'Smart' guns may help prevent violence — if they can make it on the U.S. market

So-called smart guns could make gun ownership drastically safer – if they ever make it to the market

German entrepreneur Bernd Dietel had a radical idea about gun safety.

After a 2002 shooting at the Gutenberg-Gymnasium in Erfurt that left 16 people dead, Dietel envisioned guns with coded digital locks, similar to the ones his company installed on buildings.

In eight years, the Armatix iP1 — a pistol that can be fired only if its user is wearing a wireless wristband that broadcasts on a specific frequency — was ready.

But no gun shop in America will sell it.

The Armatix iP1 and other so-called smart guns have become the latest flashpoint in the long-running battle between gun rights and gun control.

Although the weapons have broad support among gun owners, the staunchest supporters of the 2nd Amendment say smart guns only make it easier for the government to control the sale and use of lawful firearms.

They fear, among other concerns, that the advent of guns with high-tech safety mechanisms will prompt state governments to mandate their use. New Jersey already has such a law on the books.

Andy Raymond, co-owner of Engage Armament in Rockville, Md., said he had no inkling of the controversy when he announced last year that he would sell the iP1. He didn't see the harm in offering customers a new gadget.

"I should have known better," he said. "I would rather be shot by an i-gun than ever get involved with it again."

Political backlash

Each year in the U.S., 31,000 people die in gun-related incidents and 73,000 more are injured, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Smart technology — using fingerprint recognition, hand biometrics, coded locks or other features to make sure a gun can be fired only by its owner — could be used to prevent many of those casualties.

Had Nancy Lanza owned a smart gun, perhaps she, her son and the 26 people he shot in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., might have lived.

In addition, the technology could save some of the 650 Americans each year between the ages of 10 and 19 who, according to published estimates, use relatives' guns to take their own lives.

Criminologists say they believe many of the nation's roughly 11,000 annual gun-related homicides are committed with stolen weapons. At least 18 police officers whose weapons were used against them have been killed in the line of duty since 2007.

Colt's Manufacturing Co., one of the nation's oldest gun makers, built a prototype smart gun in the late 1990s that could be fired only if the user wore a ring emitting a specific radio frequency. The project prompted sporadic boycotts of Colt by gun rights enthusiasts and was scuttled.

In 2000, rival Smith & Wesson promised to make all of its new guns available with high-tech safety features. The initiative, sparked by a request from the Clinton administration, was dropped after gun rights activists boycotted the company, nearly driving it out of business.

Detached from the politics of gun control in the United States, Dietel poured his fortune into building the iP1.

"The only reason we're here today is because our founder has his own money — no one could fire him," said Belinda Padilla, chief executive of Beverly Hills-based Armatix USA Inc.

Dietel drew on the expertise of his other company, SimonsVoss Technologies, when he launched Armatix. And he poached engineer Ernst Mauch from Germany's leading arms manufacturer to design the gun.

The .22-caliber iP1 fires only when it is within 15 inches of a synchronized wristband. A light on the butt of the weapon glows green when activated or red when it is too far from the wristband.

The $1,800 iP1 hit the U.S. market last year, landing in a political storm that had been brewing for more than a decade.

It began in 2002, when a New Jersey state senator sponsored a law to spur development of safer weapons and boost the fortunes of researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

The law required that 30 months after a viable smart weapon came to market, all new guns sold in the state had to be equipped with mechanisms to limit unauthorized use.

At the time, engineers at the university predicted their invention — a sensor that could identify a person's unique pattern of grasping a pistol — was years, if not decades, away from production.

The law helped attract research funding but largely faded from public consciousness because there were no working smart guns.

Until the Armatix iP1 arrived.

Raymond, the Maryland gun shop owner, jumped at the chance to sell the weapon. He thought it might appeal to customers who already owned guns, as well as to younger ones drawn to consumer electronics.

But before long, Raymond — who calls himself "a huge 2nd Amendment guy" — was the focus of threats to burn down his store and kill his bulldog, Brutus.

Enraged gun owners also lashed out against the Oak Tree Gun Club in Newhall, Calif., where the iP1 had been demonstrated and displayed in the pro shop.

Both businesses backed away from the gun. Armatix now distributes the weapon on its website, declining to say how many it has sold.

'Safety does sell'

The gun industry and gun rights activists are wary of smart weapons.

"There are serious questions about the reliability of this technology," said Mike Bazinet, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. "That's the main reason that firearms manufacturers do not feel this technology is ready to bring to the marketplace."

Those concerns were underscored in a report by Sandia National Laboratories in 1996 — and reaffirmed in 2001 — that law enforcement officers could not depend on personalized gun technology to fire when necessary. Since police departments tend to drive the civilian gun market, it was a damning assessment.

But in 2013, the Justice Department released a far more optimistic appraisal of smart gun technology, finding at least three firearms to be on the cusp of commercial use.

After the Sandy Hook massacre, surveys showed that gun users as well as those who had never owned a firearm were hungry for solutions to lessen the harm such weapons could inflict, said Dr. Garen Wintemute, an emergency physician and gun-violence researcher at UC Davis.

A nationally representative survey commissioned by organizers of the Seattle Smart Gun Symposium in January found that two-thirds of Americans believe dealers should offer guns fitted with technology that makes them more secure. In addition, 4 in 10 gun owners — and 54% of those between 18 and 44 — said they would "consider swapping" the guns currently in their homes for "new, safer smart guns when they come on the market."

"Safety does sell," Wintemute said.

Public health experts say the iP1 could shift the demographics of gun ownership in the United States by attracting people who have been too afraid to own firearms.

Ron Conway agrees. The San Francisco billionaire — who was an early investor in Google, PayPal and Facebook — started the Smart Tech for Firearms Challenge a year after the Newtown shootings, offering grants of $10,000 to $100,000 to develop safe, high-tech firearms.

One of his 15 grantees, Tom Lynch of Safe Gun Technology Inc. in Columbus, Ga., is putting the finishing touches on a fingerprint recognition device for the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle — an assault weapon that gun control activists repeatedly have sought to ban.

Gun owners, he said, want to be able to choose when to activate safe technology, when to turn it off and whom to designate as an authorized user. They want immediate and reliable access to their gun, with no extra steps.

In the face of political stalemate, even ardent backers of gun control legislation are pinning their hopes on smart technology.

"The 2nd Amendment is part of the landscape," said Ralph Fascitelli, president of Washington CeaseFire in Seattle. "Technology is the most appealing way out of this conundrum."

Steve Teret, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University who has tracked the evolution of smart weapons for more than three decades, said it was only a matter of time before they were readily available.

"I see more people involved and more interest," he said. "We're getting quite close to having personalized guns be a reality in the United States."

In the meantime, Armatix announced last month that it had entered Chapter 11-style restructuring proceedings in Germany. Advocates for safer firearms are closely tracking the company's fortunes.

melissa.healy@latimes.com

Twitter: LATMelissaHealy

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