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In mid-November, Twitter follower Kevin Anderson asked me about a firearm lock box product called the GunBox.  Every now and then, because of my general interest in teaching and presenting about firearms and gun technology folk will reach out with such questions.  Often, the safe and lock box inquiries come my way because of a presentation I gave at DEF CON 19 regarding the relative security (or insecurity) of many popular firearm lock boxes.

According to the manufacturer’s web site, the GunBox “has cutting edge technology, state-of-the-art design, and incredible features that make safely storing firearms with quick access a reality” and it is “the ideal way to Defend Responsibly.”  As you will see from the analysis below, while the GunBox is as effective as any other low-cost firearm lock box (most of them retail in the $150 – $300 range and the GunBox is within this zone, albeit on the higher end) at preventing a toddler from accidentally laying hands on your gun and having a terrible accident, this is not at all suitable for long-term storage or for deterring criminals or even curious teenagers.

The staff who monitor the GunBox’s Twitter account were not keen on discussing how their hardware functions, but it becomes apparent from the moment that you open up this unit how their lock (and also the bypass/override method) works.  Honestly, this is the first thing you see when the lid is open.  I didn’t even have to take the internal compartment apart or pull back any rubber or plastic elements.  Because the bypass method is so painfully obvious, I do not have any real ethical qualms with documenting it here.  The manufacturer is more than adequately aware of how this works and (it would seem) has no plans to change how this feature (or “vulnerability” depending on your point of view)  is implemented.

 

Amazon has this item available via Prime shipping, so the unit actually beat me to my house.  I ordered it a couple of days before flying home from the Persian Gulf and it was there when I arrived.

gunbox01

Upon opening the unit, one immediately can see the latching mechanism that keeps it shut when closed and locked.  There is a small peg with a metal cone on its tip sticking up from the base…

gunbox03

… and this peg interfaces with a pair of sliding metal plates in the lid that form a hole which can expand and contract via spring pressure…

gunbox04

 

As the lock box can be closed simply pressing the lid shut, one can immediately discern that the metal plates slide apart simply by any force acting upon them.  The lock and circuitry mechanism is not needed to cause them to move…

gunbox05

gunbox06

 

As mentioned by the GunBox folk on Twitter, the unit ships with a small hex head Allen key which can be used to bypass the main locking mechanism and open the box if other methods fail to work.  While the conversation they had online was intentionally vague, they attempted to indicate that the Allen key was simply “the tool that is used” and they went on to state that “the manual override is not that simple.”  This is patently false.

Yes, the hex head bit is used to remove a small set screw in the bottom of the box, exposing the bypass hole.  After that, however, the same exact tool is inserted and simply wiggled from side to side.  That is all.  That’s the entire attack.  The shaft of the Allen key interacts with this small slot on the metal plates…

gunbox07

When we opened up the box and look at this, you can see that we figured it out in seconds.  The following video shows the process unfold.  Not only did we figure out the attack in short order, but it was trivial to perform.  It took me about 15 seconds to seat the handle of the Allen key in the correct slot, then 5 seconds later the box was open…

 

There were quite a few things that I found disturbing about this whole process…

1. This entire bypass process was monumentally trivial to discover and to perform.  The fact that anyone could speak of this as though it were some massive secret is astonishing.  The bypass hole and the slot in the plates where it is performed are immediately visible to anyone operating the safe or even just glancing at it when it is open.

2. There is no evidence at all that the bypass is used.  The small set screw could be secured with a tamper-evident seal (although, as The CORE Group will tell you, tampering with security seals is often a very valid attack vector, as well) and the safe doesn’t appear to have any logging functionality if the latch is released manually.

3. The unit does not alarm if the lid opens up without any valid credential or token associated with that event.  There is no reed switch or contact switch to tell the GunBox if the lid is open or closed.

4. In general, it was surprisingly hard to actually set off the “tamper” alarm at all.  I could not tell what manner of conditions cause it to beep, but as you can see in the video a lot of jiggling and banging did not set it off.  Apparently, only totally tipping the unit vertically seemed to cause the alarm for me.  Maybe I was doing something wrong.

