Ah, Detroit. Had Shelley found you instead of Rameses’s head, what would Ozymandias have been like?
In the failed city of Detroit, never recovered from the militant mayoralty of Coleman Young that set it on the path to perdition, there are so many shootings that the local papers do not report them when they’re the usual kind: hood-rats blasting hood-rats over the finer points of recreational pharmaceutical market share, or minute gradations of “respect” among a class of losers that merit the actual respect of no man. In order to make the paper, the shooting has to be gruesome, accidental, strike an unintended or child victim (real child, not a Bloombergian up-to-24 “child”), or be one of the real rarities that has a police officer or a white person involved. Especially if it’s a white police officer.
Recently, there have been a spate of apparently unintentional shootings of children, often by other children. Here’s the grim coda of a Detroit Free Press article.
The 3-year-old, who was shot in the face, was found in the front seat of a car that had been parked behind the home, a source familiar with the investigation said. The source said it’s unclear whether the 11-year-old boy, who told police the kids had been playing with a gun, pulled the trigger.
The 11-year-old has been charged with manslaughter. The gun was in a case and possibly unloaded. The kids took it, cased, to a car in the driveway and played with it, with the results noted — the younger boy died.
There have been other recent accidental shootings involving minors. In January, a teen boy shot and killed his friend while the teen’s father was out of the house, getting pizza. The father, Ivan Berrien, 45, was ultimately convicted of second-degree child abuse and a felony weapons charge, and is scheduled to serve at least two years in prison, court records show.
And in December, a 9-year-old boy was shot and killed by accident on Detroit’s east side.
Now, you may dismiss this as the children of hood rats finding momma’s latest baby-daddy’s gun, but that’s not always the case (and it doesn’t appear to be the case here: the shooting of the three year old happened in a nice neighborhood, with a legal handgun belonging to the kids’ uncle or aunt). It can happen to anyone. It can happen to you. Here in NH, a police chief was charged and tried because he always took his duty gun off at home (many cops do; do you wear your gun around the clock) and his daughter’s distraught teenage boyfriend found it and implemented a final solution to the transient sufferings of adolescence. (The cop was acquitted, but the process is the punishment; we do bet he secures his firearm now).
We just tell that story to hammer upon the point: it can happen to you.
Some morally-destitute entrepreneur saw the Detroit crime as a great marketing hook for his still-undeveloped gun-denial (in his words, “smart gun”) technology, which is based, he says vaguely, on his experience in airbag engineering and on fingerprints. He rushed a timely op-ed into the Free Press to promote himself and his company, SentinL, which is, they say modestly, The Future of Gun Safety.
Hey, sometimes opportunity knocks in nine millimeter, you know?
There are two separate issues here: we’ll deal first with whether technology will save us, and then talk about what you can do so the next heartbreaking paragraph in the Detroit Free Press, or in your local paper, does not reference a child of your friends and family or an incident that took place in your house.
What We Know About Airbag Technology
First, we have a lot more data available on airbags than we do on any kind of gun denial technology, principally because there are a lot more motor vehicle accidents in a month than there are shooting accidents and deliberate shootings in a year.
And airbags fail. Frequently.
Even simpler, and therefore more reliable, mechanisms fail. We were in a violent motor vehicle accident where the seatbelt inertia reel failed, resulting in a Come-to-Jesus meeting with the dashboard and windshield at about 35 mph. And there are few things that are mechanically simpler, or theoretically more reliable, than an inertia reel. (The worst thing about the accident was the plague of lawyers begging us to sue the other motorist, the car maker (BMW), and the university on whose lawn the two cars came to rest. There’s no parallel experience to that, although rodent and carpenter-ant infestations come close).
Airbags have both types of failure, false positives (the thing goes off for no reason) and, more commonly because the engineers have biased their function this way, false negatives.
A 2005 study found that airbags are associated with slightly increased probability of death in accidents. Air bags have been mandatory in all cars in the USA since 1998, and the bags have directly produced hundreds of deaths. University of Georgia Professor of Statistics Mary C. Meyer explained the paradox using an analogy:
f you look at people who have some types of cancer, you will see that those who get radiation treatment have a better chance of surviving than those who don’t. However, radiation is inherently dangerous and could actually cause cancer. If you give everyone radiation treatments, whether they have cancer or not, you will probably find an increased risk of death in the general population.
Making everyone have airbags and then verifying the effectiveness using only fatal crashes in FARS is like making everyone get radiation and then estimating the lives saved by looking only at people who have cancer. Overall, there will be more deaths if everyone is given radiation, but in the cancer subset, radiation will be effective.
This is reminiscent of some of Bastiat’s economic arguments: you can’t get a good measurement from a biased data set. NTSB’s admitted death toll of 238 from airbag activation only included accidents at very low speed, where there was not enough energy to have killed someone. It’s quite possible that airbags are killing people who would have survived higher-speed impacts too. Statistically, they seem to be a wash, except in low-speed impacts, where they’re four times deadlier that not having them. Meanwhile, the same study found that seatbelts save lives across the board, airbags or not. (So the best survival strategy would be to wear your seatbelt and have your airbags disabled, which is what racing drivers who risk very high-energy crashes do).
