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If you’re here with me at DerbyCon right now then I hope you’ve stopped by the Lockpick Village.  I have nothing to do with running it, rather it’s offered up and operated by the outstanding FOOLS (Fraternal Order of LockSport) who do an epic job every single year, bringing out new tech and new toys to teach all the girls and boys.

I have added one thing to their Village this year, however.  It’s a single purple padlock, hanging on one of their lock boards…

Purple Puzzle Padlock

… this is a contest lock.  If you aren’t familiar with this style of mechanism, let me explain.  This is known as the Master 1500i, which they call the “speed dial” but which we call the “hash lock” because “speed dial” is a stupid name for it.

Nothing is “dialed” when operating this mechanism.  The combination to open a padlock of this type is entered as a series of pushes… up, left, down, or right …on the single big button on the front.

Press in on the shackle (to reset the gears inside), enter your series of pushes, then pull it open… simple, right?  Well, the actual internals are pretty amazing stuff.  Our good friend Michael Huebler of the German sportpicking group SSDeV did extensive research on these locks and even produced a very interesting internal visualizer tool and white paper to teach others.

There is a decode attack for these locks.

It is not super easy.

If you want, you can try to decode this lock.  If you’d like to try to get the combination by another means, however, I’ve put up a little crypto puzzle.  Follow the clues and you should be able to discern the correct series of pushes to open the lock.

If you show the lock to any member of the FOOLS staff in the Lockpick Village before the end of DerbyCon, I’ll have a prize for you!  (You must bring the lock to them OPEN, not merely photograph or video it or tell them what you think the code is.  They do not know it.  Although, you should still try to bribe them with drinks.)

We’re calling this puzzle “Around the (most of) the World in (more or less) Eighty Hours.”  Here you go…

Around The World



UPDATE – The above Puzzle has been solved by Scorche of TOOOL and DC949. Way to go, man!

The solution appears below, along with a step-by-step breakdown of the stages and the clues that were available to help people along.


Step One - the above image from the post announcing this contest (which was paired with some nonsense text about being at the controls of a spaceship, etc) contains a reference to a YouTube URL.  Some people spotted that the font on the blackboard was different in one place…

Chalkboard Text

… and if people didn’t think that a v= variable could represent a youtube URL element, I later tweeted this hint image…


So hopefully that steered enough people to find this clip.


Step Two – The YouTube clip was clearly a Morse code segment, and if people couldn’t figure that out I even included the image of a signaling key there.  So, folk would listen to that and hear a series of letters.

If someone is very, very good with radio they might have been able to just listen to the dots and dashes, but there are also a series of other tools that can make the job easier.

Morse Translator

The above is an app that runs on Android and iOS and will listen to Morse via the microphone and simply show characters.  Also, later on I tweeted the following hint…

Off Liberty is a site that will easily allow you to download a YouTube video as MP4 or MP3 audio.  If someone were to pull the file and view the soundtrack in a wave editor, the dots and dashes of the Morse can become very easy to read…

Wave 01

Wave 02

So these dots and dashes would transcribe into the following groups of letters…

PCG     XEX      RJE      LZK      YVF      PVN      ROO      CUY      FQS


Step Three – The letters above could mean a lot of things, but I tried to give people a slight hint with the following tweeted image…


You see a boarding pass, hopefully you think Airport Codes.  And all of the above letter groups are airports… almost.  These letter codes represented airports in very, very obscure places (and someone later told me they almost lined up in a nice great circle route!) but one letter code is just wrong.

Some people explained that they thought I had done something wrong in keying the Morse code letters.  So i later sent out another tweeted hint image…

Apollo 13

…now while this may have led some people very astray in their thinking, given that this is clearly a press photo for a NASA mission, a few diligent and observant folk spotted that this was the crew of the Apollo 13.

What do hackers think during crypto contests when the number 13 appears?


Step Four – That’s right… run the letter codes from the Morse message through a ROT-13 pass.  This is the result…

CPT     KRK      EWR      YMX      LIS      CIA      EBB      PHL      SDF

Now THOSE look like some more common airports.   All that was left was to plot the route going from those cities, in order, and see what “direction” you would be flying.

Scorche map

The hash padlock uses a series of pushes.  So if the “plane” is flying North, that’d be “up” and West would be “left” etc etc etc.  Look down the flight itinerary and this is what you ultimately find…

U    L    U    R    R    D    L    L

And here you can see Scorche solving the puzzle… great work!


Thanks for letting me whip up a little contest like this for DerbyCon.  Thank you to everyone gave it a try.  I always focus on mechanical locks, so this little crypto puzzle was a hoot.  (Best part: realizing that when I ran the airports through a ROT-13 pass that they STILL were legit codes in all but one instance.  That was awesome and totally unplanned.)

As some people know, i follow an account on Twitter that isn’t commonly associated with the pro-gun community of which I am a member.  The @GunCrisisNews crew reports on incidents of gun violence, predominantly in my hometown of Philadelphia but also around the country.  They are passionate about reducing the carnage that plagues some of our roughest neighborhoods, discussing themes of community organizing, conflict resolution, and violence prevention.  For the most part, however, the @GunCrisisNews feed is an ongoing stream of reports about shootings and the like.

While I sometimes question the merits of this constant trove of dismal news, facts are facts and I can appreciate their impetus to highlight the suffering and anguish of so many of our city’s citizens when lives are lost to gunfire.  The rate of violent episodes some weeks truly does rise to the level of a “crisis” in parts of this town.

However, something that has frustrated me (and continues to) is the Gun Crisis team’s inclusion in their twitter feed of non-newsworthy events which fail to meet almost any criteria for being labeled with the designation of “crisis” (and so often, that is the hashtag used in reporting them).  One such tweet caught my attention:

Police: Vendor shoots woman at Pennsylvania gun show #guncrisis

That news story reported how “a vendor accidentally shot a woman in the leg while demonstrating a gun and holster at a gun show in central Pennsylvania.”  It contained no evidence that there was malice or intent, but rather it was merely an isolated episode of negligence.

I cringe just a little bit inside when I see tweets like this.  I cringe because I know how the people on my side of the fence tend to react to this.  Many pro-gun voices dismiss gun control advocates if they (the anti-gun folk) are seen as “pumping up” their argument with either inflated numbers or excess data.  And tweets like this fall squarely into that category in the eyes of many people.

Accidental and negligent discharges (see my post here about how those terms are sometimes misused) are always awful, and they can indeed be tragic if there is gross harm or loss of life… but I and many others like me cannot see them as part of a “crisis” in virtually any sense of the word.

I responded to the Gun Crisis News account and the following dialog ensued:

@GunCrisisNews another link to a non-news story about some goof being negligent? this detracts from real topics and clutters your timeline.

@GunCrisisNews … more than anything, it badly dilutes the impact of the term “crisis” and causes readers to not take the topic seriously.

I appreciate your diligent feedback, but what are you boundaries for relevant negligence?

@JimMacMillan @GunCrisisNews nothing in the sphere of negligence rises to the level of “crisis” because they are freak accidents not…

@JimMacMillan @GunCrisisNews … prevented by new policies. Illegal gun use, gun crime… those could be “crises” in some sense.

Not a crisis in itself but sometimes part of the larger crisis:

That last tweet from Jim MacMillan (one of the Gun Crisis News reporters) linked to a news story about two children who were among the victims of a wave of recent violent that claimed various lives.  Jim feels that there is some parallel between these awful crimes (for that is what they are, crimes… events during which the perpetrators exhibit verifiable mens rea) and pitifully stupid acts of negligence.  I do not.

My comments above in the twitter conversation explain much of why I feel this way.  And, hopefully, it explains why I feel treating them as equal undermines so much of what the Gun Crisis project is attempting to accomplish.

A “crisis” is something to be met with our best and brightest minds… something to be fought against and passionately met, addressed, and overcome.  The malicious gunfire that erupts out of anger or territory control or general lawlessness is indeed such a crisis.  And it will take many innovative methods of community organizing and actions of the criminal justice system to stem the tide of this violence.

Negligent gun injuries, however, are not a crisis.  Not only are the infrequent, but even more relevant is the fact that they are not something that can be addressed or prevented by means of new policies or legislation.  You can’t legislate away stupidity.

Most of all, however, I am displeased over the way in which such tweets actually undermine what the Gun Crisis project is trying to do.  They want to raise awareness of a genuine problem and position themselves as a voice of guidance and information for the public.  Lumping in non-issue stories opens them up to criticisms of grandstanding and needless fanning of flames.  If too many non-crisis stories appear in the GunCrisis news feed with the hashtag #guncrisis, then their message becomes painfully diluted and critics can more easily lump them in with the more lunatic fringe of the anti-gun movement.

That same day on twitter, another journalist (who may or may not be affiliated with the Gun Crisis project, I am not certain) spread the news of the article ‘Guns in Bars’ Bill Kicks Off in Georgia which contained some choice quotes such as the following from Piyali Cole: “We are supposed to believe that everybody walking around with a gun is normal behavior, but I reject that.”

Individuals such as Ms. Cole have repeatedly shown themselves to be disinterested in reasonable dialog on the topic of gun violence.  Perhaps they once aspired to genuinely reduce harm, but (much like MADD was initially against drunk driving but later morphed into a full-abstinence, anti-alcohol organization) these activists — many of whom are associated with the group Moms Demand Action, which has itself become so extreme as to no longer be taken seriously in most conversations, sadly — do not advance the cause of serious debate and discussion.

Another example of this level of egregious vitriol came from a news story linked later that same day on Twitter.  Leonard Steinhorn, a man of letters and ostensibly someone for whom academic rigor and well crafted prose should count for something, made the following disingenuous statements in his article Armed, Locked and Loaded: The Worst and Most Intimidating Gun States:

No one should feel safe in the following states. And it is time to take a stand and do something about it. … Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana and Mississippi. … It is legal in these states to bring loaded guns into gambling establishments, sporting events, and restaurants that serve alcohol. It is legal in these states to carry weapons into stores and shopping malls, and in some cases even onto college campuses and into bars and houses of worship. … These are states of intimidation, where every one of us must wonder if the guy over there with a gun might pull the trigger because he’s angry, under the influence, troubled, mentally ill or simply ticked off.

It is impossible for me to read words like that and not want to weep.  Here we have a genuine thinker, a scholar, and a well-spoken educator… and he is essentially proclaiming, “I want to offer utterly nothing of value towards this discussion.  Please disregard everything I say on this topic.”

Whenever advocates of more restrictive gun policies speak in this fashion, they are almost immediately discounted by such a large swath of the population.  What is it about firearms that so panics certain individuals?  Would I care one bit if someone next to me in a restaurant or a sports stadium or a bar or a mall had a firearm?  No.  I cannot tell why it’s anyone else’s business, or why someone like Mr. Steinhorn thinks that the mere presence of a concealed pistol magically makes him less safe.

Now, if the citizen in possession of such a gun were intoxicated or belligerent or unbalanced, then yes I would see the argument against that situation.  However, nothing about being present in a bar means you are getting drunk in that bar.  I have spent plenty of great nights out with friends as a designated driver.

(I have also spent nights as a designated carrier, actually… when people were thinking about getting some cocktails after a movie one time, I volunteered to hold all of their carry pieces so they would remain legal.  In the state of PA one cannot carry a concealed firearm with a B.A.C. over .08, much like with driving.  So by the end of the night I had no less than three other friends’ carry pieces on my person.  I was thankful for my reinforced gun belt, to say the least.)  ;-)


Ultimately, I support any policies and laws that allow citizens maximum freedom of movement and the exercise of liberty in a manner that is safe.  I grew up in a home where guns were commonplace and I was raised to mind my own business and stay out of other people’s affairs.

If someone’s behavior isn’t causing a risk to the general safety, I have no problem with anything they are doing.  If someone is actively causing harm or seeking to cause harm to others, then I support the full force of law interceding in their actions.

