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Tuesday, 6 March, 2001, 10:59 GMT
Aiming for the 'smart gun'
The message from Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse
The message from Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse
A spate of shootings involving children in the US has brought renewed pressure for the development of smart guns.

These are weapons that use technology to ensure that only one person can fire them.

Former President Bill Clinton is a longstanding supporter of research into smart guns, and proposed spending $10m on the search for new technology.

Current President George W Bush said before the election: "I hope that technology allows for development of a safe gun, a gun that cannot be accessed unless there's some finger imaging that matches the owner to the chip inside of the gun."

Thumbprint scanner

This would not only stop children taking guns and firing them, it would also discourage burglars from stealing guns, and prevent criminals disarming police and shooting them with their own weapons.

Fingerprint imaging is only one of several ideas manufacturers are pursuing.

Smith and Wesson, America's largest gun maker, has developed a prototype which reads the user's thumbprint, and only then allows the magazine to be inserted.

The gun also includes an electronic firing mechanism which means that if a thief stole it and broke the lock it still wouldn't fire.

The company has spent $5m on research, but the prototype needs more tests and won't be ready for at least two years.

In March 2000, the company reached an agreement with the Clinton administration to redesign its weapons to include new safety features.

Radio control

Another system being developed by other manufacturers - including Colt and Smart:Links - locks the gun unless the user is wearing a ring or a bracelet that emits an appropriate radio signal.
The Smart:Links prototype with activating wrist gear
The Smart:Links prototype with activating wrist gear
The signal activates a computer within the gun which enables it to fire.

A third approach, taken by arms manufacturer Fulton Arms, requires the user to wear a ring containing a magnet.

The gun will only respond to a magnet of precisely the right strength, which must be within half an inch of the gun in order to work.

A number of other smart locks - a variation on the mechanical locks which are already commercially available - are also being developed.

Students at Johns Hopkins University have developed a sliding cover for handguns, which can be easily removed by adults but not by young children under seven years old.

In order to force the pace of these technological advances, the governor of the state of Maryland, Parris Glendening, has proposed that all guns sold in the state after 1 June 2003 should be "personalised".

A lobby group, Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, supports the Glendening bill, and has seized on a tragedy in Michigan in March, in which a six-year-old boy shot dead a schoolmate, as an illustration of the benefits of smart technology.

"If that gun were a smart gun, we wouldn't have that tragedy," said lobbyist Eric Gally.

Shortcomings

However, the smart guns currently on the horizon all suffer from certain shortcomings.

In some cases, the lock remains off once it has been released by the gun owner, allowing it to be used by someone else.

In other cases, the ring or bracelet that activates the gun could be stolen too. There are also concerns that radio jamming might prevent the gun being fired, even by its owner.

With an ideal personalised gun, the owner would not have to wear any special device or do anything but pick up the weapon and fire it.

Researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology say such a gun would recognise its owner in several ways, which may include fingerprint, voice, and the anatomy of the hand - the pattern of bones, arteries and veins.

This kind of technology is thought to be many years away.

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America and the gun

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