law enforcement smart guns

Smart Guns Started As Law Enforcement Tools

These days, when the firearms industry reflects on personalized firearm technology, thoughts are broken between whether it's "smart gun" control or smart "gun control."

There is considerable debate on whether this technology is viable yet for the public, or if smart guns are just a physical manifestation of gun control rhetoric forced by legislative bodies like those in New Jersey.

There is more to it than a diatribe from one side or another. Smart gun technology as a way to curb firearms casualties has been researched, developed, proposed, attacked, misunderstood, inadequately implemented and everything in between for decades now.

A Background on Smart Gun Technology

smart gun technology

There are critics of smart gun technology on every side of the aisle. It's not simply a political issue — but because "firearm" is attached to the subject, it will inherently strike a chord and resonate within that arena as well.

Smart gun technology gained traction in 1994 as a research project funded by the National Institute of Justice, and the project was intended to provide an answer for the issue of firearms being wrested from the arms of law enforcement and used against them.

A 2013 research report from the National Institute of Justice defined smart gun technology as "designed to contain authorization systems which generally combine an authentication mechanism that actuates a blocking mechanism in a seamless process that is designed to take less time than handling and firing a conventional gun."

This field of firearms innovation typically is seen in a couple categories: proximity devices and biometric devices. It's also integrated as electronic or software upgrades to a firearm's safety mechanism.

When applied to smart gun technology, proximity devices are broken into radio frequency identification (RFID), ultrasonic technology and magnetic technology.

RFID is a form of communication between points A and B. Electromagnetic fields between the two transfer information, and they can either be powered without a battery at short ranges through electromagnetic induction (passive tags) or with a source of power (active tag). The tag carries information and "speaks" to the reader, but doesn't have to be in its line of sight.

An application of this technology is seen in the Armatix iP1, which has a companion watch, the iW1, and will only fire within 10 inches of the watch. The caliber and round capacity is fairly limited -- 10 rounds of .22 ammunition.

Another company, iGun, in 1998 developed the M-2000 shotgun that used RFID tech. Their current personalized firearm technology uses a low enough frequency that it dips into the magnetic spectrum, according to their company website.

Ultrasonic applications emit a high frequency that humans cannot hear, but won't activate the firearm if it isn't within range to receive the signal.

Magnetic tech has been some of the least used, but the theory is that a magnet would move a blocking mechanism within a firearm.

Biometric application is a much more common example of smart gun technology. It theoretically references specific characteristics of the gun's owner, recognizing a fingerprint, palm print, voice, vein or facial pattern. Generally there is a sensor that scans and recognizes highly specific identifiers within an individual.

Biometric fingerprint technology is present in Kodiak Industries' Intelligun accessory, which is a safety locking mechanism for 1911 handguns — if one lets go of the firearm, it's inoperable.

There are expanding fields of research on dynamic and static grip technology, which in theory would recognize the strength and behavior of one's grip. There aren't many examples of this prevalent within the industry.

Some Popular Companies Have Worked on Smart Gun Products

smart pistol technology

A few big name companies have pushed big dollars into researching this technology, picking up projects in the late '90s following a report published by Sandia National Laboratories.

The report indicated a real issue: FBI data from 1979 to 1992 indicated that 16 percent of officers killed during this time period perished from their own service firearm — a total of 182 officers within 178 separate incidents.

In application, however, reliability was the primary concern. Many projects just didn't measure up or were pulled from production for one reason or another.

Colt's smart gun was chambered in .40 caliber, much more considerable as a self-defense tool than the .22 iP1. Once a hand gripped the pistol and engaged a switch, much like a grip safety, it would emit an RFID signal to a corresponding watch, which in turn would send back a coded message that would cause a blocking pin to be removed from the trigger.

Colt's 1997 smart gun project had $1 million in funding from the company, and later received funding from the National Institute of Justice, according to the 2013 report. They intended to update the CZ 40.

There were two prototyped models, the EP1 and EP2, but research, development and production were halted in 2000.

Between 2000 and 2005, the NIJ provided $3,673,361 to Smith & Wesson to research and develop a possible smart gun. Their initial foray, titled Development of an Authorized-User-Only Handgun, into the technology included a two-pronged firing system including biometry and electronics. About $590,884 from the NIJ fell under one grant that was awarded to S&W in 2002 to improve their LightPrint biometric skin recognition project.

The company received ire and dropped the project.

FN Manufacturing, Inc. (a subsidiary of FN Herstal) received about $2,606,156 from 2000 to 2006, according to the NIJ report, and in 2001 started phase one of the Secure Weapon System that integrated ultrasonic technology with the FN "Five-SeveN" 5.7mm pistol with a personal device, which was chosen to be a wristband, according to the SWS project report.

This later changed to a clip-on device on the body with .40 S&W and 9mm versions. It similarly implemented a grip switch. RFID was later implemented into the final models in the fourth phase of the research in September of 2006.