The Gun Crisis project is a fine resource to stay abreast of the current status of and trends relating to firearm violence in America.  I just hope that they try a little bit harder to stay on-message and do not open themselves up to needless criticism from those who spend so much time being attacked by un-thinking and unhelpful voices of vitriol.

The last thing the Gun Crisis project needs is being lumped in with the likes of Moms Demand Action or writers of baseless op-eds like Leonard Steinhorn’s.  I hope to continue seeing their staff at community events and engaging with them on this topic in a productive way.

Hackers sure love their cons.  And their mini-cons within cons.  So much so, that the term “con” became impossibly over-used in the very early 21st century.  The lockpicking gathering at DEFCON and elsewhere wasn’t the “Lockpick Village” yet, it was LP-CON.  Getting your hair clipped by the badasses in a corner at the 303 party?  That’s “Mohawk Con” you’ve just attended.  Joining a bunch of folk together for sashimi and nigiri and maki? “When and where is SushiCon?” you would ask GM1. (Or SmooshiCon, heh, if you were in D.C. in early February)

OK, so, truth be told… some of these events were not “cons” in any real sense.  They didn’t charge for admission, they didn’t have badges, and –perhaps most of all– they didn’t run concurrent to an entire other con’s duration.

This may be one of the biggest questions and concerns that arise every time someone advances the idea for something “new” at DEFCON or any of the other important hacker events around the country and around the world.  Is this new idea something that will add to the overall energy and vibrance of the event?  Or will it dilute the energy and ultimately pull people in other directions as opposed to bringing them together?

Many times, the strongest and most passionate voices on topics such as this speak out when the “new idea” pertains to people who don’t feel central to the hacker world.  Groups who either perceive themselves to be not a good fit for DEFCON / ShmooCon / HOPE / etc and their friends/family/parents will sometimes suggest a side event in order to bolster inclusion or otherwise “ease” people’s access to this scene.  Instead of being met with support in all instances, however, there are many times when criticism and perhaps even outright derision have ensued.

While I find myself having difficulty nailing down the right words to express all of my views on this topic, I feel it’s an important area of discussion.  A number of us have diligently been kicking this topic around on Twitter, but being limited to 140 characters and spread across a number of time zones hasn’t led to the deepest and most meaningful dialog.  So I’m just going to lay down my beliefs here for a bit and then let others chime in…


Side Event vs Side Track vs Off-Site vs Brief Gathering

Perhaps the most substantial way in which people planning a new event can disagree (both with each other and also with the existing community) can bear on the duration and location of their NewIdea-Con.  Best tip from me?  If you can’t deeply justify a reason for pulling people and energy away from the main con, err on the side of “nearby” and “brief”

Many things that have been dubbed with the suffix “-Con” are little more than meetups, frankly.  Two great examples are QueerCon & DEAF CON.  QueerCon has historically been a party that takes place one evening, and it was at the DEFCON hotel as frequently as it has been offsite.  DEAF CON, the Deaf and HoH hacker meetup, takes place chiefly in the chillout area on one or two afternoons for an hour or so.  Similar events (without the name “con” attached) are the Military Veterans’ Meetup and the Podcasters’ Meetup.

In all of these cases, there has been utterly no avenue to criticize the organizers for “pulling folk away from the main conference” substantially.  And yet, while the “meetup” segments themselves are just an hour or two, in many ways these side events reward the participants for the whole main con itself.  They do so by enriching those people’s overall con experience (as in, these participants spend 90% or more of their time at the main event, not a side event) and helping them make new connections while still attending and experiencing much of the rest of the main con.

Happenings and gatherings that have attracted greater criticism, however, tend to be ones which are of longer duration or appear to be exclusive in some manner.  Two examples here are DEFCON Kids (now sometimes known as ROOTZ) and various Wives / Significant Others tracks.

DEFCON Kids was proposed as a means to offer greater options for inclusion of teens and even younger folk at DEFCON who might not otherwise be allowed to wander around by their parents.  Almost immediately, however, the DC Forums lit up with a cacophony of protest and howls of criticism by old-timers, even while others spoke up defending the idea.

“There are already plenty of things for kids to do at DEFCON!” said those of us who organize events suitable for all-ages.

“But I don’t want my kids seeing drunks puking and waving dicks around!” replied concerned parents.

“If we start to make DEFCON sanitized for the kids, then pretty soon I won’t be able to smoke and curse even!” responded the most bacchanal among us.

“Look, this is happening.  Get on board with it because we’re trying it out!” said DT, preventing further roadblocks.

Heh, ok… so virtually none of the conversation went like that, really.  I’m over-generalizing a LOT and using much hyperbole.  But to hear people recount the arguments made by others you’d think that some of the above sentiments were truly being expressed.

I can only speak for my personal experience, so here it is…

I run the Lockpick Village with the rest of the TOOOL staff at events like DEFCON.  We, too, were sometimes the subject of concern that “we occupy a lot of space and take up loads of people’s time” etc etc.  We have generally countered the strongest criticism by pointing out that there aren’t hard time requirements for participation in our area and that folk can wander in and out virtually whenever without missing out on anything here or at the rest of the main con.  Also, we repeatedly resist offers of greater space and chances to extend our operating hours, in order to encourage people to NOT sit with us the whole weekend.

Now, when DEFCON Kids was created, Nico and her staff (side note – i adore Nico and think she’s great.  Her daughter, CyFi, kicks ass and their motivation for all this was good and came with the best of intentions) they approached us and said, “Can you send one of your people our way and give a lockpicking talk in our side track room?”

My reply was, “Well, instead of me pulling one of my staff members, having someone lumbering all the way down there with a ton of gear, etc… why don’t the kids come to OUR area, the Lockpick Village, and we’ll have a very specific talk set up for them, etc?”  In my view, offering a limited and watered-down version of our topic to a limited group of kids in a small, side room was not likely as rewarding (to either them or to my people) than it would be to just have them all mingle with the rest of us in the Lockpicking area itself.  Indeed, TOOOL loves family participation.

Ultimately, of course, DEFCON Kids (a.k.a. DEFCON ROOTZ) has become established and they staunchly wanted to have all their learning and work take place in their own room. TOOOL does send someone (often me, actually) to their track and give a brief talk.  We try to just be so engaging and interesting that we manage to get some of the kids and their families to leave their limited area and join us in the Lockpick Village later.

But can you see from this story why some of the “established” events and organizers and participants feel that new ideas have as much potential siphon off energy from the main con as they might bring new energy to it?


Wives and Significant Others

So now yet again we have an issue coming to the surface in the way it tends to pop up from time to time.  For just about as long as I have ever been coming to cons in a substantial way (since around 2000) there have been folk offering up suggestions for a “girlfriends” event, or a “lost souls lunch”, or some other type of support/camaraderie network for people whose significant others are hackers, but who don’t feel like hackers themselves.

The main problems with these kinds of plans often fall into the following (admittedly broad) categories, which I’ll express with quotes (hypothetical and paraphrasing, these are not anyone’s specific words)…

“If you don’t want to be at the con, then why are you there?  If our community isn’t interesting enough for you, then just don’t attend.”

“Instead of having a side event which might pull your husband/boyfriend aside, why not just join us at the main event to keep the energy up there?”

“I am NOT here with a boyfriend/husband/etc.  I am a technically-capable and competent woman and if your event takes place I really don’t feel like being asked all the time if i’m here for the ‘wives group’ or anything like that!”

Again, these are almost caricatures of the real words that are offered, but the themes are valid in many ways.  And it’s these themes I’d hope for us to explore, perhaps in the comments below (because that’s always a good idea)… i’ve got some spam filtering and moderation enabled, but i’ll do my best to see the discussion isn’t limited if it happens here.  I’ll be hiking Diamond Head today, but should have GSM coverage.


My Suggestions

If the potential organizers of this new event are serious about improving things for the community and making things good for as many people as possible, let me offer the following suggestions…

1. Brief is better – at least in the first year, try to gear whatever you are creating as a “meetup” and not a side track or long-duration activity.  The closer it is the the main conference, the better.  Off-site events smack of “we aren’t interested in your community and don’t want to really ‘be here’ but we’ll make due in order to ‘be around you’ while you ‘do your geeky things’ at this con”

2. Technical and not Social – want hackers to take your new side event seriously?  gear and frame it as “outsiders who want to learn more and become more interested in geeky topics” and not “easing our outsider experience by bringing more ‘mainstream’ topics into the hacker con” … in the past, this suggestion has been met with the reply, “I don’t want to learn anything new, and I don’t care about this geeky stuff.  I’m just here to make sure my man behaves.”  If that’s your feeling, we have little to discuss.

3. Remove Gender and Identity from the Theme – oh dear GOD please if you take away nothing else from this post, take this away.  It is almost always a fucking disaster anytime anyone attempts to create something “for the women” or, even worse, “for girlfriends”… it is patronizing, it is exclusionary (in name if not actually in theme), and it creates no end of goddamn headaches for the wonderful and talented women who are 100% part of the hacker world.  Whether you think it’s fair or right or anything of the sort, the moment that you have a “Wives” or “Ladies” or “Hack my Vagina” event at a con, then a whole litany of people (many of them ignorant or socially backward or just plain foolish) will start to see every female at the main con as “probably here for that side event for girls.”

Is this unfair?  Is it a shame that your new event can get undermined by idiocy and ignorance that isn’t even your own doing?  Yes.  yes, it is.  And that doesn’t make it any less true or real.

And this isn’t even getting into the fact that many significant others and “noob” family members of hackers aren’t female, or married, or easily tagged by so many of the labels that these new events often have.  PLEASE stay away from ANY language that applies to a specific family structure or life arrangement (assuming people to be married, hetero, with kids, etc) or any language that is specific to one sex or gender (since our community is astonishingly terrific about making all sexes and genders and identities — which are all different things, if you are not aware — feel welcome) as this opens you up instantly and needlessly to criticism of many kinds.  There are many women and men who attend together with their significant others, both of whom are hackers.  There are guys who are there with techy and hacker women, frankly, when they themselves aren’t 100% in the scene.  And, being hackers, there are plenty of people who just don’t easily fit into any category or group or role and limiting language will lead to more division, not inclusion.


I think that making the hacker world more accessible and open to new people is a good thing.  Historically, ours has been the community where outsiders can always find a home, can find companionship, can find support, and can even sometimes find the family that they never had elsewhere.

Taking steps to help our biological and social families become more tied to our hacker and technical families does not stem from bad intention.  As long as you name yourself and gear yourself and frame yourself as inclusive and you stay away from anything that could lead to criticisms of (a) siphoning off energy from the main event or (b) being just for “women” or “wives” then there’s going to be much we can discuss and I hope many drinks can be shared… with lots of new people who want to be a bigger part of our world.


At times, it puzzles me almost to no end the degree to which some people will choose to get themselves all worked up and upset over matters that (a) are of little consequence, (b) aren’t directed at them personally, and (c) involve situations where they themselves hold almost all the power.

The latest puzzling incident of this stripe that caught my attention pertains to an individual named Davi Barker.  Political theorist and freedom activist to some, ranting quasi-nutter to others, this man made a blog post in late February of 2014 which set Twitter on fire briefly, because it involved two very reliable buzzwords (TSA and Bitcoin) in the same story.  Within hours, countless people were tweeting and re-tweeting links to the Daily Anarchist blog where the story appeared, telling all of their friends and followers that, “The TSA is actively looking for Bitcoin!!”

Now, the renowned tech-savvy journalist Kashmir Hill has already put together a pretty decent analysis of this incident, but I’m going to offer up a few more thoughts here which do not appear in her column, probably due to limitations of taste and professional decorum.

Ms. Hill has already covered this, but for those who haven’t read her whole piece in Forbes yet, let me assure you… the TSA is not actively looking for Bitcoin (or much of any other currency) in anyone’s luggage.  The TSA is aware (in a vague and probably poorly-trained way) that there are certain laws regarding the transport of large sums of money out of the country… and it’s possible that some TSA screeners choose to ask a few questions in situations where they think someone might be in violation of the law.  But that’s a far cry different from actively seeking out passengers with money and subjecting them to extra scrutiny.  The Forbes article explains as much, with good quotes and citation of other resources online to explain things further.

Ultimately, what I do not get about Mr. Barker’s encounter, is how unnecessarily upset he seems to have gotten over the whole thing.  It almost smacks of a situation wherein someone feels more legitimized in their grief and anger if they can cast themselves in the role of the victim more fully… as opposed to the reality of the situation, which is that TSA screeners have virtually zero power and authority over the public.

Yes, dealing with the TSA is hardly enjoyable and the whole organization is a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars which ultimately makes us less safe, not more safe, every single day.  But to feel legitimately threatened by them?  That’s where I start to raise eyebrows.  Let’s look at some sections of the original write-up post in more detail.

I make it a point to always opt out, and if possible always strike up a conversation with the man molesting me.

Right off the bat, we’re barely one sentence in and already the rhetoric is off to the races.  I hate passenger screening as much as the next guy.  AIT machines are a joke and I, too, am a gold star op-out flier (i have never gone through a backscatter or millimeter wave machine).  Unlike Mr. Barker, however, I recognize that there is a difference between “ineffectual attempts at pat-down by a poorly-trained government functionary” and “sexual assault”.  One is a non-consensual contact crime, the other is just annoying.  (Also, if you fly that much and hate the pat-down, either enroll in TSA Pre-Check or claim a medical opt-out at screening check points.  I rely on both and have never had a pat-down since the middle of last year.)

OK, maybe he was just being a bit over-dramatic in order to start his story off with a bang.  Let’s continue…

What’s absolutely clear is that the TSA is looking for Bitcoin, and Bitcoin users need to be conscious when they travel, especially internationally.

No, what’s absolutely clear is that the author experienced a bizarre encounter, which is hardly evidence of a deeply-entrenched policy.  Bitcoin users more than anyone can relax when they travel due to the very nature of Bitcoin itself.  If you are using cryptocurrency properly, there is no accessible evidence of how much you have or where you are moving it.

Then we get to the real meat of the story.  After an annoying passenger screening experience, where Mr. Barker was slightly delayed due to his backpack being re-run and swabbed, he recounts the following…

Bill and his wife were sitting on a bench in the terminal waiting for me as I approached them. Then two men stepped between us, both wearing dress shirts, one orange and one blue. The orange shirt asked where I was traveling to.

This is the part of the story where things take a turn.  It is also, however, the point in the incident where the two distinct mindsets “Victim of the State” and “Citizen of the State” start to see the situation in very distinct ways.  For the “Victim of the State” every encounter with an authority figure is tense, a time to be on-guard, a moment of oppression happening.  On the other hand, a “Citizen of the State” typically can proceed about their daily life with great confidence, secure in the knowledge that 90% of the bureaucrats and functionaries with whom you may interact have essentially zero power over you.

These two distinct mindsets tend to color virtually all interactions that people have with authority.  If you project fear and act defensive, your typical authority dimwit will respond to this with more forceful words and bluster.  If, however, you are calm and confident and –above all– polite, this reduces the need for petty posturing on everyone’s part.

A “Citizen of the State” might have interacted with these two oddball gentlemen by politely asking for their cards (or at the very least clearly getting their names in conversation and noting them down later) and then excusing themselves and proceeding on.  I really think that this is one of the hallmarks of a self-confident citizen… the ability to rise above and not directly engage idiots when they attempt to insert themselves in your life.  As a “Victim of the State” however, Mr. Barker went into a defensive mode and offered snarky non-answers to their questions.

They identified themselves as “managers” and the orange shirt said he was obligated to inquire whether or not I was traveling internationally, which was not an answer to my question. I replied, “Am I obligated to answer your questions?” He replied, “If you are traveling internationally you are.” I replied, “Do you have any reason to suspect that I’m traveling internationally?” The orange shirt said “We’re the ones asking the questions here” and the the blue shirt asked to search my bag for my boarding pass. I told him that my bag was already inspected and didn’t contain anything dangerous, and that I didn’t consent to another search. He said until I was cleared by security he was free to search. I said I was cleared by security.

If you are going to decline to answer someone’s questions, fine.  But please do so by rising above the issue.  Don’t drop to their level.  I realize that in the moment when one is being hassled by an authority figure it’s not always easy to keep a straight and clear head, but come on… one gruff exchange with a man in a suit and all of a sudden this self-described fan of liberty completely forgot that the TSA has no real power?

There is a time to (politely) escalate things.  If you are not getting satisfaction during a screening incident with a TSO, instruct them to call their LTSO (or STSO).  If these managers were giving Mr. Barker a headache, he could simply instruct them to get the CSM on the phone (all major airports have a Customer Service Manager for the TSA… the big boss above all others).  Failing any of that, a polite but confident assertion that they are free to get the police if they desire would do the trick.

This applies to conversational encounters, disagreements over policy (I’ve had loads of odd conversations regarding my travel with firearms. Escalating to real police has always defused it immediately.) or even shows of force.  Do you think I would ever stop in an airport if a silly TSA “Code Bravo” drill was taking place?  No, I would not.  I wouldn’t get mad, either.  I would simply not give these people a second thought.  They aren’t worth my time, my consideration, or –most surely– my aggravation.

I know that the TSA has become a monstrosity of waste and annoyance, but please don’t ever let your disgust with a government program trick you into thinking that they have any real power over you.  They don’t.  We still live in a free country and no one is going to whisk you away to a secret prison somewhere just because they feel like it. (At least that rule applies within our borders.  Border crossings involve surrendering of many of our rights.)

Read the following snipped segments of text that go on to further illustrate the “oppressed” victimhood in which the author sees himself…

a little frightening that they were looking for Bitcoin. … At this point I was beginning to panic and looking for a way out. … Without [his friend Bill who spoke up in the conversation with TSA] I’m not sure what would have happened to me. … didn’t fully relax until we were in the air, because I’ve seen cases of security pulling passengers right out of their seat.

Really?  Without his friend Bill there he isn’t sure what would have happened to him?  Here’s what would have happened… eventually someone, somewhere (either one of the TSA managers or a law enforcement officer whom they may have gotten involved) would have realized that this man wasn’t leaving the USA and therefore was outside the scope of anything that they could investigate.  No one would be going to jail, no one would have their belongings confiscated.  At worst case, his needless snark and combative attitude might have resulted in his missing a flight.

I should point out one last element that got me thinking while reading Mr. Barker’s write-up.  When talking about travel with Bitcoin, including international travel, he states…

It’s entirely possible that a traveler could be carrying thousands of Casascius coins which are not loaded, and worth little more their value in brass. It’s also possible that a traveler could be carrying one Casascius coin that has been loaded with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Bitcoin.

…now this may sound cruel, but I have to point out that if you’re so unbelievably dumb as to carry around physical Bitcoins of real value, then you basically deserve whatever goddamn happens to you.  You are literally too stupid to deserve to own that currency.

The entire benefit of cryptocurrency is that it’s NOT subject to search, seizure, or inspection.  If you are transporting it in physical form (or if you are transporting it electronically but without appropriate device-level protections of encryption and long passphrases, etc) then I genuinely do not know what the hell you have between your ears but it surely isn’t functioning gray matter.

I’m sure someone will make the news doing that at some point.  They will fail the attitude test when interacting with TSA or CBP, then needlessly escalate the situation by playing the victim instead of calmly and politely asserting themselves and rising above the bait.  And, in the end, they will write an article describing how the big, mean authority figures “stole” their Bitcoin and “oppressed” their rights.

I, however, will choose to not be a victim for as long as my smile and my confidence allows.

I am always gifted clothes at Christmas Time.  That’s not the only thing I receive, but it’s a pretty decent constant.  More common than, say, ammo — which is something that is consistently on my wish list but rarely in my stocking. Some of the garments that I have received over the years weren’t my cup of tea, but overall they have been good gifts that I’ve worn with fondness.

This year, one gift I opened on Christmas Eve was an assortment of socks.  Now, socks may be the quintessential holiday punchline, but I loved this gift.  They were smartwool, in dark shades, and exactly what would suit me.  As I took them upstairs and put them away, I noticed something.  My sock drawer was getting incredibly full.

I am normally a slash-and-burn type of person when it comes to possessions.  If I don’t use it or if I have enough of it or if I even barely think that a part of my life is getting even in the vicinity of “cluttered” I tend to go on a tear… selling, donating, or pitching out anything that is taking up space in my life.  Somehow this is not the case with my socks, however.  Over the years, despite consistently acquiring new ones, my old socks rarely ever move on to other opportunities.  They still have plenty of life left, but in the back of the drawer they remain, untouched.

Tonight I had reached my limit.  Putting away socks and a terrific sweater, I pulled out a wide range of old clothes with an eye for donating them in the coming new year.


Why was I going on a closet arranging escapade on a night like Christmas Eve?  Perhaps I was trying to occupy my mind.  In years past, the woman in my life would bake loads of extra cookies and we would take them to hospitals late on the 24th, when the streets were all quiet and asleep.  In these recent years without her, the late hours of Christmas Eve have simply felt a little lacking for me.

So tonight, with my current girlfriend out-of-town and visiting her family this year, I was particularly adrift.  Then I hit upon the following idea, which I am sharing here in case anyone else would like to do the same.

I decided to wrap these garments into presents…



… and in lieu of just putting all of these extra clothes into a local donation bin, I decided to play Santa for the evening.  I know some of the local homeless population, street kids, and crusts/hobos from simply walking around and talking to them in West Philly.  Tonight, I set out to find any of them who were braving the cold.  A Santa hat and sacks of gifts had me feeling a bit warmer inside as I walked the Philadelphia streets.


As it was late, many of the people who were sleeping rough had already huddled down for the night, so I simply tucked something beside them…



…ultimately, I was also glad to find some people still out and about.  A handful were working intersections, others were taking smoke breaks outside of the shelters…


…but all of them were pleasantly surprised and happy to get a little bit of unexpected holiday cheer.  And I felt a little better, too.  I know that I’ll be happy when tomorrow gets into full swing and my whole family is together.  Once Lady Merlin is back in town that will be even better. :-)

Still, I am starting to think that spending time with those who are Not Home For the Holidays might become something of a new way that I experience the season on the night of the 24th.  I’ll still miss watching White Christmas and delivering cookies to ERs… but as Travis Goodspeed is fond of declaring, things are always changing… nothing is like it once was. ;-)



I would like to try to summarize some thoughts that I have about the term “accidental shooting” and why so many gun owners find it a clumsy and inaccurate phrasing.  A reporter whom I know and respect and with whom I occasionally chat about firearms posted a link on Twitter… Aurora police investigating “accidental shooting” at Rangeview High.  Almost immediately, I raised an eyebrow.  The term “accidental shooting” is one that I’ve never liked because it almost always involves either one or both of the two biggest errors people can make when thinking about gun safety…

  • That firearms have some agency or self-directing ability of their own
  • That an unintended discharge of a firearm is just an “oopsie” event


What is a Shooting

Allow me to explain further and break things down a bit more.  Let’s look at the first term: shooting.  To many of us, a “shooting” is a very specific thing.  It is a deliberate act wherein one intentionally fires a round from a gun with the goal of striking a target (or in rare instances — like test firing — simply seeing how the gun operates).


Compare the word “shooting” with the word “discharge” … All shootings are a form of discharging a firearm, but I would put forth the notion that not all discharges are shootings.  It’s the deliberate, conscious decision to fire a gun intentionally that makes something a “shooting” in my view.  It takes a person to fire a gun; the metal device itself has no agency in this world and no means of acting in a deliberate manner all on its own.  In other oft-repeated terms, guns don’t just “go off,” they are “discharged” by the act of a person… usually because said person intended it to happen.

Of course, that is not to say that there aren’t other occasions when guns fire without anyone intending them to.  However, that brings us to the second half of this phrase which doesn’t sit well with me… “accidental”


What is an Accident

I recognize that the term “accident” has broad meaning in our society.  A traffic collision is casually referred to as an “accident” whether it’s a small fender-bender or a five-car pile-up.  You may have to clean a spot on the floor if a puppy has an “accident” or you may have to hire an attorney if a stevedore at the helm of a gantry crane “accidentally” drops a shipping container onto some dock equipment.  It’s quite a wide spectrum of cases which can be called accidents.

But let’s look at how we are raised to think.  A child might spill something at the dinner table and become upset, and we would be inclined to comfort them by reassuringly saying, “Don’t worry, it was just an accident… let’s get some more napkins.”  This is the definition of “accident” for most people… a situation where they might have been a little careless, but that it’s no big deal and they shouldn’t feel bad for very long.  In other words, most of us come to learn that an accident is something from which you might learn a lesson, but you really shouldn’t lose sleep over it.

Contrast that with the notion of negligence.  This similar and very related term is often something quite different.  “He was a negligent father” has much darker connotations than “He had an accident with one of his kids the other day.”  Again, I’m attempting to codify very flexible words into specific definitions, and that’s never easy… but I believe that most people would think someone who is “negligent” is an order of magnitude beyond someone who merely “had an accident.”  There’s an aspect of habitual behavior wrapped up with the term “negligent” and the idea that such a person really shouldn’t simply shrug off their misdeeds.  Under the law, too, specific facts pertaining to someone’s casual disregard for safety and well-being can lead to a finding of negligence.

Thus, when discussion turns to situations wherein a firearm discharges and this was not someone’s intention, we find ourselves adrift in a sea of potential descriptor terms.   And, of course, there is no lack of strong feelings on the part of many writers when it comes to how to best word such a situation.  “There is no such thing as an ‘accidental discharge’,” some people will assert.  “It’s proper to call them what they are… ‘negligent’ discharges,” they continue, “because being careless with a firearm is an incredibly bad thing and is often criminal!”


What Constitutes Negligence

On the topic of “accidental” discharge versus “negligent” discharge, I actually believe there is some room for debate.  Yes, virtually all unintentional firings of guns involve some negligence.  Consider the following photo…


… there we see someone’s holster and pants which have been subject to serious powder burns and even what appears to be a bullet hole.  While I cannot speak to the specifics of this situation (this is a stock image I found on the internet) I would be willing to say that in all likelihood the operator of that gun was being negligent when it fired.  Chances are high that they had their finger on the trigger when drawing from their holster.

Of course, there remains the remote possibility that this holster was ill-designed.  Maybe the kydex was pressed in too firmly around the trigger area and it was the act of inserting the gun that caused it to discharge.  I would assert that this would be also still be negligence (what kind of person would have a gun loaded and chambered the very first time they attempt to place it in a brand new, untested holster??) but I think it would be to a lesser degree.

The truth is, there are some very remote situations wherein a gun can fire a round without anyone’s intention even while it is being operated according to all best practices.  Don’t believe me?  Consider something like a catastrophic extract malfunction and misfeed…


… these are rare occurrences to begin with, and the possibility of one round’s tip banging into the rear of a previous shell casing is highly remote.  But I wouldn’t bet that it’s never ever happened throughout the course of history.  More feasible would be a firearm with a malfunctioning firing pin and/or trigger assembly which could spontaneously strike a round when the action is being slammed shut.  Old revolvers were known to sometimes have the muzzle flash from an intentionally-fired round cause powder of other rounds elsewhere in the cylinder to ignite.  Also, if a firearm is operating at a temperature range outside of what is anticipated, the propellant within a casing can “cook off” just by the act of the round being loaded into the hot metal of the chamber.  Particularly dated firearms without modern safety interlocks could discharge a round if dropped, too.

Now, in all such cases, the discharge might be accidental… but if proper handling practices are being followed the gun would be pointed in a safe direction at all times and everyone in the area would be treating the gun as if it were loaded no matter what, so it is unlikely that anyone could be harmed.  Thus, thankfully, we wouldn’t be talking about a situation of negligence.

Interestingly, I don’t know what I might call a scenario when a round discharged accidentally… but due to other factors of negligence someone was harmed.  I would likely still think of that as an “accidental discharge” but see it as coupled with “negligent use/handling of a firearm” and would still see the operator as liable.


Negligent Hands

Thus, to me, all of these “accidental shootings” are really most likely what I would call “negligent discharges” because someone is not intentionally trying to fire the gun (a.k.a. they are not “shooting”) but they are in fact handling or operating the gun (and doing so unsafely… a.k.a. “negligent”).  And, indeed, if we read the text of the article linked at the top of this post, we see…

The [person who caused their vehicle passenger to be shot in the leg] has a second job as an armed security guard, and while moving his gun to the glove box, the weapon fired, police said.

… this is quite telling.  We see that the gun owner was actively handling their firearm — it wasn’t just sitting somewhere — but they were not (at least allegedly) attempting to shoot it.  The very final wording is also common in news reports: “the weapon fired” states the author, a phrase that imparts some degree of spontaneity and/or agency to the firearm itself.  I’ll admit, it would be quite prolix and cumbersome to say “while moving his gun to the glove box, he unintentionally caused a round to discharge,” but such news copy would make for more honest reporting, in my view.

The use of passive voice — the weapon fired — instead of active verbiage — he or she fired a round — contributes to the notion that guns are dangerous in and of themselves.  Of course, I recognize that this is a widely-held view embraced by many people.  However, to those of us who have grown up around firearms and see them simply as inert objects, such wording does sometimes generate frowns.

Here we see a photograph of some guns sitting on a countertop…


… with no one’s hands upon them, are they dangerous?  If no one were to reach out and touch them, would any of these handguns wind up in a news piece reporting that the weapon fired?  To a person who is deeply-immersed in gun culture, the answer would be a resounding ‘no’ and we would not think of any of these guns being involved in a story about an “accidental discharge.”

Well, if we wanted to be fully confident of that, it might be worth stating that leaving guns out in the open on a counter is not the wisest course of action a lot of the time.  We cannot see a wider view in the above photo, so it is not possible to tell if the owner is standing nearby, but perhaps I would be remiss if I didn’t include my own assertion that in most situations, leaving guns unattended and loaded would wind up back in the “negligent” side of the equation.  So perhaps it’s best to drop in a photo such as this…


… yes, I recognize that there are legitimate situations wherein a defense gun is not kept locked-up, but for the most part the above image illustrates the best means of guarding against any kind of negligent discharge — not to mention theft — and I advocate the use of secure enclosures for most of your gun collection in almost all situations.


Venn Diagram Time

The internet can be counted on to provide this type of diagram with some regularity, so I created one which is specific to the topic that I’m attempting to address…


… so here we see my views, in a nutshell.  All of the above situations represent some kind of discharging of a firearm.  But the sub-categories are quite separate from one another and feature virtually zero overlap.

  • Shooting is a deliberate act: one points a weapon in the direction intended and makes the decision to fire a round.  Whether you’re talking about a justified shooting or a criminal shooting or a careless firing into the air – please, never do that – these are all part of the green circle.
  • The purple circle would be the smallest part of this Venn diagram, were things drawn to scale.  Virtually no situation nowadays is an “accidental discharge.”  These are those very rare times when a mechanical malfunction happens and a round unexpectedly fires without fault or carelessness on the part of the operator.  Appropriate handling of the firearm and following of proper safety precautions would mean that no one would be injured, of course.
  • The red circle represents what are most commonly referred to as “accidental shootings” in the media, when in fact they are seldom mere “accidents” and I don’t think they typically qualify as “shootings” either.  However, I recognize that reporters are in a tight spot when attempting to describe such incidents in a manner that is palatable to their editors, their producers, and even their audience.

Even if the media is too entrenched in this parlance to change what name they use for such incidents, it would be at least slightly more helpful if news items were worded in a way that recognizes and identifies a person’s actions as the root cause … instead of reporting that the gun “just went off” to the shock of everyone involved, including the individual who was holding it in their own hands at the time.




Ugh.  I am generally a very open-minded person, but some things just make me cringe a little bit inside.  Lately, something that I’ve been noticing a lot more of has been the increasing creep of “tacticool” aesthetic into mainstream gun ownership.  There was a time when devotees of this wholly ridiculous sub-culture were such a minority among gun owners that they were openly chided.  Outfitting one’s rifle with a 37mm flare launcher styled to look like an M203 system or wearing a field-grade gear vest at the gun range used to elicit jokes about Mall Ninjas and the Delta Force catalog.

Something else that used to be consistent was that the world of “tacticool” gear was the exclusive domain of aftermarket parts suppliers. Firearms would come from the factory in a rational stock configuration, and then some particularly dedicated (and I would often say particularly silly) individuals would spend money on accessories and modifications that they felt looked badass when in fact they just appeared silly.



living room
Your typical “tacticool” guy… he has likely spent more on accessories than his original rifle cost, and yet virtually none of this would be considered “field ready” and capable of rough handling if said rifle were issued to someone in the armed forces.  The actual effectiveness of this weapons system is immaterial to a tacticool user, however.  It just has to “look badass”


Often not content with merely making their personal firearms laden with accessories and backup gear, a true tacticool individual will ensure that their automobile, bike, or even work desk are outfitted with the most aggressive-looking gear items, in the event that “the shit hits the fan” one day.


Until recently, if someone wanted to add any of these rather unnecessary accessories to their guns, they would either perform the modifications themselves (thanks to the ever-growing number of aftermarket parts manufacturers who have adopted the picatinny rail standard) or enlist the help of a willing gunsmith.  This niece market has allowed for some gun shops to make a tidy sum by catering to the desires of some citizens who wish to own guns that look like something out of a Hollywood movie but who do not actually want to spend a lot of money or go through Title-II paperwork.


The Red Jacket Firearms company, featured on the Discovery Channel show Sons of Guns, was a standout in the “tacticool” realm.  Here we see then-owner, Will Hayden, holding a gun that appears to only fire 9mm pistol ammo, in spite of the fact that it is based around a rifle receiver, features a high-magnification optic, and sports a suppressor (which may just be decorative).  Chances are high that this handgun/carbine hybrid is not capable of select-fire and is most likely not a Title-II NFA firearm.


This was the standard for a long time.  If you wanted a tacticool gun, you were creating it (or modifying it) yourself.  Mainstream firearm manufacturers (whose chief clientele are usually the police and the military) would never risk their reputation by creating hardware like this at the factory and putting their trade mark upon it.  Sadly, that trend may be changing.

Consider Mossberg & Sons.  This Swedish company has been making what are arguably the world’s finest shotguns for nearly a century.  They also produce rifles, however this is a small piece of their overall business when compared with their shotgun division.  Police officers and the US military have been relying on their products for ages now.


A SWAT police officer with a Mossberg 590  series shotgun


US Marines training with Mossberg 590A1 shotguns


Mossberg shotguns come in a variety of models.  They can be categorized into roughly three groups:

  • the 500-series are geared towards casual sports shooters and are often seen with cushioned stocks for comfort
  • the 590-series are geared towards police and usually have the ability to hold more shotshells
  • the 590A1 shotgun is designed for the military and features all-metal construction.  it is essentially a model 590 without any plastic parts


A “tacticool” person would historically choose to purchase model 590 shotguns by Mossberg.  Since there is no cosmetic difference between a 590 and a 590A1, and since the latter is more expensive and weighs considerably more, there is little “cool” factor to be gained for such an additional cost.  My first shotgun was a Mossberg 500.  When purchasing a second one for home defense, I happened across an auction for a model 590A1 with a very low starting price.  Back then, this military type shotgun didn’t command much attention and therefore the auction seller was seeing few bids.  I didn’t even know what the 590A1 was at the time, but after researching it I liked the idea of something with more rugged construction and chose to make an offer.  I won the auction without really trying and have been happy with the shotgun ever since.

I particularly like it when I introduce new shooters to 12 gauge pump guns.  Due to its heftier mass, the 590A1 soaks up a lot more of the recoil for each shot, making novices much more comfortable while firing it.

Unless one knows what details to look for (the heavier barrel appears slightly thicker than normal, for example) most people don’t notice anything distinct or different about my shotgun.  The original 590A1 guns from Mossberg have their model number on the left side of the receiver like all similar products, stamped in non-distinct and subdued letters.


Unless you’re looking right at it, most people don’t even notice the small “A1″ at the end of the model 590 designation, and would assume I have a standard law enforcement model shotgun.


Lately, however, it appears that Mossberg & Sons may be starting to seize upon the “tacticool” trend that ripples through some parts of American gun culture.  While browsing auction sites for another shotgun recently, I noticed something rather odd in specific photos that some sellers had uploaded…


This appears to be the new way of marking the 590A1 shotgun


No longer content with using the nondescript, straight-line font with which they make a subdued imprint on their other shotgun receivers, Mossberg now appears to have adopted this bold “Stencil” style lettering (so popular when making artistic references to the military) and the “M590A1″ lettering has increased noticeably in size.  If that weren’t enough, the model number has been augmented with a subtitle, boldly revealing this to be the “U.S. SERVICE MODEL” should anyone cast a glance at the weapon.


Who exactly thinks this makes a firearm more desirable?  I don’t know, but chances are I wouldn’t want to hang out with them.  You don’t tend to see this in other cultures.  Consider motoring.  Most auto enthusiasts agree that the Ferarri logo is a thing of beauty.  Quiet, yet powerful… that company’s logo commands respect and portrays elegance much in the same way that their vehicles do…




… now what, I ask you, do you think the reaction of most people would be if Ferrari S.p.A. suddenly chose to start putting this logo on their automobiles instead…




Would that make you have more respect for these machines?  Would it make you more likely to buy one?

I don’t know your reaction, but I can state quite plainly that if I or anyone whom I know buys another Mossberg 590A1, it will be an older, used model without these new fancy-pants “tacticool” markings.

Heaven help us if these companies start equipping their firearms with unnecessary and flashy do-nothing accessories.  Then the Mall Ninjas will have really taken over.





Earlier this week, something in my Twitter feed caught my eye.  Aaron Moser, a journalist with the Gun Crisis project (this is a group of individuals dedicated to reducing gun violence whom I follow in an effort to intellectually challenge myself and flesh out my own beliefs on firearms… as their positions on the issues often run contrary to my own views) tweeted about “Smart Guns” and a story that CNN was running.

To those who are not aware, “smart gun” technology has been a goal of many researchers for some time.  Despite much of the public only seeing this concept for the first time in the latest James Bond film* efforts have been underway for well over a decade now to make small arms which will only fire if they are in the hands of an authorized user/owner.  Relying on an assortment of RFID and biometric technologies, those who research smart guns seek to devise arms which will operate reliably and safely, as long as an authorizing token (such as a wrist strap or ring) is next to the frame or as long as an authorized and enrolled individual’s fingerprints or hand geometry can be recognized by the handgrip.  Naturally, there is great interest in this sector by entrepreneurs, governments, and those who keep abreast of the ever-changing landscape of firearms.

* long-time fans of 007 might actually recall that it was decades ago, in 1989’s License to Kill, that Q Branch outfitted James Bond with a gun that would only fire in his hands!

Two things have proven rather constant throughout the life of these sort of projects:

1. They are treated as interesting curiosities by the press and media, with most reports focusing on future potential and current experimental results

2. Virtually no police agencies or militaries have adopted them, and private civilians speak out loudly against them (or, rather, against any regulations that would require such features in all privately-owned guns)

Often, those who encounter these reactions appear puzzled.  (NOTE – I am not suggested that Aaron was puzzled by this.  He is rather abreast of most firearm-related news and by all accounts is well-read and familiar with most trends in the industry.)  If guns such as these could prevent accidental discharge or use by unauthorized parties (like criminals) then why wouldn’t there be a greater clamor for them?

Full Disclosure: One of the research institutions which has dedicated considerable time and effort toward the development of smart gun technology is the New Jersey Institute of Technology.  That is one school from which I hold a degree.  Although I was enrolled during the time of some of this research, I did not interact with the students or staff who were involved.


My Prediction

I thought about this, and my own personal conclusions can be summarized as follows:  While historically, the public at large has shown an overwhelming trend of adopting the same firearms used by current-era police and soldiers, such a trend will not be seen with smart guns.  Some day, smart gun technology may become accepted as reliable enough for use by police officers (i predict it will NEVER become adopted in the military) but if and when that happens, our history of seeing civilians adopt whatever their local officers carry will not continue.

Why is this the case?  Well, let’s take a look at the previous occasion when a monumental shift was seen in terms of gun ownership: the move from revolvers to semi-automatic pistols.


The Next Big Thing

It has been argued by many that Samuel Colt’s introduction of a mass-produced, affordable revolver just after the middle of the 19th Century revolutionized small arms.  His reliable and easy-to-operate sidearm capable of repeated firing and simple reloading instantly changed the landscape of guns in America.  It was quickly adopted by the military (at least by officers, who had greater autonomy and personal income) and then by police departments as the 1800s concluded. Unbeknownst to many people, however, is the relatively short-lived time frame during which the revolver was the exclusive option for a repeating-fire sidearm.  Only a few decades after the Colt Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company started churning out Peacemakers, John Browning developed what would become the modern standard for handguns around the world: the semi-automatic pistol.

By nearly all measures and means of evaluation, pistols are a significant step up from revolvers… especially for those whose vocation entails frequent use of firearms (police, military).  Increased capacity, faster reloading, and generally an easier trigger-pull are features by which all pistols tend to eclipse their revolver counterparts.

Why, then, did police departments take such a comparably long time to adopt them?  Much of it has to do with the counter-arguments: that revolvers are “easier to use” (a claim that’s been debated) or “more reliable” (that’s also disputed, but to a lesser degree)… and also a great deal of this was pure technological momentum.  Having come first to market, revolvers were entrenched in the consciousness of many people as the right tool for the job.  It took a lot of time for attitudes to change, and there were a variety of forces shifting the tide.

During the start of the 20th century, virtually all police departments relied on revolvers, chambered in .38 caliber in virtually all instances.  Although John Browning’s first automatic pistol debuted in 1896 and his truly legendary locked breech action design (a.k.a. short-recoil operation as opposed to blowback) captivated the world’s militaries starting in 1911, police departments continued to rely almost exclusively on revolvers for nearly an additional three-quarters of a century.

the classic .38 caliber police revolver, standard issue for nearly a century… virtually every single police officer seen in public had one of these on their hip.


a .38 caliber “detective’s special” … little more than the same revolver shown above with a snub-nosed barrel.  This would be carried by a plainclothes Detective or a desk Sergeant, etc.


Whether they worked a desk or walked a beat, nearly all men and women** with badges carried .38 caliber revolvers.

** At that era in American history both jobs were routinely staffed exclusively by men, the primary exception being during World War II… although even then most women hired by departments worked at station houses as dispatchers or primarily clerical staff.  It was not until the 1950s that female officers started becoming visible in uniform on the streets.

Criminals, of course, made use of whatever firearms they deemed as best-suited to their particular aims.  Unconstrained by budget, policymakers, or institutional thinking, many criminals (particularly the well-financed gangsters of the 20s and the Mafia) adopted semi-automatic pistols with greater ease than their adversaries… police and G-men. That last point leads to a rather noteworthy detail of history: Special Agents in charge of combating rum-runners and bootleggers were among the first law enforcement types to begin carrying higher-capacity and higher-caliber sidearms by department policy.  Full Disclosure: my grandfather was a Special Agent during the Prohibition years.  He had to turn in his primary service weapon upon retirement, but I still own his small backup guns… which were pocket revolvers.


Eventually, however, it became evident that even lowly street criminals were increasingly well-armed (a trend that was highly influenced by the crack boom of the 1980s and the previously-unheard-of profits for gangs at that time) and police departments began a significant migration to semi-automatic pistols for their officers’ use.

a Smith & Wesson model 39… reported by many to be the first semi-auto pistol adopted by a law enforcement.  The Illinois State Police were using these officially as early as the 1970s.  Most other law enforcement agencies wouldn’t follow suit until the 1980s, however.


The Beretta 92F… one of the first widely-accepted pistols to be adopted by police in the USA.  Ironically, it was this same pistol that replaced the Springfield Armory model 1911 pistol for our military in 1990… our armed forces had already been using semi-auto pistols as sidearms for decades by that time.


A first generation Glock 17… pistols from this manufacturer would come to epitomize police sidearms during the latter decades of the 20th century.


Once the trend towards use of pistols became widespread, there was no turning back.  Throughout my teen years in the 80s & 90s I interacted with many police officers (casually, not in custody, heh) and my interest in firearms would regularly be the impetus for conversations about their carry weapons.  Time and time again, I heard the same refrain when I asked what they were issued: SIG Sauer.

a SIG P226 – the pistol that became synonymous with law enforcement during my formative years


the SIG P228 and P229 (pictured) are compact variants of the legendary pistol above. They remain to this day a favorite of many police departments and are also the preferred sidearm for almost all government agents such as FBI, DIA, etc.


a Generation 4 Glock pistol.  What’s old is new again… the Glock model 22 is now the most widely-used police sidearm in America, by a considerable margin.


So, during this time of changing Police Department policies, what were civilians purchasing from their local gun shops?  It may be surprising to some, while common knowledge to others, that the average citizen has always tended to favor whatever guns were in common use by local police officers.

When wheelguns were the standard, civilians bought revolvers.  When departments across America transitioned to semi-autos, pistols became the most-sold items at gun stores around the country.  The same trend has taken place with long arms, as well.  The shotguns and rifles in American homes have always been the same ones in arms lockers at local precinct houses.  New ammunition, likewise, has seen similar patterns of adoption.

Copper jacketing over top of conventional lead nose bullets  became a standard means of protecting against melting of the lead given the higher temperatures and velocities of modern ammunition


Hollow-point bullets — designed with the aim of both increasing stopping power while decreasing the potential for ricochet or over-penetration — first became available around the turn of the century, but did not see widespread adoption by Police Departments until the 1970s and 1980s.  Now, they are universally accepted as the most adequate self-defense rounds for handgun use by both police and civilians.


Blue Uniforms on the Silver Screen

I find it interesting to take a look at the history of handguns in America through a rather unconventional lens: Hollywood.  While critics of film often bemoan the lack of accuracy and realism present in many blockbuster movies, there is one aspect of our gun culture that has historically been very accurately-portrayed in cinema: the types of guns used throughout history. Say what you will about violent tales from screenwriters or gory camera footage from certain directors, but the propmasters of all major studios and even small, independent companies tend to take very seriously the task of accurately representing how police, criminals, and even just private citizens have chosen to arm themselves over the years.

A brief walk through some of the best cops-and-robbers cinema of the 20th century shows the same exact trend that was playing out in police departments across America — particularly the transition to semi-automatic pistols which began during the late 1980s.


Era One – The Wheelgun is King

Bullitt (1968) – Steve McQueen’s lead character carries a Colt Diamondback. Other police serving with him rely on Colt Detective Specials or Smith & Wesson model 58s… all revolvers.  One criminal in this film has the legendary semi-auto Colt 1911 pistol.

The French Connection (1971) – Most police in this classic film, including Gene Hackman himself, carry Colt Detective Special revolvers.  As with Bullitt above, other police are seen with standard issue Smith & Wesson revolvers, also.  A hitman in the film has a Colt automatic pistol, and the Mafia is shown to have Beretta Model 70 semi-autos.

Dirty Harry (1971) – Hardly a single movie-going member of the public in the early 70’s was unaware of Clint Eastwood’s now-iconic revolver, a Smith & Wesson model 29 chambered in .44 Magnum.  Another police inspector in this film also carries a revolver: a Colt Detective Special.

Serpico (1973) – Here we see an interesting glimpse of both sides of the law, sometimes through the eyes of the same person. Uniformed police, including Al Pacino’s title character, carry Smith & Wesson model 36 revolvers, Colt Offical Police revolvers, and Smith & Wesson model 10 revolvers.  While working undercover, Officer Serpico opts to carry a Browning Hi-Power, as he is attempting to not portray himself as an officer. (Another reason for his choice was this pistol’s ability to hold fourteen 9mm rounds. Serpico was seeking greater firepower after becoming the subject of harassment while he fought police corruption.)  Likewise, we see a drug dealer with a Colt Woodsman, another semi-auto pistol.


Era Two – Transitional Years

Lethal Weapon (1987) – In the seminal work that came to utterly define the buddy cop genre, the clash between “old timer” and “young kid” was played out both in the dynamic between Mel Gibson and Danny Glover’s attitudes and also seen in their choice of firearms.  Young Officer Riggs’ Beretta 92F stood in stark contrast to the aging Det. Sgt. Murtaugh’s Smith & Wesson model 19.  The rest of the film featured a mix of assorted revolvers and automatics in the hands of both criminals and law enforcement alike… bearing witness to the changing trends at this time.

Point Break (1991) – Another film to take the same angle as Lethal Weapon, here we see the fresh-faced FBI Agent Utah (Keanu Reeves) with a SIG P226, the flagship pistol from the line of guns that would come to define the entire Bureau, while his haggard and long-serving partner carried a Charter Arms Undercover (a revolver).  Also, much as with Lethal Weapon, other criminals and police are seen with a mixed assortment of both revolvers and semi-auto pistols.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – One more film in our list highlights the shifting tide towards the adoption of semi-automatic pistols that took place in the late 1980s.  The leading actor in this film, Jodie Foster, was always seen carrying a Smith & Wesson model 13… which in reality was the last revolver model to ever be issued by the FBI.  Regular police officers also carry Smith & Wesson revolvers, but SWAT personnel are shown with Browning Hi-Power pistols and an FBI agent in charge of a Hostage Rescue Team is shown with a Heckler & Koch P7 pistol.


Era Three – Pistols for All

Traffic (2000) – By the close of the 20th century, Hollywood was accurately portraying the almost total market penetration that semi-auto pistols had achieved in America.  During the film Traffic, virtually all parties on both sides of the law were seen carrying pistols: a Colt automatic carried by Mexican police, an H&K automatic carried by a drug dealer, SIG automatics carried by assorted drug criminals, Glock model 17 and 19s carried by police and DEA respectively, SIG P228s carried by police, and even a hitman was shown with a modern H&K USPc.  The only revolver in the film (a briefly-seen Smith & Wesson model 66) was carried by poor drug dealer in a ghetto neighborhood… a no doubt deliberate choice on the part of the film’s propmasters and armorers who were attempting to highlight this street criminal’s limited means and low status.

Training Day (2001) – A modern twist on the “young rookie paired with edgy veteran cop” genre, now in the 21st century we see both Ethan Hawk and Denzel Washington with semi-auto pistols (a Beretta 92F and a Smith & Wesson 4506, respectively).  Other Berrettas and Glock pistols are shown in the hands of both police and criminals.  Additional police carry SIG pistols, as well.  Almost identical to the film Traffic, mentioned above, the only revolver shown is a Smith & Wesson model 19 snubnose… seen in the hands of a street criminal.

The Departed (2006) – As the start of this film focuses a great deal on officers in the field and in the Police Academy, there are numerous shots of SIG P226s (this pistol has been standard-issue for the Massachusetts State Police since 1987) and an Astra A-100 pistol. A Walther PPK pistol is seen being used for undercover carry, and a Barretta Cheetah pistol is carried by the crime boss in the city of Boston.  The only revolvers in the film are carried by two very old-time criminals: a Colt Python revolver and a Smith & Wesson revolver.


Will the Trend of Modernization Continue?

Whether the changing tastes of American gun-buyers can be said to have been directly influenced by their local police officer friends or whether popular cinema was driving this trend (and, as we have seen, in such a case Hollywood was truly just mirroring the very real shifts in police culture throughout the latter part of the 20th century) it is undeniable that nowadays, purchases of new guns by civilians tend to be overwhelmingly of the semi-auto pistol variety.

Any misgivings or imperfections in this design of handgun have all but completely faded away, and in the modern landscape of small arms the venerable revolver is now resoundingly classified as an historical novelty.  Nothing to be dismissed, of course — plenty of people will continue to rely on revolvers that have been in their possession or in their family for years and years to come, there is nothing wrong with that — but clearly this technology has been eclipsed by modern, short-recoil pistol designs.

So what of smart guns? Will they be the next major trend in handgun adoption?

Image of a prototype smartgun, with circuitry in the left side grip.


Close-up photo of the circuitry of a prototype smart gun.


Make no mistake, the concept of smart guns is not going away.  Unlike other schemes to modernize handguns in a attempt to either make them safer or less useful to criminals (micro-stamping comes to mind as one of the most ill-conceived and unfeasible ventures that came and went in history), smart gun technology represents an area where there will be continued research for many years to come.

Indeed, it is quite possible that if this sort of firearm design can be proven reliable — it will have to be sufficiently-demonstrated to critics that not only will it prevent unauthorized use, but it will also NOT suffer from unexpected failure-to-fire… this second consideration will be a MUCH higher hurdle for smart guns to surmount in the eyes of skeptics — I predict that one day we might see smart guns adopted by police departments or prison officials.

Would such a shift in police firearm usage be mirrored in the civilian market much like previous trends were?

Not a chance.


Your Uniform and Your Daily Carry

Why do I feel so strongly that smart guns will never make the slightest dent in the civilian market even if they are widely-adopted by police?  Simple: Below you see a depiction of a typical police officer and their interaction with their handgun.


Police officers have a daily routine with the following important characteristics:

  1. They often wear the same uniform consistently while on duty (even if this “uniform” is a suit or civilian attire if they are not a patrol officer)
  2. There is a very real chance that they will have to use their gun on any given day
  3. The vast majority of uniformed officers wear their sidearm prominently, in plain view (where it might be sized by a criminal)
  4. The profession of Police Officer is one which routinely involves encounters with criminals, potential criminals, or other unknown parties who might do harm

In short, individuals working in Law Enforcement are more likely than civilians to actually need to use their guns and they are far more likely than civilians to be wearing a standard set of clothing and equipment should such an occasion come to pass.  The notion of remembering to wear an RFID enabled wristwatch or ring is not that great an encumbrance if your daily routine consists of putting the same clothes, belt, gear, hat, and badge that you wear every other workday.

Another consideration is that if you are serving in the company of other officers, it is overwhelmingly likely that all parties have their own personal firearms.  Sharing or swapping guns might take place on the range… but in the field everyone relies on the firearm at their side.


Contrast that with the most typical way in which a private citizen is likely to make use of a gun…


Most citizens’ lives are nothing like the daily routine of a police officer:

  1. They wear whatever attire is comfortable and best-suited to their business that day
  2. Most citizens do not plan their day around the idea of having to use their gun
  3. Almost no citizens choose to open-carry a firearm, particularly in high-crime areas
  4. Most people lead quiet, simple lives and for them the possibility of being in a dangerous or violent encounter is quite remote

It’s complicated enough for some people to remember to transfer their wallet or mobile phone to their other pants, let alone thinking about putting on a special wristband in case you have occasion to need your firearm. This is to say nothing of concept illustrated by the above photo… someone who is awakened by a threatening noise late at night and might be wearing almost nothing at all.  Even people such as myself who regularly make use of their right to carry a concealed weapon do not go around thinking (in spite of what some extreme anti-gun folk might believe) “today’s the day I might need to pull this gun out and use it.”  Since concealed carry is far and away the norm for private citizens, the risk of someone flagrantly and brazenly stealing someone’s gun off their hip is remote.

Perhaps the most stark contrast between the lives of police and citizens when it comes to the use of guns, however, involves the likelihood of a privately-owned firearm being accessible to more than one party.  I grew up in a home with guns.  Everyone living in that house knew about said guns and everyone was more than adequately versed in shooting those guns.  In the confusion and stress of the very unlikely scenario in which a homeowner’s gun might have to be loaded and trained on an intruder, it is often very unpredictable as to who exactly would be holding it.  A husband or a wife?  A boyfriend or a girlfriend?  Even a son or daughter… all are equally-valid possibilities depending on the circumstances.

From the time I first moved out on my own, I have had one particular rule about the protection of my house: there will always be enough guns for each person living there to wield one shotgun and one handgun.  After moving into the current rowhome where I now live in West Philadelphia, I continued with that metric.  I purchased an additional shotgun.  I also made certain that the other two housemates knew how to safely operate the defensive firearms in the house.  My girlfriend has been staying with me more often.  I made certain that she was fully-versed in the operation of my Mossberg 590A1 shotguns (her family preferred Remington 870s when she grew up).

No lesson was needed on any of the handguns since she has been shooting since she was a girl.  She is more than familiar with revolvers, but her carry piece is a semi-auto pistol, just like mine.  Well, not just like mine.  I own H&K USP compacts.  She carries a Walther.  No, it is not a PPK.  :-)

In short, the fact that a violent encounter is far less likely for a private citizen coupled with the fact that the use of a firearm is far more likely to be during an unpredictable situation makes RFID-enabled smart guns wildly unsuited for private citizens… especially in the home.

Some of these arguments would be countered if all smart gun technology used biometric features as opposed to a wristwatch or ring, as long as it would be possible for the owner to easily enroll and/or delete however many authorized users they wish.  Still, even then, I would predict more resistance than adoption.

Would citizens accept smart guns for daily carry if they exercise that particular right?  I certainly don’t think so.  There are two reasons, and both relate to economics.

1. Smart guns, if they are ever suitable for general use, are inevitably going to cost more.  Police Departments might have the budget to offset this consideration, but private citizens don’t.

2. Furthermore, since for many private individuals their carry gun is also their home defense gun, the choice to use a smart gun when out and about would mean severely compromising one’s defensive possibilities within the home (unless, of course, everyone with a carry permit also chose to purchase additional guns… some for outdoors and some for keeping at the ready in the home.)


Smart Guns as a Part of Other Uniforms

Will the military ever adopt smart guns?  If my answer to the civilian question was “no” then my answer to the military question is “hell no!”  While you might think that soldiers have more in common with police than citizens, especially as the above-listed comparison points are concerned… in actuality their situation is wildly different from all others.  Let’s consider men and women serving in the armed forces and how they rely on their firearms.

A soldier firing his Beretta M9 pistol


Military personnel have a daily routine with the following characteristics:

  1. They almost always wear the same uniform consistently while serving
  2. There is a very real chance that they will have to use their gun on any given day
  3. The vast majority of soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen wear their sidearm prominently, in plain view
  4. Serving in the military (especially while deployed) routinely involves encounters with those who might do harm

At first glance, that list reads like almost a perfect and direct parallel to the Police Officer daily routine described above.  So, then, why wouldn’t smart guns apply in this situation?  Let’s delve a little more deeply and the answer should become very apparent.

Yes, military personnel often wear the same uniform everyday.  Indeed, they are regularly held to a much more strict grooming standard than LEOs serving state-side and they typically equip their belts and vests with far more gear than law enforcement officers do.  But, a great deal of this happens in-theater, far from reliable supply lines and the comforts of society.  If RFID technology is operating with the use of extra batteries, for example, this small consideration could prove unbelievably difficult when serving in a forward area.  It was hard enough for many serving in Iraq and Afghanistan recently to obtain adequate power for the night vision and thermal sensors… imagine the consternation among soldiers forced to harass supply officers and make trips to the PX just to ensure that their duty weapons would fire!

