Missing from NRA plan: Smart gun technology

The political mood may be more favorable to smart gun safety technology

The National Rifle Association (NRA) today proposed placing armed guards at every U.S. school to safeguard against another mass shooting like the one that took place in a Connecticut elementary school last week.

"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre said during a lengthy statement today.

Although the NRA has in the past been open to the idea of smart gun technology to make firearms safer, it said nothing about that option today. The NRA has in the past never offered outright support for any legislation that would require smart gun technology in weapons manufacturing.

Smart gun technology was first proposed in the 1990s as a way to prevent police officers from being shot with their own weapons. At one time, as many as 40% of police shootings were attributed to the latter.

Smart guns use biometrics or RFID technology to prevent unauthorized people from using guns by disabling the trigger mechanism.

Under President Bill Clinton's administration, and for a time in the early 2000s, many major gun manufacturers had smart gun development programs, including Colt's Manufacturing Co., Smith & Wesson and Mossberg & Sons.

Between May 2000 and December 2004, the National Institute of Justice's Office of Justice Programs (OJP) granted Smith & Wesson $3 million in grant money to "test 50 prototype electronically-fired handguns and to research possible biometrics that would fit inside a handgun." But an audit performed in 2005 showed that the smart gun technology project had not been completed.

"We found that Smith and Wesson generally complied with grant requirements. We reviewed its compliance with six essential grant conditions and found material weakness in two of the six areas: budget management and control and grant drawdowns," an OJP memo stated. "As a result of the deficiencies identified below, we recommend $36,218 of grant funds be put to better use."

In the mid-1990s, Colt introduced a smart gun prototype using a $500,000 OJP grant. A few years later, it released the Z-40, a semi-automatic pistol with a microchip embedded in its pistol grip. The chip used RFID technology in the form of a radio wrist transponder to prevent unauthorized users from firing the weapon.

According to a November 2000 research paper by the Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Colt also hoped to develop a consumer model that relied on "cutting edge technology, such as skin conductivity, voice, and/or fingerprint recognition."

Colt's iColt subsidiary -- and its pursuit of smart guns -- was eventually seen as a pariah in the industry.

In 1999, Mossberg subsidiary Advanced Ordnance and electronics design contractor KinTech Manufacturing developed a smart technology using RFID chips that was marketed by iGun Technology Corp. There is no indication from the iGun website that that effort continues, and officials at iGun Technology could not be reached for comment.

Computerworld attempted to contact gun makers Colt, Smith & Wesson and Mossberg & Sons. Smith & Wesson officials did not return requests for comment, calls to Colt were not answered and an email would not go through to its customer service address. Mossberg declined to comment on the issue.

Both the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) and The Georgia Institute of Technology have developed smart gun technology, but they've also seen very little private or public support for their efforts.

"We're out of money," Donald H. Sebastian, NJIT's senior vice president for research and development, said this week. "We're able to keep things going for another semester or so, but we're looking at private investment and we'll see if the mood is changing. "...That may bring more investors out of the cold."

In 2003, the New Jersey Assembly passed a Childproof Handgun Bill requiring all pistols sold in the state to include smart gun features, as soon as the technology comes on the open market. But the technology efforts died and none came to market.

"Politics got involved and the gun companies came under pressure not to change," said Stephen Teret, founding director of The Johns Hopkins Center for Policy and Research. "CEOs of major gun companies were fired because it was believed they were bringing in safety technology."

Teret said conditions may be more conducive today for smart gun technology to gain ground. He compared smart gun technology to automobile air bags. While the technology was readily available decades ago, once the National Highway Safety Administration got involved and said it wanted all cars to have air bags, the auto industry fought them.

"The gun industry and user groups like the NRA don't want any regulation over guns," Teret said. "They put their foot on the neck of gun companies, saying, 'We don't want you to change the design of guns,' which in their mind would lead to the government stepping in. They're libertarians by philosophical choice."

But Americans may, in fact, be in favor of high tech smart guns. NJIT conducted a survey several years ago and found that about 75% of gun-owning respondents were in favor of weapons with smart gun technology.

"If we do this right, the market will drag this in. We know many in the gun-buying public want this without even knowing what it is," Sabastian said. "Nobody had to mandate the transition from vinyl albums to CDs, yet in the space of a year one disappeared after 70 years of commercial dominance because [the newer technology] offered a superior capability.

"We have to create that same kind of market pull for these safety technologies," he continued. "Part of this is getting past this [view] that says that in the end this is just a way to make guns more unreliable or unaffordable, because it's not."

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

See more by Lucas Mearian on Computerworld.com.

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Tags Gov't Legislation/RegulationregulationEmerging Technologieshardware systemsColtgovernment

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