Could smart gun technology make us safer?

It might, but funding for the technology has all but dried up

In the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, smart gun technology prevents a bad guy from using Bond's own Walther PPK to shoot him. Far fetched? Not at all.

And, in the wake of the mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. last week, interest in gun safety is rising anew after developments in smart gun technology stalled out for a lack of interest and investors.

President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced a gun violence task force to come up with solutions to the problem of gun violence and is pressuring Congress to reinstate an assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004. He also wants stricter background checks and a limit on high-capacity gun magazines.

One area the president hasn't mentioned, but that is likely to come up, involves smart gun technology. Under development for more than a dozen years, it could use a person's unique grip, fingerprints or an RFID chip to limit weapon use only to someone authorized to fire the gun.

In fact, a half dozen campus police at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) already carry smart guns that prevent unauthorized use by disabling the trigger mechanism.

Smart gun technology proponents are quick to point out their systems would not necessarily have prevented the murder of the 20 children and six Sandy Hook Elementary staff by Adam Lanza on Dec. 14. "It is important to understand that these criminal acts have been perpetrated by authorized users with legally purchased firearms, and nothing in our technology would have stopped these killings," said Donald H. Sebastian, NJIT's senior vice president for research and development.

Sebastian pointed to news reports that Lanza's mother was a gun enthusiast who owned several weapons and took her son shooting with her, which would mean he would have likely had access and have been allowed to use the weapons. Had he not been authorized to use the guns, smart technology might at least deterred him.

While there are several types of smart gun technology, at the core of each is biometric authentication algorithm software, which determines an authorized user of a gun from an unauthorized user

Grip recognition

NJIT is a leading, and early, developer of smart gun technology. For more than a dozen years, it has been testing a Dynamic Grip Recognition technology that Sebastian claims is 99% effective in preventing unauthorized use of a gun.

Dynamic Grip Recognition uses 32 sensors in the gun's grip, which, like voice recognition technology, can be trained to recognize a particular person's grip pattern profile and discriminate between authorized and unauthorized users.

The effort began with discussions on how to protect law enforcement officials who may have their guns taken in a struggle with a suspect.

"That led to the introduction of RFID technology and that goes back to the early 1990s," Sebastian said. "That's a different set of constraints than the gun sitting in the sock drawer, locked and loaded in case something goes bump in the night -- protecting your kids from having access to that.

"That's what led to the selection of biometrics and use of grip recognition technology," he said. "It works while you're pulling the trigger. It's not like you put a thumb print on the bottom to turn it on, and for some period of time it's active and ready to go for some period of time whether you have custody or not."

Development has been slow, however, because funding has lagged, with little interest so far from venture capitalists. In fact, current prototypes are based on 10-year-old microprocessors because of a lack of funds, Sebastian said.

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