A Jersey mystery: Who killed the ‘smart gun’?

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For over a decade, a unique gun law in New Jersey has been on the books. It requires that all new handguns sold in the state be equipped with biometric sensors, so that such guns can only be fired by an authorized user.

But the law is still not in effect. Why?

Back story

Shortly before and after the millennium, so-called “smart guns” got a lot of press.

Personalized or childproof handguns, as they’re also known, were featured on national TV shows. Computerized sensors embedded in the gun’s grip could distinguish known from unknown users. There was government funding for the technology, a couple of big name gun makers were working on it and so too were a handful of entrepreneurs across the country.

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“And I knocked my brains out,” said Steve Morton, a Connecticut entrepreneur who tried to develop the technology. “But I got ridiculed, I got harassed. And as a businessperson, at some point, you gotta draw the line. And you have to ask yourself, ‘Is this going anywhere, or is this just going to drive me broke?'”

Morton, who now works in video surveillance, drew that line over a decade ago. And though he wishes his technology could have increased gun safety, he says smart guns are no answer to the intense national questions that have hovered over his town.

“The terrible massacre in Newtown — which occurred two miles from my office, by the way — was different,” Morton said. “[The Sandy Hook issue] is not about keeping a 6-year-old from killing a 4-year-old. It’s about keeping adults from massacring innocents. It’s completely different.”

But some gun control advocates say otherwise.

A potential fix?

“That day [Adam Lanza] just grabbed the guns that were closest to him,” said Bryan Miller, executive director of Heeding God’s Call, a faith-based movement to prevent gun violence. “They were in easy access, and he was able to use them. With childproof handguns, he wouldn’t have been able to.”

In a previous gig as director of Cease Fire New Jersey, Miller helped lead the fight for the state’s first-of-its-kind 2002 smart gun law.

He says the technology might be able to foil some mass shootings, but it’s really designed to prevent accidental gun deaths, especially among kids.

Still, Miller thinks childproof guns would save thousands more, by making suicide more difficult and by undercutting the black market for new handguns.

“Because for the purchaser — the straw buyer or the trafficker — there would be no point in reselling it. Because the people in the street who they would normally sell it to couldn’t operate the gun,” Miller said.

Miller says he’s partly to blame for the smart gun’s current legislative purgatory. While he was with Ceasefire New Jersey, Miller says he supported a compromise that helped get the law passed. But here was the deal: Smart guns wouldn’t be mandatory until three years after they were considered to be widely available.

“So the result has been, unfortunately, that the gun companies, who all know very well how to make these guns, have refused to make the guns,” Miller said.

Not yet proven

“Well, the problem is the technology doesn’t exist yet,” said Scott Bach, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs. That’s the state’s official NRA affiliate. “The law passed in 2002 against our articulated objection.”

Bach’s main objection to the smart gun idea is that handguns are meant for self-defense. And potentially life-or-death situations, he says, are no place for added technological uncertainty.

“What if you’re not home and your spouse needs to use it?” Bach said. “What if you’re injured in the process, and the hand that you’re supposed to use for your firearm to defend your life with, the one that activates the technology, is unavailable?”

Bach says there’s no demand for the technology.

Stalled research

Donald Sebastian is the senior vice president for research and development at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Since 1999, the public university has been a leading player in smart gun research.

The school has had a working prototype for years. It has 32 tiny sensors embedded in the grip and a recognition rate upwards of 99 percent, according to Sebastian.

Amid the flurry of attention paid to personalized handgun technology a decade ago, Sebastian says, the original idea was that the gun industry would take the technology and run with it.

“We thought that somewhere in that mix there would be some practical and practicable ideas for taking our on-off switch, if you will, and doing the rest of the job to turn the light on,” said Sebastian. “Didn’t happen.”

As for why, Sebastian says smart guns may be a victim of the debate itself; a bystander to the muddled discussion of gun safety versus “gun control.”

“There was too much interweaving of these things, in which one side would posit this as a — let me paraphrase: ‘a government conspiracy to make your guns unreliable or unaffordable,'” said Sebastian. “And the other side, perhaps secretly hoping that this would become a form of stealthy gun control, that it might limit the number of firearms that could be purchased … for whatever reason. We didn’t want to be in either of those camps.”

The school’s funding for research on personalized handguns has run out.

Gun control advocates in New Jersey say they may push to revive the current legislation. They say they’d like to see the law kick in with a hard deadline.

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