Also, while there is a chance that police officers will use their gun on any given day, many LEOs go from the academy to retirement without ever firing a single bullet outside of a police range during training and qualification.  Active-duty military, particularly those serving in forward areas, are rarely so insulated from confrontation.  Having a reliable weapon that will work each time & every time is an essential component of their life.  The armed forces are not likely to adopt any firearm that has even the slightest chance of malfunctioning in a way that prevents it from firing.

While men and women serving in uniform prominently wear their firearms on the outside of their outfits, one can see that the possibility of a bad actor getting close enough to abscond with one is quite remote.  Not only are potential hostiles kept well out of close proximity to soldiers, but military personnel are well-versed in hand-to-hand combat… any attempt to snatch something from them — particularly a weapon — is all but suicidal.

Above and beyond all other considerations, however, is the simple fact that service in the military — particularly during a time of conflict — is a chaotic and unpredictable affair in its harshest moments.  Unclean conditions, dirty uniforms, sweat, and even blood smeared across an individual’s hands are routine as he or she trains a weapon upon enemy forces.

USMC 1st Sgt. (now Sgt. Maj.) Bradley Kasal is assisted out of a house in Fallujah. Despite being shot with seven rounds from an enemy AK47 and being littered with shrapnel from a grenade blast, he still clutches his Beretta M9 pistol and Ka-Bar knife.


Unless ordered, there is no retreat during combat.  Often there are no additional forces to muster from a few blocks away, as with police.  In the absence of backup, soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen continue to fight while injured, while wounded, and even while clinging to life.  If someone falls in the heat of battle, they are treated as rapidly and effectively as medical personnel can manage… and if they are combat-ineffective it is not unthinkable that their own firearms could be handed to others in their unit, who seek to lay down fire and repel hostiles until the engagement is concluded.

In a situation like that — where one must make every shot count and it’s entirely possible to be gripping the weapon of a brother- or sister-in-arms with bloodied, sand-caked hands — you’d better believe no single person in uniform (from the ground-pounders and grunts to the top brass) is the slightest bit interested in new technologies that might make a firearm marginally safer if there is even so much as a one in a million chance that it would fail to perform when needed most.


So What Will the Future Hold?

All in all, the idea of smartguns intrigues me.  There may be at time when they are widely-adopted by police departments.  I think the most interesting potential pertains to correctional officers.  They will never be used in the military.  And as for private citizens?  While I don’t ever foresee laws that would prevent purchase or ownership (concerns about reverse-engineering and criminals attempting to design technologies to defeat them are too remote… but the idea of a Denial of Service attack against such guns is terrifying to me as I imagine squadcars all arriving on the scene of a bank robbery only to find all officers’ guns not working) I would not expect private citizens to adopt these guns.

Gun culture in the United States is deeply steeped in traditions relating to preparedness, self-reliance, and the protection of property and loved ones.  Asking private citizens to rely on a technology that offers only the slightest of benefits while resulting in some very real risks and pitfalls is a tough sell.  (The most die-hard and extreme members of the gun community are not sportsmen, but the survivalist/prepper types… you go ahead and try to sell them on the merits of a firearm that wouldn’t work in the event of an EMP blast.)  Any attempt at mandating smart gun use legislatively would be akin to asking citizens to turn in all of their existing firearms… and we all know that will never happen, or at least such a directive would never be complied with.

Up until now, all of the changing trends in police firearm ownership and use have been mirrored in the civilian market because of how closely paralleled the interests and aims of those two groups tend to be.  Smart gun usage, if it ever becomes mainstream for police, will not see a similar adoption because of the very significant ways in which private citizens’ lives are distinct from those of police.


Deviant Ollam is a security contractor from Philadelphia whose company provides services and training to both the private market and to government agencies.  He has worked directly with police, military personnel, the FBI, the NSA, and given guest lectures to the cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point. His grandfather was an enlisted sailor in the United States Navy, serving in the Pacific theater during World War II, and he then worked as a Special Agent for the Federal Government until his retirement.  Deviant’s father was an officer in the United States Army who served during the Vietnam Conflict, later discharging to focus on the building of a private dental practice in New Jersey.  Dev’s mother was a Registered Nurse for much of her life, and she wishes he was more widely-known by his given name as opposed to this silly hacker moniker.

Deviant has written multiple books and articles about physical security, lockpicking, and firearms and is a regular speaker at security conferences on these topics, as well.  He likes both scotch and bourbon and will surely exchange small bottles of either for a spot on the firing line at the annual shooting event he runs in the Nevada Desert each summer.




In the wake of the explosions that rocked the finish line area of yesterday’s Boston Marathon, there has been much commentary and reporting. Of course, because not all of the data is available yet — indeed, precious little is known, other than the fact that the casualty count was mercifully low — much of the “reporting” of this tragic affair has been only a recounting of the shock and horror experienced by those who were there. We have a large pool of photographs and video footage from the scene showing the devastation, but little in the way of hard evidence or reflective commentary.

The other night on Twitter, I got caught up in a brief back-and-forth with a Tara Murtha, a journalist whom I know and respect but with whom I sometimes do a bit of intellectual sparring. That was not our aim that evening, and we quickly acknowledged that in the wake of a tragedy it was not wise to attempt higher debate… nor were we actually approaching the matter from wildly differing viewpoints. The discussion between us started when she linked to an entry on the Boston Globe site.

Something about the way the piece was framed on didn’t sit well with me…



… and perhaps I caught some people off-guard when I commented that the “sensationalistic” nature of that entry didn’t sit well with me. Tara — being so intimately a part of the media apparatus in this country — seemed to take exception. She pointed out that the page was simply displaying photographs from the incident… “taking us there” in the only way that journalists could at the present time, given the lack of any other facts. I pointed out as quickly as I could that I had no problem with photojournalists and their work, nor would I ever advocate for censoring the press or withholding details of events, no matter how tragic. Still, I couldn’t get past the fact that something in the reporting was not sitting well with me.
Today, may of us in the tech and security community spent time reading and forwarding around an excellent piece by respected security guru Bruce Schneier. He spoke of how the right course of action is to “empathize but not be terrorized” when we deal with what took place in Boston. After reading that piece, I got a better handle on my thoughts… so I figured I’d share them here.

In the past, Bruce has made a remarkable point about the word “security” and the notion of “being secure”… and how due to a linguistic limitation of English, there are multiple concepts which get represented by this single term. To say that someone is “secure” can mean that they feel safe and sound, or that they actually are protected against harm. Those of us who work in this field know all too well that merely thinking you are safe doesn’t mean you are actually doing anything to make yourself safe. [insert TSA-related commentary here, if you are at a cocktail party]


Today, I started to think about the word “terror” in a similar context. It appears in many of our discussions, headlines, and political speeches in this modern age. And yet, there are a variety of ways that we can interpret the use of this term.

Terror is often thought of as a tactic… employed by terrorists who seek to practice terrorism.

And, yet, for many people “terror” is also a result of these acts. It is the outcome of such attacks, that perpetrators seek to bear upon the masses who were targeted.

That paradox of language is what was so unsettling to me when I viewed much of the news coverage on the evening of Patriot’s Day. To say, in bold headline font, that there was “Terror at the Boston Marathon” could be to convey distinct points.


As a tactic employed by awful people, yes… by all currently-accepted accounts there was “terror” that day. Innocents civilians were targeted and harm was carried out upon the populace.

But, as an expected result desired by the attacker(s)… I would hope that there wasn’t much terror in Boston. Amid the remarkable reports of responders, volunteer staff, and even just mere citizens rushing forward into the fray in order to help others we saw very few people acting in fear. Cowardice was surely NOT the order of the day after the explosions rocked the pavement. On the internet and among phone calls and text messages, I saw a great outpouring of support and dynamic reaction in the form of people helping to spread news of who was safe, where people should go, and even how outsiders could play a role in recovery efforts that very evening (i.e. – stories of where and how to donate blood).

As a city, as a county, and as a people we were all targeted yesterday. Terror was employed in Boston. But I like to think that as Americans we are far too strong for it to have been present at the Marathon that afternoon.



Epilogue – All in all, I must point out that I feel much of the reporting has been decent in the wake of this tragedy. It would appear that many news outlets and editors are at least somewhat familiar with the “three rules of reporting on terrible events” which were recently reiterated by the folks at Reason.

While I understand the desire to write attention-grabbing headlines which plaster the word “terror” in tall, bold font (particularly after the Obama Administration finally alluded to that terminology after carefully avoiding it during the President’s initial reaction speech) I am much more pleased by the outlets who take a more subtle and measured tone. Reporting on the “Bombing of the Marathon” or the “Tragic Events in Boston” is what I much prefer seeing.

My preference is not borne out of a desire to see the press censored or even sanitized in the interest of decorum… but simply because this makes all of the reporting totally unambiguous when it comes to the awful events that day. While terror may have been employed, I prefer to see the story told in a context wherein the people of this country didn’t have their resolve shaken.

We are still the home of the free and the land of the brave, and no assholes with pressure cookers in backpacks are going to change that anytime soon.




Gun loophole closed by Pa. Attorney General” was the subject line of many emails which hit my inbox this morning, as friends and associates forwarded the latest news surrounding concealed carry legislation and the state of Pennsylvania. As you might imagine, I read with interest the details of the latest action from Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s office. You will not be surprised, I presume, that my initial reaction was one of skepticism, given the use of a particular buzz word in that headline.

“Loopholes” tend to be quite the political hot button. Whether you’re talking about tax policy, immigration, drug laws, or even firearms… one person’s “loophole” is often similarly viewed as someone else’s hoop through which they have been forced to jump in order to achieve some necessary end.

Citizens concerned with tax-dodging corporations speak of loopholes and fiscal havens in the Caribbean, even while Fortune 500 firms pay heaps of money to accountants for navigating the waters of the tax code. Isolationist politicians rail at the podium about foreigners “gaming the system” in order to exploit easy avenues to citizenship while at the same time reform-minded activists share stories of the epic struggle that other immigrants go through in their attempt to become Americans. Drug warriors decry medical marijuana laws as loopholes that users can jump through in their pursuit of the ills of intoxication while progressive doctors bemoan the struggle they face in an attempt to offer medicinal THC in a legal manner. And, yes, those of us who are no stranger to the debate surrounding guns face similar lexical doublespeak, on both sides of the issue.

My first post to this blog was one that has seemed to appeal to a surprisingly wide audience. People on both sides of this dialectic have written to me and been thankful for the effort I put into keeping the words as level-headed and emotion-free as possible. I will endeavor to continue that trend with this post, as well… although some in the gun control camp will surely notice a bit more of my personal views leaking out (it is harder to avoid since this post includes anecdotes from my own personal life) but I would urge those readers especially to continue on, so that they might reply to me after taking a look at the entirety of what I wish to ask.


Our new Attorney General

From the above-linked article…

The Florida gun loophole, which allowed Philadelphia gun owners to skirt the city’s strict handgun-carrying rules, was closed today by Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane. Florida gun permit holders in Pennsylvania now must be legal residents of Florida.

“This is a significant step toward making Philadelphia, and the entire Commonwealth, safer for all residents,” said Mayor Michael A. Nutter. “Modification of the firearm reciprocity agreement with Florida will ensure that all citizens with Concealed Carry Permits in Pennsylvania have met the standards set forth by our great state.”

Florida gun permit owners in Pennsylvania have 120 days under the agreement to obtain a Commonwealth-issued concealed carry permit.

Attorney General Kane’s recent actions do not come as a surprise to those of us who have been following Pennsylvania politics lately, but they are a bit disheartening, at least to me. Cut to: three months ago.

I was very pleased at the particularly clean campaign that both sides ran in the Kane/Freed AG’s race, and was fully prepared to vote for Ms. Kane on the 6th of November. In spite of those who felt she lacked experience — a charge that I did not believe was fully valid — she was far and away the better candidate as far as individual liberty is concerned. David Freed’s support of Pennsylvania’s VoterID law, his awful stance on women’s rights and marriage rights, as well as his party-line statements on the Drug War were all ways in which his platform was not in line with my own views.

