The Man With the Personalized Gun

By David Guston and Ed Finn,

This article also appears as part of’s Future Tense series. ASU is a partner in Future Tense with Slate and the New America Foundation.

Bond is back. But you can forget about stale debates over Connery vs. Moore, Cold War vs. post-Soviet plots, or which Bond babe you’d like to be “attempting re-entry” with. You can even forget about Aston Martins and the veritable museum of Q’s gadgets. There is something far more exciting to discuss: Skyfall features a technology that we should be vigorously pursuing, that is technically plausible, and that could save thousands of lives a year.

This technology is, perhaps ironically, a gun: one that uses a biometric palm scanner to lock out unauthorized users. Evidently we’ve come a long way from the single-shot contraption wielded by, well, The Man With the Golden Gun, which had to be laboriously assembled from a cigarette case, lighter, pen, and cuff link. The idea was a little silly then and completely ridiculous now. Why go to all that trouble when handguns and automatic weapons seem to be absolutely everywhere—not just in movies but in movie theaters, grocery stores, and summer camps?

Often, Bond and technically feasibility don’t go well together—think that fleet of space shuttles in Moonraker, for example. To be inspiring, however, speculative fiction requires not feasibility but plausibility. H.G. Wells’ 1915 atomic bombing of cities from biplanes inspiredLeo Szilárd to patent the chain reaction in order to keep it secret. James T. Kirk’s communicator inspired Martin Cooper to develop the cellphone. Jules Verne’s Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea inspired several generations of submarine inventors.

Unlike many of Bond’s gizmos, it turns out that Daniel Craig’s biometric Walther PPK/S might be a very good idea. If we truly care about technologies and real-world outcomes, guns ought to be high on the agenda, despite their current politicization. And while the concept of technology fix tends to get a bad rap in most circles, the truth is that under some circumstances they are the best you might hope for if you actually think you can make the world a better place. (Remember, kids: Guns don’t kill ideas—pessimists do.) Technology can solve some problems, as long as a few specific conditions are met. As Dan Sarewitz and Richard Nelson argued in an issue of the journal Nature a few years ago:

“The technology must largely embody the cause–effect relationship connecting problem to solution.” (A palm-print technology would prevent people from firing illegal guns.)

“The effects of the technological fix must be assessable using relatively unambiguous or uncontroversial criteria.” (A drop in the homicide and gun-crime rates would quickly demonstrate how effective the new technology is.)

“Research and development is most likely to contribute decisively to solving a social problem when it focuses on improving a standardized technical core that already exists.” (Guns are simple machines that are well understood, and creating a biometric scanner would just extend that body of knowledge.)

Maybe biometric guns could reduce the gang violence that contributes more than 90 percent of U.S. homicides, most of them committed with illegal firearms. Perhaps someone could build a stand-alone biometric system that would give pro- and anti-gun lobbies some common ground.

Of course, no solution is perfect. You can imagine the 15-year-old who roots his dad’s Glock and the robust second-hand market in “antique” pre-biometric weapons. Or maybe Digital Weapons Management will become a thing, and you’ll end up paying way more for your smart gun service contract than for the gun itself. (The roaming charges are where they really kill you.) Should your gun lock up if you’re clinically depressed? Now that’s fantasy. But even if smart guns disarmed only our dumbest, laziest criminals and other unauthorized borrowers like kids, the savings in lives could be tremendous. The point of speculative fiction is to imagine how things might go wrong and how they could go right. That’s how you figure out the world you’d actually like to live in.

With a little optimism you can begin to imagine a better future with biometric guns in it: Your constitutional right to a gun does not include a thief’s right your gun, or a trafficker’s right to your gun, or a child’s right to your gun. And the damage that thieves, traffickers, and children do with other people’s legally purchased guns is enormous. In the conversations around personalized medicine and even personalized assassination plagues, maybe we can have some discussion about personalized handguns. It saved Bond’s life—maybe it could save yours.

David Guston is the co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University. Ed Finn serves as the director of ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination.