Wrong and wrong, or: the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun might be a good gun

>> Thursday, May 16, 2013

A new rifle goes on sale on Wednesday, and it's not like any other. It uses lasers and computers to make shooters very accurate. A startup gun company in Texas developed the rifle, which is so effective that some in the shooting community say it should not be sold to the public.


One hunter who doesn't want one is Chris Wilbratte. He says the TrackingPoint system undermines what he calls hunting's "fair chase."

"It's the traditional shooting fish in a barrel or the sitting duck. I mean, there's no skill in it, right? It's just you point, you let the weapon system do its thing and you pull the trigger and now you've killed a deer. There's no skill," Wilbratte says.

This new rifle is being released as the gun control debate continues to simmer in Washington.

Chris Frandsen, a West Point graduate who fought in Vietnam, doesn't believe the TrackingPoint technology should be allowed in the civilian world. The gun makes it too easy for a criminal or a terrorist to shoot people from a distance without being detected, he says.

"Where we have mental health issues, where we have children that are disassociated from society early on, when we have terrorists who have political cards to play, we have to restrict weapons that make them more efficient in terrorizing the population," Frandsen says.
NPR, May 15th, 2013.

And they're both wrong, Messrs. Wilbratte and Frandsen.  I mean, in the end: I can hardly disagree that a computerized aiming system takes the sport out of hunting or that there are people with mental problems who don't need to be using any kind of firearm at all (much less one that can autotarget).

It's just that, first of all and regarding Wilbratte, I could give a rat's ass about sport hunting, target shooting, or whatever other recreational use you want to give a tool that's designed specifically for killing and injuring things.  I'm not begrudging hunters their prey: I think one of the few legitimate uses for civilian firearms, maybe the sole civilian use for firearms, is bringing in meat (while controlling populations of  wild animals whose original predators have been displaced by human presence).  And a gun that makes it easier for hunters to bring in the meat seems to me like a better tool.  I don't much care that it's not as fun a tool to use.  I don't dispute that shooting a gun might be exhilarating; but then I hear the same thing about smoking crack, and while I'd agree that we probably ought to decriminalize cocaine abuse and treat it as a public health problem, that's a long way from endorsing free-and-easy recreational use.

Whereas re: Fransden, while I can see his concern, it doesn't seem to me that a situation in which the mentally unstable have easy access to dumb guns is any better than their having access to smart ones, whereas there's a self-evident benefit in making guns smarter than incompetent users.  I'm not going to proffer a link to every small child who's shot someone in the past month-or-so because there are just too damn many to chase them all down at the moment.  It sounds like the TrackingPoint rifle has enough steps involved in pointing and shooting to make accidents even a little less likely, even if it's as simple as having to press a button next to the trigger and wait a nanosecond for the weapon to process the shot; but what's more, it seems like it wouldn't take too many extra steps to teach a TrackingPoint weapon not to fire even in situations in which the extra button-by-the-trigger has been pressed, for example if the target is within a range boundary that suggests it probably isn't a game animal but is more likely the gun owner's foot or somebody else inside the room.

I'm not a fan of self-defense as a justification for firearms ownership, but it even seems to me you could perhaps teach a smartgun not to fire at people at all unless a safety protocol was disabled by a process brief enough not to inconvenience someone facing an attacker but challenging enough to thwart a child (however briefly) or to give a domestic abuser or aspiring suicide a few extra seconds to have second thoughts (which might be enough in some circumstances to avert a tragedy: I would think if having to think, "Wait, I'm disabling a safety protocol so I can shoot my wife" saved even one life, you could congratulate yourself; the plain fact that it wouldn't save every life is as pointless an argument as saying there's no point in having lifeboats on a ship if you can't get every single passenger off in time).

I would have to admit that there's an extent to which I probably trust technology more than people.  Probably because I'm a nerd.  It certainly isn't that technology is perfect or infallible.  Tech is only as good as the people producing it, for starters, and not even the best engineers designing for the best production lines in the world can necessarily foresee every abuse to which their finest devices might be put.  A perfectly good architectural marvel can be ruined by a couple of jetliners, for instance, or a masterpiece of applied engineering turned into an ecological disaster by an unforeseen double-whammy of earthquake and flood.  Things happen.  And then there's the fact that no plan ever survives contact with the enemy, and you can fairly call end-users the enemy in this context: people are notoriously inventive when it comes to finding ingenious new ways to break things.

