort of like the internal combustion engine was required for heavier than air flight to be practical.

          And keep in mind that any solution has to compete with the existing know solution of “a good guy with a gun”. That is a proven effective and practical solution.

          • As that famous moral philosopher said once or twice, “Ya canna change the laws of physics.”
            He also said “the best diplomacy is a fully charged phaser bank” (If you can get one nowadays).

    • Um, it is relatively easy to disrupt the fusing mechanism of an explosive, low velocity projectile (even to cause it to detonate early), which destroys the projectile and greatly reduces the risk to the protected area (just making a shaped charge detonate INCHES early can cut it’s penetration in half or more).

      In order to reliably do that to a bullet, you need to be able to VAPORIZE a relatively dense and fairly fast object, far enough from a VERY soft target (human skin, eyeballs, etc) that the resulting mess isn’t just as bad a threat (turning 9 or 10 grams of copper and lead into a cloud of gas means you still have 9 or 10 grams of matter flying towards the target until it dissapates — only now, it is at a couple thousand degrees. Oh sure, it’ll cool quickly and spread out — but you have to ensure you vape the projo far enough out to do any good. Otherwise, it’s likely to be even more damaging to the target than the solid bullet was (Mmmmm. . . aerosolized heavy metals in the lungs at a MOLECULAR level, YAY!)

      (By the way, this is how HEAT rounds work, like every single antitank missile in the world — a shaped explosion converts a metal liner (often copper) into a jackhammer made of hot gas, which PUNCHES (_not_ “burns”, note) its way through face hardened steel armor. Congrats, you’ve just created the non-explosive, .30 caliber version of a Hellfire missile. . . )

  7. I’m afraid none of this is helpful, because the issue is with the premise.
    “…a technology that reliably authorizes approved use and blocks unauthorized use of the firearm”
    What is “approved use”? Approved by whom? By what right?
    I assume that the actual intent is that “approved use” is a euphemism for “use by a government agent” and that all civilian use is unapproved. The statement doesn’t really make any practical sense any other way. But of course such a thing would be grossly unconstitutional and immoral.
    If that’s not what the writer intended, perhaps the intended meaning was as a sloppy synonym for “lawful use”. If so, it would indeed be a good goal, since defensive use is lawful and aggressive use is unlawful. (In other words, “lawful use” is a fairly close approximation of what’s actually needed, viz., “moral use”.)
    However, such a goal is WAY beyond the state of the art. As in, centuries beyond the state of the art. It would require real time real world (3D) pattern recognition, plus artificial intelligence of an extremely high order running in milliseconds, plus reliable technology to measure and analyze the intent (mental state) of the participants in the scene. That’s not an engineering project, that’s a science fiction story outline.

  8. What Richard_R said. I’ll send in an application entitled “Think outside the box”, and enclose a video of the Eddie Eagle program. Sometimes the best safety is between the ears.

    And as for failing safe vs failing deadly, I recall Colonel Cooper quoting someone as saying, “the scariest sound in the world is “click” when you are expecting “bang.”

    • A technological solution to gun violence (as if there is no other kind– just ask Nicole Brown Simpson) will be accomplished about the same time that cars are automated enough to drive anywhere in the world, on any road, paved or unpaved, including the steppe in Asia and the savannah in Africa, and on city freeways at rush hour without accidents or system crashes.

        • Which won’t work. Why? In the event of an accident, who is held responsible, who pays? The “driver?” Google? Car manufacturer? Someone else? Nope, until THAT gets sorted out properly, it’s not going to happen.

    • What do you imagine might be done with the RFID? In the linked article it is used as an easy way to, essentially, read the serial number. Okay, you know the serial number from some distance away. Now what?

      If you are thinking of having the RFID chip on the human and the gun being able to read it and only allow “authorized users” to fire it then you have to answer the question of “fail safe” or “fail deadly”. And then keep in mind that: 1) the radio link between the gun and the human can be disrupted by a jammer; 2) An unauthorized user with “unlimited access” to the gun will be able to defeat the locking mechanism.

      I worked on passive millimeter wave stuff for Boeing back in the late 70s. It’s cool stuff but in the present context it could be defeated by someone wearing a heavily sequined shirt or handbag over the gun. And that is just an extremely simple passive countermeasure. If you want to go “active” you have a lot more options.

      The gimag.com article uses active radar, not passive emissions, so it’s a completely different technology. But it still will be subject to the same and similar methods of defeating it.

      People frequently don’t really grasp the difference in difficulty between “defeating” “Mother Nature” versus defeating an intelligent opponent with technology. All the examples you give could work in the case of a “participating” opponent. But as soon as they decide they want to defeat the technology it isn’t that hard.

      Another issue not addressed is that you need to handle the case of people (private citizens as well as police and military) lawfully carrying weapons. If you drag everyone who tests positive off to be searched and interviewed you will end up with massive numbers of false positives and civil rights issues you have to deal with.

      I worked in a government lab for several years as well as Boeing Aerospace (think “mostly military”). Technology is awesome but it’s easy to build a million dollar solution to a problem that can be defeated by something from the Dollar Store and/or Ace Hardware.

      • I’m perhaps more familiar with “mostly military” than you think I am — and that’s why I say “never say never.” That’s also why I believe that our government doesn’t share a whole lot with us ordinary people.

