Push for futuristic guns builds on embattled past

It sounds, at first, like a bold, next-generation solution: personalizing guns with technology that keeps them from firing if they ever get into the wrong hands.
Associated Press
Jan 28, 2013

But when the White House called for pushing ahead with such new technology as part of President Obama's plan to cut gun violence, the administration did not mention the concept's embattled past. As with so much else in the nation's long-running divisions over gun rights and regulation, what sounds like a futuristic vision is, in fact, an idea that has been kicked around for years, sidelined by intense suspicion, doubts about feasibility and pressure tactics.

Now proponents of so-called personalized or smart guns are hoping the nation's renewed attention on firearms following the Newtown school massacre will kick start research and sale of safer weapons. But despite the Obama administration's promise to "encourage the development of innovative gun safety technology," advocates have good reason to be wary.

In the fiery debate over guns, personalized weapons have long occupied particularly shaky ground — an idea criticized both by gun-rights groups and some gun control advocates.

To the gun groups, the idea of using technology to control who can fire a gun smacks of a limitation on personal rights, particularly if it might be mandated by government. At the same time, some gun control advocates worry that such technology, by making guns appear falsely safe, would encourage Americans to stock up on even more weapons then they already have in their homes.

Without the politics, the notion of using radio frequency technology, biometric sensors or other gadgetry in a gun capable of recognizing its owner sounds like something straight out of James Bond. In fact, it is. In the latest Bond flick, "Skyfall," Agent 007's quartermaster passes him a 9 mm pistol coded to his palm print.

"Only you can fire it," the contact tells the agent. "Less of a random killing machine. More of a personal statement."

In real life, though, there's no getting around the politics, and the debate over personalized guns long ago strayed well beyond questions of whether the technology will work.

Those were the first questions asked in 1994 when the research arm of the Justice Department began studying prospects of making a police gun that a criminal would not be able to fire if he wrestled it away during a struggle. Scientists at Sandia National Laboratories examined available technology in 1996 and found it promising, but wanting.

By then the notion of a safe gun had long captivated Stephen Teret, a former attorney and public health expert at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who had gone after automakers for not including air bags in their cars. In 1983, he got a call that the 22-month-old son of a couple he knew had been killed by a 4-year-old who found a loaded gun in a nightstand drawer.

"Very definitely, that was the genesis," said Teret, who went on to found Hopkins' Center for Gun Policy and Research. "Because when one thinks of something as a public health person the first thing is you're sick with grief and the second thing that comes to mind is why in the world would there be a handgun operable by a 4-year-old?"

Teret began trying to get lawmakers and gun makers interested in the concept of personalized weapons. He convinced U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colorado, to earmark funding for the Justice study. And in the mid-1990s he voiced support for a project at Colt's Manufacturing Co., the legendary but beleaguered gun maker that saw an opportunity to sell safe guns to police officers and parents of young children.

Colt's developed a gun equipped with a microchip that would prevent it from firing unless the user was wearing an enabling device located in a special wristband. But gun rights activists were skeptical, partly because the government was funding research of the concept and because gun control advocates like Teret embraced it. At about the same time, New Jersey lawmakers began discussing a measure requiring all new handguns sold in the state to be personalized, three years after the technology came to market. The measure passed in 2002.

Owners' skepticism was heightened in 1997 when Colt's CEO Ronald Stewart wrote an editorial in American Firearms Industry magazine calling on fellow manufacturers to parry gun control efforts by backing a federal gun registry and developing personalized weapons.

"While technology such as this should not be mandated it should be an option for the consumer," Stewart wrote. "If we can send a motorized computer to Mars, then certain we can advance our technology to be more childproof."

Stewart did not respond to a message seeking comment left at a Connecticut company where he now serves on the board of directors.

Soon after, the Coalition of New Jersey Sportsmen — a state affiliate of the National Rifle Association — began calling for a boycott of Colt's. It warned that personalized technology might make it difficult for gun owners to defend themselves and called the company's conduct "detrimental to American-style freedoms and liberties."

Stewart was replaced as CEO of Colt's in 1998 and the company eventually abandoned development of a personalized gun.

In 1999, New Jersey's lawmakers approved a grant to researchers at New Jersey Institute of Technology to study personalized gun technology. Those efforts focused on adding transducers to a gun's handle to detect the grasp of an authorized user. Meanwhile, the Justice Department offered a challenge grant to gun makers and although two responded, they made limited headway by the time $7 million in funding ran out.

Work on personalized weapons suffered another setback after gun rights' groups boycotted Smith & Wesson over a 2000 agreement it signed with the Clinton administration in which the manufacturer made numerous promises, including one to develop smart guns.

Meanwhile, the New Jersey school, funded by Congressional earmarks, tried repeatedly to find a commercial partner for its work. But even as NJIT bolstered the reliability of its prototype, which now has a recognition rate of about 97 percent, it found it a hard sell. Talks with a Florida gun maker at first seemed productive until industry activists pressured the company to back away, said Donald Sebastian, NJIT's senior vice president for research and development .

"Their claim that these are just blue state liberals looking to take your guns away, it just inflames people to not think a little more rationally," Sebastian said.

"Yes it's a frustrating experience, but we have to be adults," he said. "I think it's been a long lesson to learn that this intermingling of the concepts of gun safety and gun control are ultimately poison."

Mike Bazinet, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents gun manufacturers, said questions remain about whether the technology has been improved enough to assure police officers and civilians a personalized weapon would fire when they need protection. But there are also concerns "about individual consumers' ability to choose the firearm that they think is best for them," Bazinet said.

But gun makers and owners have not been the only critics. Activists from the Violence Policy Center, an outspoken gun control group, also spoke against personalized weapons.

"If a smart gun did exist what would its effect be, taking into consideration the nature of gun violence in this country?" said Josh Sugarmann, the group's executive director. "Would you place families at risk or people at risk by giving this impression that this is a safe gun? You know, people who wouldn't normally buy a gun, would they buy one now?"

NJIT's Sebastian, who joined a group of personalized gun advocates who met recently with Attorney General Eric Holder to push for their development, said his school has seen some renewed interest and is talking with officials at Picatinny Arsenal, which develops weapons for the U.S. military.

Meanwhile, two European companies working on personalized gun technology have their eyes on the U.S. market. One of those firms, TriggerSmart Ltd. of Limerick, Ireland, has developed a system using Radio Frequency Identification that would be built into the handle of a gun and triggered by a device the size of a grain of rice inside a user's ring or bracelet. Co-founder Robert McNamara said he is seeking to license the technology to a U.S. manufacturer, but is looking at the possibility of producing kits for retrofitting existing guns.

Another venture, Armatix GmbH of Unterfoehring, Germany, says it has developed a personalized gun, with settings based on radio frequency technology and biometrics, that was approved by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in late 2011. Armatix said it hopes to begin selling the gun as well as accompanying safety and locking systems in the U.S. this year, but would not provide details.

Teret, who long ago launched the campaign for personalized guns, acknowledged much has to happen before they become a reality. But the White House has promised to issue a report on the technology and award prizes to companies that come up with innovative and cost-effective personalized guns, and its interest has rejuvenated hopes that the gun of the future may actually have one.

"For 30 years, at best we've been inching forward at a glacial pace," he said. "And now this puts it up to warp speed."

 

Comments

Señor Clown

Here's a thought: Take responsibility for keeping your firearms secure and out of the hands of unauthorized users, and all of these stupid iGun™ and SmartGun® brainstorming sessions would be unnecessary. I certainly don't want to have to download an app for my phone to authorize others to use my gun - plain 'ol safes work just fine. Everyone keeps yelling 'Think of the children!', so I did - The children don't know the combination to the safe, and can't rack the slide on a 1911A1 anyhow.

Justme...

Clown obviously personal responsibility works. But we haven't had that since the beginning of time. That's why we have laws.

Bluto

As usual it all comes down to money . Industry yells jump and the sheeple politicians asks how high ? This tech has potential to make both safer weapons and big profit . In a perfect world of responsible gun owners these measures wouldn't be necessary , but in reality you can't trust people to do what's right.

The Answer Person

Will funding for the new guns be included in school levys?

The Hero Zone's picture
The Hero Zone

Regarding the police gun issue, I *think* I remember seeing or reading that police in Japan actually have a retractable wire going from their belts to the handle of their standard pistol. I don't know if it disables the gun if cut off, but that seemed like one way to almost literally "bond" the officer to his/her weapon.

Even with that example, standard gun/trigger locks, or advanced NFC/biometrics there will ALWAYS be a workaround by criminals or negligence by owners. It shouldn't discourage innovation but it shouldn't allow "us" as constituents or "them" as leaders to hold a piece of paper up and say "WE DID IT!".

beepx22

one argument a nice lady on twitter used with me was . "Well in the new james bond movie only he can shoot his gun" that's the anti-gun crowd for you, get most of their "facts and ideas" about firearms from Movies and TV's, where everyone has a machine gun, and ammo never runs dry. If you want to lobby against something take the time to learn about it.

Bluto

Did you not read the article ? This is not new . The tech has been around for awhile . It's not perfect yet , but could have been further ahead if the gun industry hadn't quashed it back in the late 90's . Besides a lot of the tech in movies eventually comes about . I see that scientist have developed a kind of tractor beam using light to attract objects . Like I said before , the industry feels it a threat to their profits , it disappears no matter how beneficial it's potential .

beepx22

I've been following this tech since the '90s, back when they couldn't get it to work past a few shots because of malfunctions. The idea of having a weapon for self defense is to have it work when you need it, not to have to put on your magic ring, and hope the battery in the pistol is good.

Bluto

I agree , but to not keep it in R&D was just so , short sighted of the industry . By now we could have worked out the bugs . and if it saved the life of just one child wouldn't it be worth it ?

gilamonster

Its all about money (and fear) you got that right. These devices could add at least $300 to a firearm and straight out of the gate have a failure record. Some of the systems are not waterproof, can’t be used with gloves, have the ability to be jammed, and take time to initialize. One failure in a critical situation and lawsuits will be flying. Several police agencies were involved in testing and none of them use the technology, just the opposite; some states passed legislation that exempts their police from using it if it comes about. Just like they originally claimed “keyless or key chips” made it impossible to steal high- end cars. A new study reports that it is now easier for thieves to steal them using a laptop and technology that extracts codes from RFD chips. Pretty said when the likes of Feinstein and her minions look at pictures of guns to weed out the scary looking ones; how exactly does a grip make my firearm more deadly? Here is an idea, punish the criminals like Eric Holder.