However, Sunday evening — less than 48 hours before voters were headed to the polls — Kathleen Kane’s campaign released a very pointed TV spot attacking the current firearm laws and policies of the state of Pennsylvania. I found this shocking. I believe that at the time the political landscape of PA had Ms. Kane ahead by something like 8 or 9 percentage points. I sat and wrote a long, distraught letter to her campaign, expressing my sadness for being reduced to casting a 3rd party vote. (Although in the end, I was perfectly fine with my choice to vote for Marakay Rogers.)

Still, in spite of her last minute campaigning, many of us in Pennsylvania are rather surprised at this move from the Attorney General. For now, I’ll put on hold any discussion of the fact that what Ms. Kane’s office has done may not even be legal, and simply focus on why this whole matter seems to be primarily an issue of politicians attempting to put forth solutions in the absence of a problem.


The Florida loophole

Right off the bat, let me state plainly and clearly that I am not a fan of the current patchwork that is the Concealed Carry system in the United States. One of the fundamental aspects of our nation is that citizens have the freedom to travel state to state, anywhere within our borders, and encounter equal treatment under the law. Obtaining your driver’s license in Iowa means that you can drive a car in Michigan. Getting married in Nevada means that you’re recognized as married in Kansas (some exceptions have arisen due to legislative upheaval over LGBT unions as that issue started making headlines in recent years). And committing a crime in Oregon means that you can be arrested in Kentucky. Yes, where your feet are currently planted on the ground means you might face different speed limits, tax brackets, or prison time in the above examples… but you can usually be assured that who you are and what you’ve achieved as a citizen will follow you across state lines.

The matter of firearm possession and carry is not treated this way in the United States. And, due respect to my states’ rights supporting friends, I would be in favor of some degree of normalization of our policies if it were to allow citizens greater flexibility and freedom from encumbrance as they seek to obey our nation’s gun laws. As the system stands right now, even the most dedicated citizens — who take the time to remain abreast of current legislation and stay informed about reciprocity agreements — can find themselves in danger of failing to comply with this policy or that policy.

The part of this whole matter that is truly frustrating to me, however, is the fact that this assorted patchwork of laws and policies has given rise to the notion that while some states have “sensible” polices concerning Concealed Carry, there are “other” states elsewhere with “dangerously lax” laws. And it is these troublemakers from (spoken in one’s best Homer Simpson voice) out of state who could undermine the gentile fabric of one’s own locality.

The example of Florida is perhaps the most common refrain in this type of discussion.

Florida issues Concealed Carry credentials* to both state residents and also to non-residents. The process is the same for both parties, and it can be completed without an in-person appearance in the Sunshine State. The ability of citizens to complete this process via the mail is distressing to some, but those concerned citizens may not be aware that the process involves the same background checks, photo ID, and criminal investigation that is performed in all other states. In fact, Florida actually requires more of their applicants than some other states… Pennsylvania included.

* one other aspect of the fifty States’ disparate gun laws is the lack of a single, agreed upon term with regard to what paperwork citizens obtain when they seek to bear arms outside their homes or places of business. Terms like Concealed Carry Weapon permit (CCW or CCP), License to Carry Firearms (LTCF), Concealed Weapon Permit (CWP), and a slew of others are all virtually interchangeable… but that does not make discussion any easier. While there are those who feel very strongly that certain terms are superior to others — whether it’s best to speak of firearms specifically or weapons in general, or whether it’s healthier to consider the state giving permission or licensing this process — I tend to side step the whole syntactical issue and speak in the most general words possible. And i’m not even touching the matter of concealed versus open carry.

For many years now, Pennsylvania has honored the Florida Concealed Carry credentials since their process for handling applications and checking backgrounds was found to be adequate and commensurate with the Keystone State’s own policies. There are a few important points that should be mentioned at this time…

  • In many jurisdictions within Pennsylvania, applicants are similarly not required to appear in person and can handle the process through the mail.
  • Among the other states of the Union, each one is free to make the determination as to whether they will accept out-of-state firearm credentials, such as Florida’s. Also, Kathleen Kane’s actions are not unprecedented… some other states will only honor permits if held by residents of the issuing state.
  • The Florida process involves a mandatory training class and live-fire exercises to be completed in front of an authorized instructor. Pennsylvania has no such requirements.
  • In both Pennsylvania and Florida, the applicant’s fingerprints and government-issued ID are used to establish identity and the resulting Concealed Carry credential bears a photograph of the individual.
  • The Florida credential includes anti-tampering technology such as holographic elements. The Pennsylvania credential does not and is a simple laminated card.
  • Whether an individual is in possession of a Pennsylvania-issued credential, a Florida-issued credential, or similar ID from any one of the other twenty-five states which Pennsylvania recognizes… they still must obey all laws and policies specific to this local jurisdiction, regardless of the laws in their home state.
  • Both Florida and Pennsylvania are shall issue states, meaning that as long as the applicant does not fail to meet the necessary criteria, the state is obligated to grant their request in a timely manner.

Given the overwhelming similarity, then, between the PA and FL Concealed Carry credentials… why do we see this debate happening at all? Why would someone living in Pennsylvania opt to apply for a Florida Concealed Carry as opposed to the one available here? For most of us, it’s a matter of jumping through hoops.


My personal story

I obtained my Florida Concealed Carry credential when I was still a resident of New Jersey. I did this by attending a safety class, demonstrating competence with my firearm, and submitting all necessary paperwork and fingerprint cards (which were filled out by local police) to the proper offices in Florida. The process was rather effortless and not oppressively priced. The resulting ID issued to me was valid for use in 32 states. (Had I been a resident of Florida at the time, that number would have been 36.) I had to visit only one location (the local range where the class was offered allowed us to use their meeting room as we filled out the form and a police officer attended in order to process our fingerprint cards right there) and I spent little more than two weeks waiting for the final packet to arrive by mail. Since that time, I have renewed the permit through the mail and found things to be similarly straightforward.

When I moved to Pennsylvania, I sought to add the PA Concealed Carry credential to my wallet. The process for most Pennsylvanians is simple. Local Sheriff’s offices handle the paperwork (and can also fingerprint applicants) and since there is no training class or live fire requirement, little more is required short of a money order and passport-style photo. Philadelphia, however, is something rather different.

Here is where I would especially like my friends and associates who support tight gun controls to read my own anecdote carefully and then comment to me if they feel this is an appropriate way of handling the process.

Like all other applicants in Pennsylvania, I had to have my fingerprints taken. However, this must be done in-person at  the Gun Permits & Tracking Unit of the Philadelphia Police Department and nowhere else. (This unit, along with the rest of the Philadelphia Police, will refuse to issue fingerprint cards for other purposes, however. In order to renew my Florida permit I was obliged to take a day off and drive to a County Courthouse hours away just to have the local Deputies there ink my hands.) After waiting through long lines and being given a somewhat dizzying array of conflicting information, I was sent home to await additional instructions which would arrive by mail. Just inside of the state-mandated 45-day deadline, I was called back to the Gun Permits Unit to spend another unproductive day away from work, sitting in a hallway with scores of other citizens who could have all been easily accomplishing the same thing via mail. Ultimately, after spending much more time on the process while being subjected to fewer checks and tests than other jurisdictions require, I was given my Pennsylvania Concealed Carry credential. (Accompanying it was a set of paperwork which specified a number of erroneous laws and incorrect advice concerning carry of firearms in Pennsylvania. When I pointed these errors out to the desk clerk who had processed my file that day, she merely shrugged and offered no verbal response other than to grunt and direct me to the exit door with her eyes.)

Why would someone opt for Florida Concealed Carry credentials as opposed to the ones available through local channels? Some might call it seeking a loophole, but others could just as legitimately say that it’s simply appealing to jump through fewer hoops.


Do Florida’s laws make Pennsylvanians less safe?

So now we come to what I would hope might truly be the focus of most discussions surrounding this issue. Was it necessary for the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office to change our state’s reciprocity agreement with Florida?

The original article linked above states that some 900 city residents have chosen to obtain Florida Concealed Carry credentials as opposed to Pennsylvania ones. The wording does not make it clear as to whether any of these 900 citizens, such as myself, are holders of both credentials… but even assuming that none of them are (where this data comes from was not specified) fewer than 1000 people in a city of 1.5 million is six-one-hundredths of a percent. Hardly a significant data point, I would say. If there had been a series of cases wherein these out-of-state credential holders were found to be committing crimes or otherwise circumventing public safety laws, that would be one thing. But there is no such data.

Then we come to the real problem line of the news piece, which — again — was inserted without comment or substantiation…

Many of the permit holders previously were denied carry privileges by Philadelphia Police, which has that discretion under state law.

I find that making such a claim while reporting this story is especially misleading, and I would hope to discuss it in greater detail with the piece’s author, Sam Wood, if he is willing. Pennsylvania, as was mentioned earlier, is a “shall issue” state. Unless an individual is disqualified under the law (for being a felon, subject to a restraining order, or other such considerations to which no person could legitimately object) the state is obligated to process and approve their application.

There has been some reporting of a little-known provision in Philadelphia’s gun policies concerning the “character and reputation” of the applicant. In short, the Gun Permits Unit of the Philly Police will occasionally deny someone’s application based on rather nebulous and hard-to-refute terms. The article linked here mentions situations such as unpaid parking tickets. Other news reports I have read focus on matters such as friends or family members of applicants who may have had trouble with the law. Unfortunately, with all due respect to police officers and the sense of intuition and judgement which they naturally hone and develop through years on the Job, factors such as these have no place being considered under Pennsylvania law.

In reporting the above-linked story, local journalist Stephanie Farr was able to locate and interview nine separate individuals who have been denied the right to carry a firearm by the police, in spite of their clean criminal records and Concealed Carry credentials from other states. Would it be too much to ask for other reporters who detailed the story of Kathleen Kane’s latest decision to unearth a handful of examples, as well? If not the press, what about the Attorney General’s office itself? Surely if this problem is such a pressing matter as to demand the new AG’s attention less than a month into the start of her term there must be some evidence of an actual problem.


Firearm ID and Voter ID

Am I making too much of a stretch to compare the issue of Concealed Carry credentials and the new policies toward them with the contentious issue of VoterID laws? Pennsylvania has seen both of these matters appear prominently in the news now. And yet, in each case, hard evidence and examples of people gaming the system are hard to come by.

For all the talk of voter fraud in recent years, virtually no cases of it actually happening have been proven. The NAACP says only 10 in-person voter fraud cases have been proven nationally since 2000, a statistic that usually appears just about here in any discussion of this issue. (Of course, that does not mean that there aren’t more shenanigans happening on Election Day. I was born in New Jersey and dated Chicagoan for two years… I know a little something about corrupt politics.)

Likewise, the lack of any specific examples of citizens “denied in PA” who then obtained out-of-state Concealed Carry credentials surely does not mean this is a nonexistent issue. And, I would grant that local authorities are in a better position to judge someone’s known associates and civic habits than a faceless office worker at the Florida Department of Agriculture (that state’s issuing body).

However, in both cases, the onus should be on the reform-minded officials to clearly demonstrate the scope and effects of any current problem that they seek to address. New legislation and additional regulation (much like firearms) should be implements of last resort, which can only legitimately be brought out and wielded when there is clear and imminent danger that must be countered.

In the case of citizens who simply wish to exercise their voting rights or citizens who have grown wearing of jumping through hoops in the course of exercising their 2nd Amendment rights, I fail to see any of our political leaders showing any evidence at all of wrongdoing or criminal behavior.



Deviant Ollam has been a legal resident of New Jersey, Florida, and Pennsylvania during the course of his life and he currently holds Concealed Carry permits from the Keystone State, the Sunshine State, and others as well in an attempt to always stay abreast (if not out in front) of the the ever-changing laws surrounding the right to bear arms. He has carried firearms in 19 of the 37 states where he can do so legally, but never has a problem with leaving his pistol locked up at home when he visits his parents back in New Jersey for the occasional family dinner.