5. The fingerprint reader and RFID tag appeared very unreliable in their operation.  Again, I’ll leave it to GunBox to respond… maybe I was making too many repeated attempts with fingerprints and mis-reads of the RFID tag and this caused some kind of delay/timeout period to trigger.  In general, however, I would most assuredly NOT trust my safety or my family’s security to this unit during a tense situation when a firearm was needed quickly.

6. The RFID technoloy used looks highly clone-able.  Babak is still in the Gulf for another week, but once he gets home we’ll test the RFID tokens out with his ProxMark.  I’ll wager dollars to doughnuts that these RFID credentials have zero protection against cloning and copying.  That will constitute Part Two of this review and analysis.

Beyond all that, the unit appears to be your run-of-the-mill firearm lock box.  It is spacious enough to store one (or more) pistols or revolvers of adequate size…

gunbox08

gunbox09

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… and I even hit on an interesting phenomenon: when I had two of my H&K pistols in this box together, they obscured and occluded the bypass hole and made it unfeasible to perform the manual override opening technique…

gunbox11

… of course, given how shaky the fingerprint and RFID readers were on the GunBox that I was testing, I don’t know how wise it is to lock up any valuable pistols with the override disabled.  ;-)

Honestly, though, if I were forced to choose between a lock box that offered almost no protection versus a box that was unreliable but had no override opening, I’d probably go with the latter.  I’d use some ThreadLock (the red permanent kind, not the blue light-duty variety) on that little set screw and feel a lot better about the unit.  But that’s if I were somehow forced to use this.  In the end, my plan will be to let my buddy tinker with the RFID controls, then box it all back up and return it to Amazon.

I’m much happier with my MicroVautlt and LockSĀF products, since I’ve modified their manual override locks for greater protection and robustness against attack.

That’s just my two cents.  Feel free to do your own testing and do whatever you feel is right and best for you and your loved ones.  Stay safe out there!

It’s Halloween and not April Fool’s Day, so hopefully you won’t take it as a gimmick when I say “I had a rather rewarding Twitter conversation recently” at the start of this blog post.  But I did.  This long collection of thoughts is my reply and follow-up to that dialog with some other folks since — as you’ll see — if I tried to shoehorn these comments into 140 character chunks I’d be kicked off of Twitter via the rate limits in their API.

It all began (for me) when my friend Laura (@soapturtle) retweeted something where the author C E Murphy (@ce_murphy) had linked to an article by Kat George (@kat_george)…

 

Six things you might not think are harassment but definitely are (because apparently we need to clear a few things up)

This article lists the following behaviors as unwelcome forms of harassment practiced by “sex pests” on our city streets…

  1. Telling someone to “smile”
  1. Saying “god bless you”
  1. Giving compliments
  1. Staring
  1. Speaking to someone who clearly does not want to be spoken to
  1. Becoming incredulous when you are ignored

 

While I found the main thrust of the piece to be very accurate and a good accounting of speech and actions that are totally creeper behavior, I (and apparently many other people) took issue with item #3… “giving compliments.”  One must presume that Ms. George was actually talking about “compliments that aren’t really compliments” but the tenor and tone of the article made it difficult to really gather where the author felt the line should be drawn.  For instance, Kat mentions that…

…we can receive compliments that are given out of kindness. For instance, there’s an elderly man who lives on my block and when I see him on the street and I’m dressed up to go out he’ll tell me I look lovely. He’s pretty much a stranger, I don’t know his name or anything else about him. But he’s not eye-fucking me when he says it, and there’s a sincerity in his tone

…and if that point were made more prominently, I feel that the whole piece could be received a little more easily.  However,  Ms. George calls that individual a “complete anomaly” and takes a much harsher tone elsewhere.  I and other readers who commented a bit started to fixate on other passages, such as…

Complimenting the physical appearance of a random woman on the street is not a compliment. Even if you think of it as a compliment, and think you’re being nice and that she should feel glad to have received your compliment, well, that view is indicative of a really problematic mindset that says your opinion matters enough for us to want to hear it.

