Personalized firearms find supporters in gun-control ranks
San Francisco - In the latest James Bond movie, the hero is given a gun that recognizes the palm of his hand. Later, when a bad guy snatches the pistol away in a tussle, it won't fire, and Agent 007 lives to die another day.
It may have felt like Hollywood fantasy, but the basic premise is very real - and very dear - to some lawmakers and gun control advocates.
They believe that in the age of smart phones and the aftermath of December's elementary-school massacre in Connecticut, the time has come for a marriage of firearms - which have changed little for decades - and modern technology that allows all sorts of devices to be personalized to their user.
President Obama, in the antigun-violence plan he unveiled in January, directed the attorney general to issue a report on "existing and emerging gun safety technologies." He also promised "prizes" to companies that develop the smart guns.
Sensing momentum, California state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, introduced legislation last month that would require all handguns sold in the state to be "owner-authorized."
Under the bill, which is similar to one New Jersey passed in 2002, standard guns would become illegal for sale 18 months after the state Department of Justice determines personalized guns are readily available and function well.
The idea is that a gun should be useless if picked up by a child or a suicidal teen or stolen in a burglary. The weapons would feature biometric technology such as fingerprint or grip recognition, or radio-frequency identification, which is used in employee-access badges and the toll-collection system FasTrak.
The guns could be used only by their owner, who in some cases would have to wear a special watch or ring to be able to fire the weapon. The firearms could be configured to allow for multiple users, such as family members.
Skeptics of the technology point out that, despite years of research and high hopes, such guns are still not available in the U.S. However, that may be changing.
Belinda Padilla, the head of U.S. sales for a German company called Armatix, said the firm planned to sell a .223-caliber pistol in the U.S. by this summer that works only after its user activates it by entering a five-digit code into a wristwatch. The watch uses radio waves to communicate with the gun.
"The bottom line is, this exists now," said Stephen Teret, founder of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University, who has followed the progress of personalized guns for years. "The question isn't one of technological feasibility anymore, but one of policy."
No one doubts the tough politics around personalized guns, which have been studied and debated for more than two decades.
Many gun owners oppose them, saying they fear the technology will fail them in a pinch. A major gun control group, the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., also opposes the idea, arguing that personalized technology would save few lives, distract from more important efforts and give a false impression that guns are safe, perhaps driving new sales.
Brandon Combs, who heads the Calguns Foundation, a gun rights organization, said personalized guns aren't close to being marketable or reliable. Even if they were, he said, a law mandating their sale would make guns much more expensive and difficult to use, infringing upon the constitutional right to bear arms.
"We're creating laws now for a possible future that may or may not ever come to fruition, and to me that's silly," Combs said. "The reality is this would do nothing but create another opportunity for California to ban handguns and make them expensive for people."
Proponents of personalized guns say it's not clear whether such weapons could have prevented Adam Lanza from killing 27 people in Newtown, Conn., in December. Although the weapons he used were owned by his mother, she reportedly took him to shooting ranges, and could have given him access to her guns if they were personalized.
But advocates say they would expect the technology to save some of the more than 30,000 people who die from gunfire in the U.S. each year.
Government figures show firearm accidents killed 851 people in 2011. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of guns are taken each year in burglaries, and are one of the prime sources of guns used in murders and other crimes.
The promise of personalized guns has always driven the debate over them. In 2000, a year after the Columbine High School massacre, President Bill Clinton pushed hard for the guns, doling out research grants to two gun makers.
A report the next year by Sandia National Laboratories concluded that "multiple years of dedicated research and development" were needed before a police officer could rely on a personalized gun.
To Teret, of Johns Hopkins, technology has not been the only obstacle. Gun companies that pursued personalized weapons - either in a bid for government grants or due to pressure from consumer lawsuits - were criticized and even boycotted by gun rights groups, he said.
"Some gun companies tried to pursue this," Teret said, "and were punished severely."
A spokesman for an organization that represents the firearms and ammunition industry denied that assertion, saying any gun maker that was able to hit the market first with a personalized weapon would enjoy a distinct advantage.
"However, the feeling on the part of manufacturers is that the technology is not yet mature," said Mike Bazinet, spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation in Connecticut.
DeSaulnier, whose father committed suicide 24 years ago with a gun of unknown origin, has been pushing the issue for more than seven years. He tried to pass similar bills as an assemblyman in 2006 and as a senator in 2008.
"If I'm a law-abiding gun owner, why wouldn't I agree to this?" said DeSaulnier, who does not own a firearm. "Nobody can use (a personalized gun) but myself and the people I authorize to use it. If someone steals it, I don't have to worry about it getting in the wrong hands. ... It's more of a consumer protection device."
Combs, of the Calguns Foundation, said his concern is not that the guns will be available, but that people will be forced to buy them.
"For the same reason we are fighting to keep AR-15s available as a self-defense weapon," he said of the popular semiautomatic rifles, "we would fight to protect new technologies such as an owner-authorized handgun, as long as it was available as a choice and not a mandate. Choice is important. These are personal decisions at the end of the day."
But Garen Wintemute, a physician who directs the University of California at Davis Violence Prevention Research Program, said the nation's experience with seat belts in cars, which were once voluntary, shows that personalized guns would have to be mandated to make a difference.
"Seat-belt usage was lower for high-risk groups - teens, drunks and the elderly - who needed it the most," he said. "It often is the case that people in who are in high-risk groups are the least likely to take volunteer action to protect themselves. This is one of the reasons they're in the high-risk group to begin with."
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