Should your weird neighbor be allowed to mount a handgun on a drone and fly that drone around, firing the gun from midair via remote control? No, probably not. But there’s not much that you can do to stop him from launching his Glock-drone into the sky. The FAA does not specifically prohibit private citizens from owning and operating weaponized drones, and most states have not yet passed laws that would ban them. This is sort of scary, sure, but what can I say? It’s 2016 in America.
Now, the Connecticut state legislature is considering two bills that, if passed, would make it one of the few states in the country to specifically prohibit the operation of weaponized drones. They are good bills with one major flaw, which I’ll get to later. But, first, some context is in order. The Connecticut bill comes as a direct response to the flamboyant antics of an anti-authoritarian teenager. In July 2015, an 18-year-old Connecticut man named Austin Haughwout posted to YouTube a video of a drone he had rigged to fire a handgun from mid-air.
A few months later, Haughwout posted a sequel. This time, he had equipped a drone with a flamethrower, which he used to barbecue a turkey.
Interest in personal weaponized drones is staggering. This video has had over 30 million views since its upload April of 2012.
The videos racked up millions of views and nearly as many aggrieved comments from people who couldn’t believe that what they were seeing was legal. And yet Haughwout—a private citizen operating his contraption on his own property—claimed that he had violated no laws. The local police chief reluctantly agreed, telling CNN that “It would seem to the average person, there should be something prohibiting a person from attaching a weapon to a drone. At this point, we can’t find anything that’s been violated.”
What about the FAA? Surely there’s some federal statute that would explicitly prohibit weaponized drones, you might reasonably ask. Nope. The only FAA regulation that comes close to addressing this situation is this one:
No pilot in command of a civil aircraft may allow any object to be dropped from that aircraft in flight that creates a hazard to persons or property. However, this section does not prohibit the dropping of any object if reasonable precautions are taken to avoid injury or damage to persons or property.
But shooting isn’t dropping, as anyone who has ever fired a gun knows. Connecticut-based drone attorney Peter Sachs told me that Haughwout and others like him have been empowered by a regulatory gap. “All of these laws and regulations were created when drones were never even thought of, and they’re all based upon manned aircraft, aircraft that have human beings piloting them, inside of them,” Sachs told me.
In 2015, before Haughwout posted his first video, a bill to prohibit the weaponization of drones made it through the Connecticut state Senate, unanimously, before getting stalled in the House, which was too occupied with budget measures to consider the armed-drone bill before the legislative session expired. Now, the bill is back, but it differs from its predecessor in one critical and unfortunate regard. Whereas the expired bill explicitly stated that “A law enforcement officer shall not operate an unmanned aerial vehicle that is equipped with tear gas or any like or similar deleterious agent or a deadly weapon,” neither of its successors contain any language that would specifically prohibit law enforcement officers from using armed drones. And Sachs thinks that that’s a significant, and intentional, omission.
“They want to be able to shoot an aircraft out of the sky,” said Sachs. So basically, advocates of the law-enforcement exception would like to be able to use armed governmental drones to take down drones like Haughwout’s. But as Sachs points out, “The one thing they’re either not aware of or intentionally failing to mention is that that’s a federal felony.” Sachs is referring to 18 U.S. Code § 32, which prescribes up to 20 years in prison for anyone who willfully “sets fire to, damages, destroys, disables, or wrecks” an aircraft in flight. Federal law supersedes state law, after all. So even if Connecticut police were to use a weaponized drone to take down another drone, the relevant officer would risk being accused of committing a federal crime. And, according to Sachs, they would also risk violating federal law if they used non-lethal methods—like a trained eagle, or directed radio waves, or a big net—to disable or damage an errant drone. The discontinuity between state and federal drone regulations is aggravating and confusing. The federal government needs to step up with clear, comprehensive drone regulations soon.
I hope that Connecticut restores the clause keeping armed drones out of law enforcement’s toolbox, because in many ways I would find it even more alarming if cops were able to use weaponized drones but private citizens were not. Haughwout reminds me of one of my childhood friends, a good-natured pyromaniac who got me a copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook for my 12th birthday, had his own birthday party at a local military base, and would speak of his ambitions to one day lead a Ministry of Homemade Weaponry. My friend was just a rambunctious kid with an engineering mindset. I am much less threatened by people like him and Haughwout than I am by the notion of overmilitarized, undertrained police officers using weaponized drones for order-maintenance purposes, or to take down a drone recording a protest, or to disperse a crowd, or something like that.
“It’s all very troubling. No drone should be armed, period,” said Sachs. “The police can’t truthfully assert that it is careless and reckless to fly an armed drone and say that it’s not equally careless and reckless for a police officer do to the same. They’re both drones. They’re both armed. What’s the difference?”
This article is part of a Future Tense series on the future of drones and is part of a larger project, supported by a grant from Omidyar Network and Humanity United, that includes a drone primer from New America
Justin Peters is a Slate correspondent and the author of The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet.