Collaboration in Civic Spheres

“Smart guns” with user ID coming; Washington state reactions mixed

by July 3rd, 2013

In January of this year a month after the murder of 26 students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut by a disturbed shooter using his mother’s weapons, President Obama issued 23 executive actions to address gun violence – including commissioning a report that would assess the state and availability of new gun safety technologies to limit unauthorized use. On June 17 came the assessment from the National Institute of Justice. “A Review of Gun Safety Technologies” says two different types of what some term “smart guns” – keyed to authorized users only – are coming to market this year and advance orders are already being taken for one, the Kodiak Intelligun.

But reactions to the report were mixed among Washington state law enforcement officials, legislators and gun rights supporters. Some saw potential benefits in improved safe storage and could foresee continuing progress in performance and acceptance. Others worried about reliability or said the emphasis instead should be on illegal possession, a more robust system of background checks, and more educational outreach to at-risk teens about added penalties for using a gun in a crime.

RFID, biometrics, and “tokens”
The report was an unbiased evaluation of technologies that could protect against unauthorized use through a variety of unique identifiers. These include token-based systems which link the gun and its availability to an item worn by an authorized user such as a watch or a ring; as well as radio frequency identification or RFID signals which are transmitted from authorized user to weapon; and biometric keys such as fingerprints, palm prints, optical or grip recognition. In all such approaches if authorized user recognition didn’t occur, the gun would shut down – for instance if taken by a thief, opponent or a child.

Intelligun, anyone?
An important aspect of the report was to separate fact from fiction. Despite wide-spread acclaim in the latest James Bond thriller Skyfall which featured a gun with micro-dermal sensor coded to Bond’s palm print, such a weapon does not exist. So what’s in the offing? The closest yet is the Kodiak Intelligun utilizing a fingerprint authorization and locking system installed on a 1911 .45. It has the advantage of being able to authorize multiple users and stores the authorized fingerprints in its grip-located database, adding less than a round in weight to the gun. The Intelligun system retails for $399 according to its website. Advance orders are being taken “with the expectation of shipment later in 2013,” according to the report.

Armatix Smart System keyed to wristwatch
The Armatix Smart System from Germany is a .22 pistol that uses a wrist watch to authorize use of the weapon. Armatix reports it has sold this system in Europe and Asia and, upon approval, is coming to market in the United States through its subsidiary, Armatix USA. The report says the company “expects the Smart System to be offered for sale by midsummer of 2013.”

The last of the three possibilities is by IGun Technology of Florida, which developed the only shotgun – M2000, utilizing passive tag RFID technology based on a ring worn by the user and read by the reader inside the weapon. It was developed as early as 1998 and tested well, but was shelved due to lack of market interest at the time. The company believes it has enough materials for 50 working units, but it is unknown when it might come to market.

State Patrol: Some consumer appeal seen
Dan Coon, spokesperson for the Washington State Patrol, said,”It all comes down to reliability. Making life and death decisions, officers in the field need to feel they are using the best equipment in terms of reliability, whether it be tasers, radios or firearms. We are very conservative in our weapons choice. It must be proven reliable, simple to use and maintain. Standard issue for officers is the Smith & Wesson M&P40 handgun. That said, we then spend time training and continually practicing with our firearms and equipment.” After reading the report, he felt the current level of products were not ready for testing by law enforcement, but that certainly a market existed for the consumer who might be more concerned with safety of storage and handling of the weapon in a household of children. “Regardless of technology, it doesn’t change the fact that adults need to secure their weapons.”

Sheriffs and Police group: “Generational” acceptance of technology a factor
Mitch Barker, Executive Director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs said, “I’ve been following the development of gun technology for 20 to 30 years. Good people come up with good ideas and tech solutions, but there is no funding for it and, up until recently, no market for it.” He added, “We may also be dealing with a generational acceptance of technology. Police officers, in their guts, simply don’t trust the technology. Newer recruits and officers are more comfortable and trusting of technology. It has been a part of their lives, so as the technology improves, the adoption of it may become more acceptable.”

Gun rights lobby: Reliability worries
Dave Workman of the Bellevue, Wash. based gun rights advocacy group the Second Amendment Foundation, said, “The report makes it clear that the technology is still far away from a reliable gun. Gun safety proponents speak of an acceptable failure rate. For a police officer, if a gun jams in a firefight, he can clear it and continue shooting. If it’s a matter of getting shot dead and not going home at night because the technology just failed you, police officers will not get behind this and private citizens shouldn’t just walk away, they should run.”

Rep. Goodman: Universal background checks a higher priority
State Representative Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland (45th District), House Chair of the Public Safety Committee, said, “Safe gun technology is still limited and expensive. The likelihood of a federal or state mandate that all weapons be retrofitted with this technology is still far away in the future, which is why I am more interested in going after the people versus the guns. Illegal possession of a firearm is a critical component of public safety. Forty percent of weapons purchased are from sources other than a licensed dealer.” While universal background checks did not pass this year in the state legislature, he feels certain it will in the 2014 session.

Rep. Freeman: Need more outreach on penalties of gun crimes
State Representative Roger Freeman, D-Federal Way (30th District), said, “We need to get into the communities where gun death and violence are occurring and educate young people about firearms and, in particular, the ‘gun enhancement’ aspect of crime where the penalties are severe for using a gun or simply carrying a gun in the commission of a crime. Often, the kids are ignorant of gun penalties. We need to put funds into communicating with them and, if they are interested in guns, get them into clubs that would teach them proper handling and safety.” 

Repeated calls and emails for comment to Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn’s office and the Washington CeaseFire, a pro-gun control advocacy group located in Seattle, were not returned.

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