On the other hand, machines don't get tired, or angry, or have notoriously poor hand-eye coordination and lack of judgement associated with biological immaturity.  Things I mention, obviously, because the point of all this is that making a tool smarter than its possible end-user is almost nearly always a good thing; I'm sure you can come up with an exception or several that tests the rule, but it's generally a good rule.

And I'm very sorry, all of you proverbial "responsible gun owners", but the fact is that there are a lot of end-users of firearms who are dumb, either generally or situationally, and this sentence may or may not be about you, whomever's reading this, but that doesn't make it any less true.  And I want to be clear that when I say there are dumb end-users of firearms, re-read that previous sentence (that may or may not apply to you) and n.b. I wrote "or situationally".  That is, you may be thoroughly clever in all sorts of respects, perhaps up to and including your appreciation of and obedience to gun safety protocols, but it doesn't mean you might be as smart as usual when you're tired, or old, or there's some other physical, psychological or environmental factor taking you down a few pegs to where you might appreciate having the lethal weapon in your hand second-guess you re: where your finger is, where your muzzle points, whether there's a round in the chamber, etc.

Now if this makes guns less exciting, somehow, that's entirely your problem.  Hammers aren't exciting; they're devices that are used to pound things.  Carpentry might be exciting for some people, but I don't think that has as much to do with how much fun it is to hit things as it does with getting into the shop, imagining what an end result ought to be, planning it, and seeing the results come together.  While I don't think much of hunting as sport, it does seem to me that a hunter with a TrackingPoint weapon still gets to go out in the woods, going through the process of tracking prey (or waiting for it in a blind--which I admit doesn't seem like sport either: "Hi, I'm just sitting here waiting for a thing to wander by randomly and I'll point a thing at it and try to kill it before it sees me, or I'll just sit here and wait some more."), cleaning game and/or taking it down to the butcher's to help you process it before bringing it home and eating well.  I.e. it seems to me you still get to engage in the general activity, you just get to do it with a safer, better hammer, or maybe a bandsaw would be a better metaphor because an old one without any failsafes can amputate fingers and limbs where a newer one is designed to make accidental amputation at least challenging if it can't be made altogether impossible.

The overall idea here being that you can't outdesign stupidity, but you can at least make it hard work.

Let's also point out one more thing about the TrackingPoint rifle that suggests an accidental but possibly nice sort-of-safety feature, which is that making a gun that doesn't want to miss the target it's locked on seems like it would make it a bit harder to shoot someone by accident while hunting.  Again, not impossible, but if a gun is refusing to fire until it's calculated a firing solution for the target the laser has fixed on, it won't be able to shoot your lawyer in the face while you're bringing the weapon up into position.  Not that something like that's ever happened before.  It's what you call a hypothetical example.

If we can't get rid of guns, or if we shouldn't, then bring on the smartweapons.  If you can build a gun that requires a shooter to sudo firing on bipedal targets, get it to market.  I realize that this isn't at all what TrackingPoint is focused on, but it's a step in the right direction.  It may take the sport out of aiming at a target--I don't care.  It may make it easier for an assassin to kill someone--but a truly dedicated assassin will, as gun advocates so often point out, surely use whatever tool's available anyway.  But it at least sounds like TrackingPoint rifles require... or at least beg for some level of intention that might make accidents and acts of passion even a little bit more challenging, and that would be a marginal improvement.  And if the software and hardware could be upgraded even more--and it's hard to see why they couldn't be--even shaving a few points from the statistics for firearms accidents, crimes of passion, and suicide could hardly be called a bad thing by anyone with an iota of sense.  Or common decency.


Janiece Thursday, May 16, 2013 at 3:26:00 PM EDT  

Tech is only as good as the people producing it, for starters, and not even the best engineers designing for the best production lines in the world can necessarily foresee every abuse to which their finest devices might be put.

Truer words were never spoken (says the engineer who designs stuff).

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