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Could 'smart gun' technology have prevented the Newtown massacre?

Posting in Design

Moments after news broke of yet another tragic school shooting, a somber President Obama stood before a shocked nation that had just experienced a grim reality check. "We've endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years," he said, teary-eyed and adamant that this time around, things will be different.

Something must change.

But only a couple of days later, a different sense of reality began to set in. White House spokesman Jay Carney seemed to backtrack from the President's statement earlier, emphasizing that gun violence is a complex problem that will require a comprehensive solution. The somewhat vague "complexity" being alluded to was likely a reference to the long-standing opposition to arms regulations, which include industry lobbyists and gun-rights organizations, most notably the National Rifle Association. And while many of these groups have since laid low, leading conservative voices were already busy working the airwaves in an effort to effectively counter a suddenly re-energized push for tighter restrictions.

The conservative publication National Review, argued in an editorial that a ban on assault weapons, while well-intended, would ultimately be ineffective. They reasoned that the killer could have just as easily carried out the massacre with ordinary hunting rifles and that curtailing certain components, such as magazine capacity, would force certain legal firearms off the market, which they've point out would violate the second amendment. Of course, gun control proponents disagree and have also presented research and evidence that bolsters their own case.

But what often gets overlooked in the debate is the potential of technological solutions, mainly an intriguing concept known as "smart guns" that may prevent these kind of heinous rampages in the future. While researchers have employed various approaches, a smart gun is essentially designed to enable only an authorized person to fire a weapon. The way this works is that the gun's biometric system is set up to recognize the rightful user through a unique identity marker such as a person's fingerprint, magnetic rings, RFID chips or other proximity devices.

The genesis for such a technology began a couple of decades back, primarily as a way of reducing the number of policeman killed by their own guns in those situations in which criminals were able to wrestle the officer's weapon away. In 2000, the U.S. Department of Justice partnered with gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson and FN Manufacturing to develop and evaluate an assortment of ideas. Four years later, the New Jersey Institute of Technology was awarded a million dollar grant to complete a version that recognized users based on a combination of variables such as hand size, strength, and gripping style. And the year after that, the research team demonstrated a prototype they claimed positively identified the appropriate gun owner with 90 percent accuracy.

That was six years ago, so naturally you're probably wondering how the progress is coming along? Well, all I can say right now is that there are, at the very least, lessons that can be drawn from the trail of complications and delays that have continued to beset what still appears to be a promising solution. On the political front, the NRA has derided the technology as simply too unreliable and as another ill-fated ploy to encroach upon the rights of gun owners.

"Tragic victims couldn't have been saved by trigger locks or magazine bans or 'smart-gun' technology, or some new government commission running our firearms companies," NRA President Wayne LaPierre told Wired back in 2002. "They could have been saved by something far simpler and more common sense, zero-tolerance enforcement of the mandatory sentencing provisions in the gun laws against violent criminals we've had on the books for a long time."

And in a complicated twist, what should seem like a good idea is also being opposed by activists on the other side of the gun debate. The D.C.-based gun-control advocacy group known as the Violence Policy Center had issued a warning stating that instead of curbing senseless violence, the introduction of smart guns would lead to the proliferation of even more firearms as the technology gives would-be owners a false sense of security. "The smart gun is a hoax. It's a very seductive hoax, but nevertheless it's a hoax," Tom Diaz, the center's senior analyst told 60 Minutes.

Stephen Teret, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research dismisses criticism on both sides and instead wants to draw attention to what he sees as the real problem: the lack of will to make guns safer.

"There's no question in my mind that if the gun manufacturers put their minds to it, they can make a gun that's far safer than the guns that are being marketed today," Teret told 60 Minutes.

For instance, "Congress told car manufacturers, 'Redesign the car, make it so the occupant of a car can withstand the forces of a crash without those forces being fatal to the occupant. And that's when we put in seat belts, we put in air bags,...and hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved since then," he explained. "We can do the same thing about guns."

But even with the concerted efforts of scientists and government officials, economic forces, as well as politics, has left the idea in a state of languish. Gannett Newspapers reports:

Ten years ago this week, then-Gov. James E. McGreevey signed a law requiring new handguns sold in the state to be equipped with “smart gun technology,” with biometic controls such as fingerprints that prevent them from being fired by unauthorized users, within three years of the time the state determines such user-recognition technology is commercially available.

Researchers at New Jersey Institute of Technology who have researched the technology for a decade with the help of state and federal funds, say they’ve got a working prototype — but no industry partners.“We have found no interest on the part of gun manufacturers in commercializing any aspect of user authenticating weapons technology,” said Donald Sebastian, NJIT’s senior vice president for research and development.

The latest on the gun controversy:

Learn more about innovative weapons technology:

— By on December 18, 2012, 7:58 PM PST

Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure