'Smart Gun' Technology Getting Closer
The new VeriChip promises to keep police guns from firing if they fall into the wrong hands. Photo: Steve Mitchell/AP
PALM BEACH, Fla. — A new computer chip promises to keep police guns from firing if they fall into the wrong hands.
The tiny chip would be implanted in a police officer's hand and would match up with a scanning device inside a handgun. If the officer and gun match, a digital signal unlocks the trigger so it can be fired. But if a child or criminal would get hold of the gun, it would be useless.
The technology is the latest attempt to create a so-called "smart gun" and could be marketed to law enforcement agencies within a year, according to Verichip Corp., which has created the microchip.
Verichip president Keith Bolton said that the technology could also improve safety for the military and individual gun owners.
"If you let your mind wander to other potential uses, you can imagine the lives that could be saved," he said.
Verichip, which has marketed similar microchips for security and medical purposes, announced Tuesday a partnership with gun maker FN Manufacturing to produce the smart weapons. The companies have developed a prototype and are working to refine its accuracy, Mr. Bolton said.
Similar developments are under way at other gun manufacturers and research firms. The New Jersey Institute of Technology and Australian gun maker Metal Storm Ltd. are working on a prototype smart gun that would recognize its owner's individual grip.
"We're at an interesting age where all sorts of science fiction is becoming real technology," said Donald Sebastian, NJIT vice-president for research and development and director of the project.
The technology could also eventually have an even bigger impact on the illegal gun trade, Mr. Sebastian said.
The FBI estimated that 67 per cent of the 16,204 murders in 2002 were committed with firearms.
"You have a long-term benefit of making it much more difficult for a handgun to have any value to anyone other than the original owner," Mr. Sebastian said.
But until the smart-gun technology is repeatedly proved to be reliable, some law-enforcement authorities remain leery.
The scanning device could malfunction, the officer's hand with the computer chip could be smashed during a fight or an officer might need to use a partner's gun, West Palm Beach police training Sgt. William Sandman said.
"We have power outages, computers crash. Would you risk your life knowing all those things that could go wrong?" Sgt. Sandman said.
Verichip's Mr. Bolton said those concerns already are being addressed. He said the guns can be designed to work for an officer, his partner and a supervisor. Departments could set routines where the scanning devices in guns could be checked before every shift.
The chip needs no battery or power source. It works much like those that have been implanted in pets over the past decade so they can be identified if they get lost. Verichip, a subsidiary of the Palm Beach-based technology firm Applied Digital Solutions, developed a "more intelligent" version two years ago for humans and estimates that about 900 people worldwide have been implanted with them.
The chips can be used instead of security key cards at office buildings or to use global positioning satellites to keep track of a relative who might suffer from Alzheimer's. It can store medical information that emergency rooms could read or financial and identification information to prevent fraud.
The chip, about the size of a grain of rice, is inserted into an arm or hand with a syringe — much like a shot is given.
Mr. Bolton said the company has seen no medical complications and that the technology will only improve with time.
Once the technology is accepted, legislation could follow to encourage the use of smart guns. New Jersey already has passed legislation that will require smart gun technology on all handguns sold — three years after the state attorney general certifies that smart guns are available in the marketplace.
The National Rifle Association opposes the legislation because of potential problems with smart-gun technology, but gun safety advocates argue that the technology could encourage gun ownership with the newfound sense of security.
"It seems that guns are the only product that haven't followed a path of development that leads to greater safety for the user. The only real change we've seen is to make them more lethal and smaller so they can be more easily concealed," said Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for the Brady Centre to Prevent Gun Violence.
"This is one of the steps that hasn't been taken and we think this debate is one that needs to take place."