The crossover speed where having an airbag and no seatbelt is more survivable than nothing at all is about 25 kph, then there’s a crossover at 39 kph and from there on up, nothing at all still produces fewer deaths than airbag alone. Here are the charts from a paper of Meyer’s & Tremika Finney’s at the American Statistical Association.
Note that these are results with airbags that have worked nominally, not with the failure-prone Takata airbags that have been in the news lately. Airbags kill more people than they save, and you’re not only better off with nothing than an airbag, you’re way better off with a properly worn seatbelt than that.
And let’s not even get into the accidents caused by the loss of visibility that recent A-pillar airbag installations produce. (The basic difference between helming a Chevy HHR, for example, and a submarine is that they have thoughtfully provided a submarine with a periscope so you can see out). So why did we wind up with mandatory airbags? Because activists, who were not engineers or scientists but lawyers and lobbyists, pushed for them. Joan Claybrook was not the equivalent of Zora Arkus-Duntov; she was the automotive version of Shannon Watts, an uneducated but firmly opinionated armchair expert.
Here’s a rather chilling page on forensic evidence in airbag deaths, including x-rays and a gruesome pair of pictures of a dead four-year-old boy. The remarkable thing is how light the damage is to some of the cars in these fatal mishaps.
Tentative conclusion: omeone steeped in the culture of the airbag industry, which is a technological approach to to safety based on activists’ quasi-religious beliefs in direct contradiction to the data, is probably the wrong guy to design a firearms-safety application.
What We Know About Biometrics
That airbag stuff is depressing, but surely the biometrics stand on more solid ground? After all, Apple uses a fingerprint to let you lock your iPhone.
The basic problems with fingerprint biometrics are these:
- You can’t keep your personal “password” secret. Once it’s blown, it’s well and truly blown, and it’s never private again. In other words, any compromise is permanent.
- You can’t revoke or change your fingerprints (or iris scans, etc).
- Biometrics are easily compromised or spoofed. Especially for anyone who ever goes outdoors.
- The uniqueness of these data points appears to have been overstated.
- It takes time to process this data. All known biometric technologies are slower than comparable token/password systems.
See, for instance, here, here and here for some of the theoretical background, and here for how it’s really working already (or not working) in the US-VISIT Visa system, a hotbed of fraud and corruption.
What We Know About SentinL
We know very little, because they reveal very little. Their website is not live yet, just a placeholder where you can send them your email. But we do know that their system is basically a rotomolded trigger sheath (made like the case that came with your new M9 or Glock) that is locked and secured with a fingerprint biometric sensor. Using your fingerprint, you can open the sheath.
Many rotomolded cases include holes for applying a padlock. That’s probably a more effective way to secure the firearm, although you have a problem with Junior guessing the combination (a key padlock on a defensive firearm case is a very poor idea).
A rotomolded case otherwise can be brute-forced readily, in most cases. There’s no doubt that SentinLs trigger sheath will simply keep the honest and incurious kids out.
Waiting for SentinL is a bad idea, then.
What, then, Can you do?
- Keep only ready guns loaded
- Keep the minimum amount of ready guns. For most people in most circumstances, that’s one. If you live in a place where you need to keep a long gun ready to go 24/7, do your kids a favor and move.
- (Best) Keep any ready handgun on your person or in sight AT ALL TIMES.
- Keep all non-ready guns under lock and key, as secure as possible. A real safe (like a GSA or jeweler’s safe) is better than most “gun safes,” but a gun safe is better than a locked glass-front gun cabinet.
- Keep non-ready guns and ammo separate. Your ammo should not be in the gun safe anyway (for fire protection, too. A fire-resistant safe is wasted if it’s full of inflammable stuff, so keep everything with a low flash point out of there and your guns might survive a home fire). But most people wouldn’t buy a second gun safe for ammo. What we do is use a job box with combination padlocks. A burglar will just take the box, of course, if you don’t bolt it down, but you’ve just squared a kid’s problem in getting a loaded gun (the kid, unlike the burg, will care to do it without destroying anything).
- Keep kids and guns separate. For instance, visiting kids here can be in the yard, the ground floor, the Kid’s bedroom, or the music/exercise/play room. There are no guns in those places (unless they’re on an adult’s hip). Kids are not admitted to the gun-containing parts of the house without adult eyes on. Yes, this is hard to do in a small house or apartment, but it’s belt-and-suspenders to drill into kids not only you don’t touch a gun, but also, you don’t go into grownups’ rooms. The flip side of that is, we don’t cross Kid’s door without his permission. It’s just one more layer of standard practice between the kids and the guns.
- Never assume your kid “won’t.” Remember all the mischief you got into? Remember how down you felt when you had your first breakup? Kids live in a world of melodrama, surrounded by a popular culture that rewards “authenticity” (whatever that really is) and minimizes or denies consequences.
And remember your fundamental safety rules.