        The gizmag article and the millivision website are using portions of the same videos, so that’s why I assumed they are using the same technology.

        • I’m perhaps more familiar with ‘mostly military’ than you think I am

          If you say so. However, none of your “what about this?”, “what about this?” examples given here show the slightest awareness of the Overall Systems issue, as opposed to what sure sounds like a naive gee-whiz what-can-technology-do approach.

          • I’m brainstorming — and you’re never supposed to rule things out until you finish brainstorming. You just try to get as many ideas out as fast as you can, even if some of them are unworkable or impractical. (At least this is how they do it in advertising.)

          • “At least that’s how they do it in advertising”.

            Res ipsa loquitur.

            Meanwhile, in real brainstorming on technical subjects, people don’t offer obviously unworkable/tried before stuff.

            And also, you have never answered Question One here, so you’re also popcorning up a lot of “solutions” to a “problem” that hasn’t really even been defined yet.

          • Brainstorming in advertising or sci-fi writing is virtually unlimited, sky’s the limit sort of pondering. Real world brainstorming is rather more limited. It’s not that it’s not creative, it is that really stupid shit that breaks physical laws, or laws of economics, or has been tried numerous times already and been empirically shows to be chock full of fail gets tossed in the shredder immediately, because it’s stupid. A bunch of electrical engineers designing a circuit won’t say “well, gee, it might work if it was a superconductor that worked at 450 degrees K,” for the simple reason there ISN’T any such substance. Engineers can be VERY creative, it’s just that they keep it real… except when using imaginary numbers, of course.

  9. If every repeat violent felon released back onto the streets had their first and second joints of their index and middle fingers fused (i.e. removing all flexibility in the joint), that would inhibit their use of firearms dramatically. Also make it harder for them to stab somebody. Still be able to type and do most jobs.

  10. To be responsive to the actual post, the best less-lethal ammunition would be bullets that deliver tranquilizer / paralytic agent. A way to stop an attacker that is somewhat less likely to kill them. Although such drugs are instantaneous, neither is blood loss from bullet holes. There is plenty of room to improve bullets.

    Not a dart defeated by clothes – imagine hollowpoint 22lr, where the lead is mixed with a polymer containing the drug. The choice of drug (e.g. http://www.vetandwild.com/drugs.html), amount of drug would have to be a compromise between too lethal and not quick enough. Would need a specialty formulation to keep the drug potent while stored, but able to disperse it into the bodily fluids rapidly.

  11. Dustydog,

    No such drug currently exists.

    Remember (as just one illustrative point) the Tueller Drill? The whole point of a self-defense weapon is that when you need to stop someone from killing you or doing you great bodily harm, you need it to work right now. Thirty seconds from now is quite likely Too Late™

    • By “no such drug” I mean one that would effectively do what is required. (Note there isn’t a single word on that whole wild-animal-tranquilizer page about how quickly these agents take effect.)

    • There are lots of problems with this idea, and if you pay attention to news stories involving wild animals you’ll learn this yourself.
      As Kirk points out, these things act slowly. A minute or so, perhaps. Not much less. A tranquilizer gun won’t help against an attacking grizzly, or an attacking sociopath.
      Second, dosage is a big problem. There are plenty of cases where tranquilizer guns weren’t used because the agency in question could not ensure proper dosage. Too little means no effect. Too much means a dead target.
      Really, it’s been well shown that the notion of “non-lethal” ammunition is based on pipe dreams. Rubber bullets aren’t; tranquilizers aren’t.
      Well, maybe Mace and pepper spray are. Unless you’re prone to heart attacks. And those schemes suffer from not being particularly practical — short range, effectiveness questionable if the attacker is well wrapped (e.g., with a mask, which bad guys seem to like wearing), may backfire or not work if it’s windy. Oh yes, and in a number of disarmed victim states like Massachusetts, these things are at least as harshly regulated as firearms.

      • based on pipe dreams

        Indeed, hence the move way from calling them, as a category, Less Than Lethal and instead using Less Lethal.

  12. Actually, it does make sense–nowhere near 100% of handgun shootings result in a fatality.

    • That’s certainly true, but how does it relate to the topic we’re discussing?

      • I was trying to reply to your dislike of the term “Less Lethal”, but somehow it ended up as a top-level comment.

        • Ok, I see. But that’s not really the point.
          “Less than lethal” makes sense (as an English language expression — not necessarily as an engineering reality).
          But “less lethal” is not a valid expression, anymore than “somewhat pregnant” is. For the person at the receiving end of the fire, either the experience is lethal, or it isn’t. It can’t be “somewhat lethal” or “less lethal”.

        • Oh yes… if you look at this in the way of “out of the group of people shot at, weapon x is less lethal than y”, I suppose you could say that. But that only works if you look at things in a collectivist way, and I don’t.

          • True. And I did not say that.
            Another issue with the “less lethal” notion is that (in the collective form) it is synonymous with “less effective”. And since the objective of self-defense is to stop an attack promptly, pushing for “less effective” guns is equivalent to pushing for guns that are unfit for self-defense use.
            Yes, a mini-revolver is a neat looking device. Yes, a Ruger Mark 1 .22 is a nice target shooting gun. But neither is an appropriate self-defense tool. Better than a bare hand, yes. But the wise person carries something a bit more powerful.

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