Reliability was tested and prevalent with no parts breaking over a total of 1,500 rounds and authentication issues were not found from 150 authentication cycles, but FN included in its report that more engineering would be needed in order for the tested system to be completely reliable.

The New Jersey Institute of Technology also poured significant research into the previously described dynamic grip recognition technology, receiving more than $2.5 million from Congressional funds between 2004 to 2008 and another $1.5 million from 2008 to 2013.

Their projects focused on implementation of complementary biometric and dynamic grip systems, which installed 28 pressure sensors to increase biometric data and recognize who was holding the firearm. A facial recognition system was also considered.

New Jersey, as it happens, plays a large role in the implementation of personalized firearms.

How New Jersey Legislated Smart Gun Tech

smart gun legislation

Smart gun technology was impacted by Assembly Bill No. 700, passed in 2002, more commonly known as the New Jersey Childproof Handgun Law.

There is specific language within the bill that essentially holds the sale of New Jersey non-personalized handguns hostage once personalized firearms (smart guns) are available and sold elsewhere in the U.S.

"Assembly Bill No. 700, as amended and released by the committee, regulates the future sale of handguns in New Jersey. The amended bill specifies that three years after it is determined that personalized handguns are available for retail purposes, it will be illegal for any registered or licensed firearms manufacturer or dealer to transport, sell, expose for sale, possess for sale, assign or transfer any handgun unless that handgun is a personalized handgun," according to the bill.

The bill essentially legislates future handgun sales, and it's had a real effect on commerce. A gun shop in Rockville, Maryland was impacted by it.

Within 24 hours after stating it would start selling the previously described iP1, Engage Armament immediately backpedalled and posted a video with the owner apologizing to the people of New Jersey. It was in response to threatening calls and social media posts, according to media reports.

Armatix's iP1 isn't the only model, however. The .22 caliber was updated and the company moved toward 9mm models recently when Wolfgang Tweraser took over the American subsidiary of Armatix. The iP9 would be ready for law-enforcement demonstration later in the summer of 2017, with talks of the NYPD looking into it, and potentially having it in production by 2018, he reportedly said.

Despite millions in research and approaches with different types of technology, opposition isn't hard to find, and it even comes from places one wouldn't expect.

How Smart Gun Technology Is Being Opposed

smart gun technology opposition

Aside from surveys conducted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation and consistent disagreement from the NRA and gun owners, even the Violence Policy Center released a report as to why smart gun technology was not at a place yet to be considered.

According to the report, there were 310 million non-personalized firearms in circulation in the U.S. at the time of the report (114 million being handguns, 110 million rifles and 86 million shotguns).

Building on that, a 2007 study in Injury Prevention found that 20 percent of gun owners in 2004 owned 65 percent of the nation's guns, deducing that it's likely the homes that would actually own a smart gun would also own a non-personalized firearm. The implementation of smart guns does not immediately eschew the large store of non-personalized firearms, according to the report.

Suicide, being the largest cause of firearm-related death in America with 19,392 incidents in just 2010, wouldn't necessarily be impacted by personalized firearms, according to the Violence Policy Center, because gun owners can commit suicide with their own firearm, sure, but young adults committing suicide could largely be older teenagers with parental authority to access firearms.

There 936 firearm suicides in 2010, 81 were those under the age of 14 and the rest (855) were ages 15 to 20.

Fatal unintentional firearm injuries, according to a 1996 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, tended to most commonly be during cleaning a firearm, with the second most common instance being hunting — which in both cases the "authorized user" was in control.

"Any safety device, no matter how high-tech, can address only a small percentage of the annual toll of more than 31,000 lives taken by firearms in the U.S. each year. Yet there are less complicated, less expensive safety mechanisms that exist today that could be integrated easily into every new gun. Adjusting the trigger pull on some handguns that currently require very little strength to fire the weapon could help prevent unintentional shootings, especially by children. Any type of “positive safety” device would also decrease the frequency of unintentional discharges. Incidents when guns are fired because people thought they were not loaded could be reduced by adding load indicators and magazine disconnects. High-quality trigger locking devices can deter suicide and unintentional injuries if they are used properly," the report summarized.

Even the NRA, who tends to oppose applications of smart gun technology, is not completely averse to the idea of improving firearm technology, stating, "NRA does not oppose new technological developments in firearms; however, we are opposed to government mandates that require the use of expensive, unreliable features, such as grips that would read your fingerprints before the gun will fire."

Additionally, the NRA recognizes that the technology could lead to an agenda for widespread government mandates for personalized firearm technology, as is the case with New Jersey.

Others call into question issues like weaponized electromagnetic pulses and their potential to have impact on the technology.

While this technology will require further development and its application either to the law enforcement/military or civilian markets is yet to be seen, the digital era is undoubtedly becoming more and more pervasive in the daily lives of every demographic.

It seems the adage "New isn't always better" is being tested by all facets of life these days.

Jake Smith  

About The Author

Jake Smith (@notjakesmith) is a copywriter and photographer based in the Pacific Northwest who enjoys shooting pictures and ammunition outdoors.

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