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'Smart' gun technology has promise but needs to be reliable, police say

Firearms were involved in 606 unintentional deaths, 11,078 homicides and 19,392 suicides in 2010, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
By Christophe Haubursin, Medill News Service   |   March 19, 2014 at 1:16 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, March 19 -- Just outside of Los Angeles, electronic “smart” guns have hit American shelves.

In February, the Oak Tree Gun Club began selling the Armatix iP1, a German-manufactured handgun that shoots only when in proximity to a specially equipped watch.

The iP1 is one of a series of new and upcoming high-tech gun models that use electronic security measures to lock firearms digitally. Armatix’s .22 caliber, 10 round magazine weapon uses a radio-frequency identification chip in the hopes of deterring gun violence from stolen and misused weapons. Other models like Utah-based Kodiak Industries’ Intelligun use a fingerprint scan. A prototype by the New Jersey Institute of Technology relies on biometric sensors on the grip and trigger.

But when the German handgun hit the Newhall, Calif., gun store earlier this year, it was immediately met with extensive backlash from customers and 2nd Amendment activists. Their concern? A 2002 New Jersey law banning all non-smart guns three years after a smart gun goes on sale in the U.S.
Armatix’s brief stint in the American market, they fear, could trigger that ban.

Smarter guns, safer police?

According to National Association of Police Organizations Executive Director Bill Johnson, the technology has clear benefits for law enforcement. If a crook wrestles a firearm away from a police officer, an owner-specific lock could keep the police weapon from being used against the officer.

“Unfortunately officers getting killed with their own weapons, it’s not something that happens every day, but it does happen, it’s too frequent,” Johnson said.

Bulletproof vests, he explains, have to be rated to stop different kinds of shots, but the armor must without exception be able to stop the kind of bullets that the officer is carrying.

But to date, smart guns aren’t common or accessible enough to judge whether they’ll be effective or safe enough for use by police forces, said James Pasco, the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police’s Washington advocacy center. Commercial viability isn’t enough, he said -- until the products are thoroughly tested and certified, putting them into use in law enforcement will have to wait.

“We can’t take a position until we know these things, until we have the chance to take an in-depth look at this technology,” Pasco said. “Until we see it and gauge its reliability, we’re not going to take a position on it.”

For police, Pasco believes the biggest weakness with electronic guns is reliability. Sensors and fingerprint readers need to work even when covered in sweat, dirt, or blood -- and once the weapon is picked up and ready to be fired, it needs to work no matter the situation.

“In a combat situation, a shooting situation, there’s real confusion and chaos. It’s not like TV,” Pasco said. “Often times they’re very close quarters. We want a police officer to be able to take any gun, his partner’s gun, a criminal’s gun, any gun, and use that gun to his advantage. If he is in a scuffle, and he gets a criminal’s weapon and it’s useless to him, we’ve got a safety problem.”

The very nature of combat doesn’t leave room for second-guessing, said Pasco, whose organization represents more than 325,000 law enforcement officers. In police regulations, he said, firearms themselves are the last resort in any conflict -- and if worse comes to worst, a gunshot has to be a guarantee, not a gamble.

“It can’t just work 95 percent of the time,” Pasco said. “You’re not going to pick up a gun to shoot it unless you mean business. And if you mean business, that’s when you absolutely don’t need it to fail you.”

Johnson, whose lobbying firm represents more than 2,000 police departments and associations, said that he has not year heard of any agency using smart guns.

“At some point, even with the best technology, the goal is still that the gun has to shoot when you want it to,” Johnson said.

The subtler solution

At an office building lodged between a Goodwill Industries shop and a Little Caesars in Capitola, Calif., Bob Stewart’s Yardarm Technologies thinks it can offer a better, less risky solution to the smart gun market.

Yardarm’s add-on chip serves as an unobtrusive wireless GSM monitoring system specifically for law enforcement firearms, communicating information on movement, holstering and firing between officers and command centers. The information is transmitted and stored along the way, keeping a record of gun activity for forensics and courtroom evidence.

The company is in the process of consulting with gun manufacturers, and reactions from police organizations have been positive, Stewart said.

“Wherever technology is useful for mission critical situations with our military and law enforcement, we ought to give them that tool,” Stewart said in a telephone interview. “They’re protecting their lives, they’re protecting our lives. It’s something that’s good for everyone.”

Granted, Yardarm is in an entirely different sector of the smart gun market -- its product is an auxiliary wireless system, not a firearm -- but it’s the unobtrusiveness that Stewart believes makes the technology promising. Any system that could potentially cause a gun to deactivate due to physical conditions, hacking or lag time simply isn’t “good technology,” Stewart said.

“We’re not in the space that a lot of other smart gun vendors are focusing on,” he said. “We are going to save lives, law enforcement lives, and enable them to do their job better.”

Hacking poses a particularly big threat in high-pressure situations, Johnson said. If police electronic gun security information is stolen like Target’s customer credit card information was this year, he said, the results could be devastating.

Some smart gun models including the Armatix iP1 rely on radio-frequency identification chips -- frequently used on building security system key cards -- which can be hacked and altered. Johnson said it would only be a matter of time before criminals would be willing to pay big bucks for breach technology.

Armatix did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“It’s part of human nature,” Johnson said. “As soon as this technology comes in, there’ll be someone trying to defeat it.”

But could smart guns make a difference in curbing violence in American cities? Advocacy groups like the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence have already urged the state legislature for follow-through with the New Jersey ban on non-smart guns, hoping that mandated smart gun use would lower accidental firearm deaths.

Firearms were involved in 606 unintentional deaths, 11,078 homicides and 19,392 suicides in 2010, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Though they help prevent some fatalities, Johnson doesn’t think smart guns will change the problem at large.

“Whether it’s gun violence, knife violence, domestic violence, drunken bar fight violence, it’s … a behavioral problem, it goes beyond technology to solve or to fix,” Johnson said. “For some reason there’s always a certain number of people who will resort to violence, whether it makes sense to anybody else or not.”

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