February 18

Smart gun is a new leader in high-tech arms race

A smart gun being sold in California sparks talk of a new gun market as well as safety concerns

By Michael S. Rosenwald
The Washington Post

One of California’s largest firearm stores recently added a peculiar new gun to its shelves. It requires an accessory: a black waterproof watch.

click image to enlarge

A prototype of a smart gun made by Armatix.

Reuters

The watch’s primary purpose is not to provide accurate time, though it does. The watch makes the gun think. Electronic chips inside the gun and watch communicate with each other. If the watch is within close reach of the gun, a light on the grip turns green. Fire away. No watch means no green light. The gun becomes a paperweight.

A dream of gun-control advocates for decades, the Armatix iP1 is the country’s first smart gun. Its introduction is seen as a landmark event in efforts to reduce gun violence, suicides and accidental shootings. Proponents compare smart guns to automobile air bags – a transformative add-on that gun owners will demand. Gun-rights advocates are already balking, wondering what happens if the technology fails just as an intruder breaks in.

James Mitchell, the “extremely pro-gun” owner of the Oak Tree Gun Club, isn’t one of the skeptics. His club’s firearms shop is the only outlet in the country selling the iP1. “It could revolutionize the gun industry,” Mitchell declared.

FUTURE OF GUN CONTROL FIGHT?

The implications for the iP1’s introduction are potentially enormous, both politically and economically.

Lawmakers around the country have been intrigued by the possibilities. New Jersey passed a hotly contested law in 2002 requiring that only smart guns be sold in the state within three years of a smart gun being sold anywhere in the country. A similar measure made it through the California Senate last year, and at the federal level, Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., also has introduced a mandate.

Although National Rifle Association officials did not respond to requests for comment about smart-gun technology, the group fiercely opposes “government mandates that require the use of expensive, unreliable features, such as grips that would read your fingerprints before the gun will fire,” according to the website of its lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action. “And NRA recognizes that the ‘smart guns’ issue clearly has the potential to mesh with the anti-gunner’s agenda, opening the door to a ban on all guns that do not possess the government-required technology.”

Even so, smart guns are potentially more palatable than other technological mandates, such as placing GPS tracking chips in guns, a controversial concept floated this session in the Maryland General Assembly.

THE RACE IS ON

The arrival of smart-gun technology also comes amid a flurry of interest in the concept from investors who think the country is ready for new, innovative gun-control ideas. Last month, Ron Conway, a Silicon Valley titan and early investor in Google and Facebook, launched a $1 million X-prize-like contest for smart-gun technology.

“We need the iPhone of guns,” Conway said, noting how the new iPhone 5s can be unlocked quickly with a fingerprint. “The entrepreneur who does this right could be the Mark Zuckerberg of guns. Then the venture capitalists like me will dive in, give them capital, and we will build a multibillion-dollar gun company that makes safe, smart guns.”

A variety of approaches are in development. Armatix, the German company behind the iP1, uses RFID chips, which can be found on anti-theft tags attached to expensive clothing. TriggerSmart, an Irish company, also uses RFID chips, though with a ring instead of a watch. The company also has technology that would render guns inoperable if they approached electronic markers, for instance near a school.

The New Jersey Institute of Technology is using sensors to recognize grips and grasping behaviors. Kodiak Arms, a Utah company, is taking pre-orders for its Intelligun, which is unlocked with fingerprints. Other companies are using voice recognition. Yardarm, a California start-up, uses a smartphone app to notify gun owners of a weapon’s movement. Users can even remotely disable their weapons.

(Continued on page 2)

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