The man “complimenting” her feels entitled to look at her, judge how she looks, force that judgment onto her, forcing her to internalize his view of herself. And if he feels entitled to her in those ways, where does it stop? Where is the line of entitlement drawn? Maybe that’s as far as it goes with this one person. But how does the woman know? How does she know that he doesn’t feel equally entitled to have sex with her or beat her or kill her, as some men do feel entitled to do to women?

Being complimented by a stranger for her nice dress or top is just as insulting as it is harassing.

Ultimately, the notion that we should all ignore our fellow citizens in the streets seemed to be the theme expressed.  I do not believe that was actually what Kat George was attempting to convey, but the wording grew particularly harsh and very concrete in some places…

It’s safe to assume that a vast majority of people don’t leave their house in the morning looking for a conversation with a stranger on the street.

Unless there’s something circumstantial that creates cause for polite conversation (the loose shoelace, for instance), there’s no reason to assume a woman would like to be spoken to

I would strongly encourage everyone to take the time to read fully through Kat’s piece, however.  Clearly, I am picking and choosing specific quotes from her article to illustrate a certain atmosphere that some sentences carried, but I don’t want to be seen as crafting her theme for her.  Read the whole piece, and see how it strikes you.

It moved me enough to reply on Twitter.

I responded to Laura and Ms. Murphy, registering my unease at the tone of defensiveness and dour attitude espoused in the article’s writing.  “Lines like ‘being a woman walking in the street, almost ALL uninvited attention from men is threatening’ make it hard for a lot of readers to accurately judge the tone of that piece. It’s easy to dismiss as alarmist,” I remarked (across a few tweets).

Laura encouraged me to see it more from the perspective of women, and Ms. Murphy made a more in-depth response…

But it’s true. Most uninvited attention is threatening. It’s not an alarmist statement to/from/by women.  I’m not trying to be difficult when I say that I assume from your userpic that you’re male, & that to me when you say “a lot of readers” it scans to me as “men” because most women wouldn’t find it alarmist, just accurate.

One problem is this: if a man grabs a woman’s ass, uninvited, he is presumed to be getting something out of it.  If a woman retaliates, i.e., grabs a man’s ass uninvited… he is presumed to be getting something out of it. The power dynamic there is always in the man’s favour, see? It’s the same with nearly any male/female interaction.

I genuinely appreciated these and other folks’ desire to respond and engage me on this topic, so I made the best attempt I could at replying with a few more tweets…

I’d love more dialog on this. And yes, I am male. :-)

I fear that my perspective on this is inherently flawed due to (a) being raised right, (b) the circles i’m in.  A number of other women have reached out to me, essentially saying, “the hacker world is not the same” etc etc.  Most of all, the small 140-char limit is poor for deeper discussions like this. I wish we could all hang out sometime.

While the limits of brief tweets and the lack of any facial expressions or body language injected into the social discourse can often lead to unnecessary ratcheting-up of emotions and unhelpful sniping, this was a really rewarding conversation and we both agreed that it would be good to attempt fleshing out of our thoughts a bit more via some other medium.  Ms. Murphy made the following comments back to me which I found deeply rewarding.

“It’s really heartening to have an interaction with someone like you. So seriously, thank you. Also, do you guys mind if I blog about this conversation? … I’d like to talk about it.”

That’s wonderful, in my view.  I find it very heartening when brief chatter can turn into a real dialog and no one resorts to ad hominem attacks or being needlessly catty or rude.  I later emailed Ms. Murphy, offering up some of my own words and thoughts.  And now I’m sharing them here… because Twitter would most assuredly not suffice for the torrent of commentary I had on this topic.

 

My response to Six things you might not think are harassment by Kat George…

While most men (or just about any people who would attack the position voiced in the article) probably hold opinions of the unhelpful “ah, speech is speech, just ignore it or toughen up” variety, I feel that my take on the matter is somewhat different.

Let me be clear from the start that I hold deeply passionate libertarian views and therefore part of me really does believe that on a fundamental level, society is best governed by the old adage “free speech stops where the fist meets the face.” One can rant and rave and get right up in someone’s mug but unless they actually touch the person or directly impact them physically, I’m loathe to see legislation that would curtail the behavior of the offending party. (That’s not to say societal norms shouldn’t put pressure on them… I’m just being clear that being an asshole shouldn’t be a crime, in my view.)

However, I think a different streak of my libertarian persona is actually driving my feelings on this topic. It’s more akin to the “someone else’s bad behavior is not adequate reason to curtail my liberty” kind of thinking. Allow me to approach the topic from a wholly other perspective for a moment… the realm of intoxicating substances. It may further make me look like an extremist libertarian whackjob to say it, but I’ve believed in decriminalization of nearly all drugs and alcohol for quite some time. The freedom of an individual to put whatever they want into their body and alter their consciousness as they see fit — even to their own detriment — is something that I see as their own choice which should not be impeded by the state. Again, societal norms and pressure from friends/family are wholly appropriate means of attempting to affect someone’s decisions, but law enforcement and criminal penalties are not, in my view.

“But what about the rife problem of addiction and negative behavior that society faces!” comes the criticism in retort. “From drunk driving to broken homes to abuse to school drop-outs to blah blah blah on down the line…” runs the list of ills that we face when people become dependent upon and ultimately abuse alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and the like. I do not deny this, but (and now we finally come to my key point) I see myself as a responsible person. I see myself as in control. I see myself as a fully free agent capable of (and by right entitled to) making my own decisions, including decisions about substance use. In short… “The bad behavior of other people — including law-breaking people — is not sufficient grounds to curtail my own behavior, especially since I am decent and law-abiding” is my philosophy.

Often innocent people (or, phrased another way, people who are not posing or doing any harm to others) are the ones most impacted when calls are voiced for limiting behavior or speech in some manner. Since there are far more decent people in the world than bad people, inevitably new regulations or attempts at curtailing behavior wind up impacting good people more than bad ones.

1. People use alcohol
2. Some people abuse alcohol
3. Alcohol is made illegal
4. Now no one (ostensibly) gets alcohol
5. A few bad people are (again, in theory) denied alcohol
6. Far more good people are denied alcohol
——————–
Net Result: more harm done to society than ill prevented

Side Result: step 5 doesn’t work well and plenty of “bad” people are still drinking and causing trouble

I think that people like me see the tenor and theme of many articles like Ms. George’s as almost advocating the notion that “men should never talk to women whom they don’t know on the street” and this, of course, leads people to the following logic…

1. People talk while out in public
2. Some jackoffs talk abusively and harrassingly
3. People are told “don’t talk to others whom you don’t know”
4. Now no one (ostensibly) speaks to women they don’t know
5. Maybe some jackoffs shut up (but probably won’t)
6. Mostly, this just prevents normal societal intercourse while out in public
—————–
Net Result: streets are actually a LESS friendly place for all citizens

Side Result: women’s interactions with others now actually tend to seem /more/ hostile and unfriendly because good folk are encouraged to stay silent but assholes will continue to be assholes.

Ultimately, I think that as outsiders reading a piece like this, we come away with the impression that the author and those like her advocate a rule of thumb being, “When out in public, just don’t talk to women around you if you don’t know them… especially if you’re male.”

Aside from giving me visions of time spent in repressed Muslim countries, that kind of logic leads (in my view) to the problem described above: it just makes society a less friendly place and ultimately reduces how we can interact with one another. I would think that for maximum impact and greatest acceptance to all readers, articles like that one would do well if their overriding theme and take-away lesson was twofold…

1. If you see harassing or ungentlemanly behavior towards women (or, frankly, towards anyone else) on the streets or out in public, stand up to it. That applies to both men and women. Taking an active role in saying “this is not OK and you are a loser who is a joke to everyone else” has a real impact. It has the MOST impact if it comes from friends and associates of the asshole and they register their complaint directly and plainly to them.

2. Just as important, in my view, is “if you are NOT an asshole and not hitting on everyone you see, be friendly, polite, and open in your hellos and compliments to others… including women.” I see the solution as not less speech, but more speech. Specifically, good and kind speech.

I say hi to almost anyone I encounter while waiting for a trolley, standing in line, holding open a door. I say “how do you do” in a brief but friendly manner to others sitting in my row on a plane or riding the same elevator as me. And, yes, I frequently also compliment things about them. “That coat is exceptional… you don’t normally see people wear purple, but that really works on you!” or “Let me just say, those boots are really spot-on. Nice leatherwork!” and “Wow… you don’t see someone reading The Guardian often. Good choice! Who carries that around here?” are three examples of comments I made just yesterday. In all cases, it was clear that I was not hitting on anyone and had no expectation beyond brightening their day. In all cases, I was met with smiles and kind chatter back.

Yes, it is true that I tend to compliment women more than men. But that’s not an exclusive thing, and I like to believe I’m not doing it out of some position of sexual desire. I’ve told guys out in public that their jacket was kickass or that I liked the band or political sentiment represented on their shirt. I’ve done so on the streets of West Philly or in the Gayborhood on Pine Street. I treat all genders and orientations pretty much the same in my conversations because in all instances I am not interested in having anything to do with them without benefit of my pants.

So yes, that’s my main philosophy and it works for me…

1. Discourage assholes from assholin’ whenever you see it

2. Say hi to as many of your fellow citizens as you can and make it clear from your behavior that you’re not interested in immediately seeing them naked

… If more articles were to include that as their overall theme and not word things quite so much along the “leave women alone at all times because they are in constant danger and need to be insulated from men” kind of phrasing (yes, I’m over-dramatizing) then I think society would be a much better and happier place.

 

 

Incidentally, if I were ever afforded the chance to sit and chat in person with Catie Murphy or Kat George I would jump on that opportunity.  I’d even buy the first round.  ;-)  (OK, maybe this is the wrong time for that joke.)

Overall, I hope that this post just generates more positive discussion.  I also hope that my analysis above of Kat’s piece didn’t give the indication that I dislike her or find her to be wrong-headed.  It was just the manner in how she chose to speak that raised an eyebrow with me.  And this is expected, perhaps, given that when we write something with passion on a topic where emotions run high it is natural to speak with fervor more than finesse.

The bulk of Kat’s work appears to be delightful and enjoyable.  I’m eager to see future installments of “The Big Gulp” but I have thus far not experienced any of Catie’s creations as of yet.  At least one appears to involve handcuffs, however, so my interest is piqued somewhat on that front.

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

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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.

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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…

youtube

So hopefully that steered enough people to find this clip.

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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

offliberty.com 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

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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…

boarding

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?

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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!

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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:

@GunCrisisNews
Police: Vendor shoots woman at Pennsylvania gun show ow.ly/yzF74 #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:

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

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

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

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

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

@JimMacMillan
Not a crisis in itself but sometimes part of the larger crisis: bit.ly/1mUj5AE

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.

02

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…

04

05

… 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.

06

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…

07

08

…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…

09

…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

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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).

shooting

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”

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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!”

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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…

negligent

… 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…

 accidental

… 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.

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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…

table

… 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…

safe

… 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.

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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…

discharge

… 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”

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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.

 

SONS OF GUNS 2
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.

 

mossberg-inset-2
A SWAT police officer with a Mossberg 590  series shotgun

 

rk7i35
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.

 

original
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…

 

tacticool
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.

Sigh.

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…

 

ferarri01

 

… 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…

 

ferarri02

 

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.

03

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

01-colt38
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.

 

02-colt_detective
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.

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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.

 AIMM39pic
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.

 

03-beretta
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.

 

04-glock
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.

05-SIGp226
a SIG P226 – the pistol that became synonymous with law enforcement during my formative years

 

06-SIGp229
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.

 

07-glock22_gen4
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.

bullets_01
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

 

bullets_02
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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