Development Of The Smart Gun

Will It Save Lives Or Spend Tax Dollars?

Most of us are familiar with the concept of a smart bomb. But have you heard about the smart gun? For some people concerned with the proliferation of gun violence, they may provide part of the answer.

A smart gun is a computerized handgun that can be fired only when it recognizes the person pulling the trigger. These guns are supposed to be safer than ordinary guns, and as 60 Minutes II Correspondent Vicki Mabrey reports, they could play an instrumental role in saving the lives of children killed in accidental shootings.

As president and CEO of Smith & Wesson, the worldÂ's largest manufacturer of handguns, Ed Shultz likes his weapons made the old-fashioned way. Although smart guns arenÂ't yet available, Shultz says his company is in no hurry.

"I think weÂ'll see guns that are capable of recognizing the user, the authorized user, within the next four, five years," he says.

But entrepreneur Bill PhillipsÂ' time frame is a bit different.

"There is no reason why these technologies canÂ't be perfected and brought to market within the next months, not years," Phillips says.

Smith & Wesson's Ed Shultz says his company is working on smart gun technology - for the future.
Phillips is a new kind of California microchip designer whoÂ's working on the cutting edge of smart-gun technology. Though he has never owned a gun in his life, Phillips has spent the last five years developing one of the worldÂ's first smart guns.

At a firing range near San Francisco, 60 Minutes II put PhillipsÂ' smart gun to the test. The gun has a computer microchip buried inside its handle and requires a wristband to fire. Without the wristband, which sends a signal to the gun, the trigger wonÂ't pull back and the gun wonÂ't fire.

"You donÂ't simply have to have this in a wristband form," he says. "We make a credit card that can go in your wallet. And we also put a manual bypass at the front, below the trigger guard, so that you can access the gun with a digital code."

"We have less failures with the microchips than the guns," Phillips continues. "The guns will jam more often than the problems weÂ're realizing with the microelectronics. So which is likely to fail first? I think the gun."

Phillips told Bryant Gumbel on The Early Show that scuba gear produced with the same microchips have an estimated 1.8 million hours collectively, and no failures.

Despite his enthusiasm, Phillips has failed to receive the support required to bring his smart gun to the marketplace.

For the past two years, Smith & Wesson has been packaging its uns with trigger locks. And CEO Shultz takes issue with those who think smart guns would be any safer than guns with an ordinary lock.

"Anybody who has a wristband can make the gun work," says Shultz. "Our key is no different. If you have the key to our lock, you can unlock it. If you have the wristband, you can unlock that one."

Entrepreneur Bill Phillips says that he has invented a safe, effective smart gun.
But the wristband variety isnÂ't the only kind of smart gun being developed. Steven Morton, a Connecticut microchip maker, is working on fingerprint technology that will only enable a smart gun to fire when it reads the fingerprint of its owner.

"With this gun, as you grab it, you would lay your finger upon the sensor, and, in less than a tenth of a second from the time you grabbed it, it would be ready to shoot," Morton explains.

The imaging chips Morton builds process live images such as fingerprint data very quickly.

"The primary market is for the home market, to help stop children killing children with guns," he adds.

But Morton says his smart gun can be configured so that couples and even police officers could use it.

"Each one of these little guys is an image-processor chip," he says.

"This will take the fingerprint images and compare them to the other fingerprints that are stored within the gun so that the gun can be fired by you and your partner, you and your spouse, so the same weapon can be fired by multiple people," he says.

Given the necessary funding, Morton says, prototypes could be available in about a year. But like Phillips, Morton is still looking for a gun company that will go into business with him.

"If they have to fund it out of their own pocket, theyÂ're afraid the market isnÂ't really there," says Morton.

But CEO Shultz disputes that. He says that not only is there money in smart guns, but that Smith & Wesson is already at work developing one.

"The gun that we are trying to develop would take away a concern of anyone other than the authorized user ever using that gun, ever," says Shultz.

"Someone else that came couldnÂ't make it work. WeÂ're talking about a gun that literally only works for the authorized user," he says.

For Shultz, itÂ's not easy being in the gun business these days. Every time thereÂ's a mass shooting, like the one at Columbine High School, Shultz feels the pressure building.

"People ask me, Â'How do you feel when something like Columbine happens?Â' The way I feel is exactly the way Bill Clinton felt when he bombed the Chinese embassy," says Shultz.

"Something designed to do something else somehow ended up where it shouldnÂ't have been. You feel terrible," he adds.

But advocates of gun control argue that manufacturers must take some responsibility for such violent acts.

"The gun industry thinks that they can close their eyes, and guns go wherever they go, and they have no responsibility. They do," says attorney John Coale.

Coale is among a group of lawyers suing the gun industry on behalf of big-city mayors sick and tired of gun violence. One of CoaleÂ's lawsuits accuses the industry of suppressing smart gun technology.

"WeÂ're not asking that Ed Shultz produce a gun thatÂ's never going to shoot anybody," says Coale. "But for LordÂ's sake, give it a shotÂ….ThereÂ's 25 zillion regulations against guns. But not the important things."

While Coale says thereÂ's not a lot of money to be made off smart guns, his main motivation continues to be getting guns off the street.

"I donÂ't care if people want to own guns, thatÂ's great. But letÂ's get them out of the hands of nuts, children and criminals. And letÂ's make them safe," he says.

The idea that gun makers ought to make a safe gun originated in the mind of Stephen Teret, a lawyer and public health researcher in Baltimore.

Seven years ago, Teret gave a group of engineering students $2,000 and a class assignment to make a gun that only its owner could fire.

The finished product wasnÂ't pretty, but it proved a point: that smart-gun technology exists.

"ThereÂ's no question in my mind that if the gun manufacturers put their minds to it, they can make a gun thatÂ's far safer than the guns that are being marketed today," Teret says.

His crusade to develop a safe gun was inspired by his earlier work on auto safety.

"We didnÂ't only say, Â'Look, I want you to drive more carefully.Â' We finally came to the point of view that we could redesign the car to make the car crash-worthy," Teret explains.

"Congress told car manufacturers, Â'Redesign the car, make it so the occupant of a car can withstand the forces of a crash without those forces being fatal to the occupant,Â'" he adds.

"And thatÂ's when we put in seat belts, we put in air bags,...and hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved since then," he says. "We can do the same thing about guns."

If the gun industry ever begins to mass produce smart guns, the biggest opponent of the idea wonÂ't be the National Rifle Association, but an influential arm of the gun control movement.

"The smart gun is a hoax. ItÂ's a very seductive hoax, but nevertheless itÂ's a hoax," says Tom Diaz, author and senior analyst for the Violence Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group that favors a total ban on handguns, including smart guns.

"At bottom, this is a ploy, a very clever ploy, by the gun industry to use your tax dollars and my tax dollars to expand its markets," says Diaz.

"Yowill never be able to come up with a system thatÂ's going to make handguns safe, to make handguns go away, until we say, Â'WeÂ've got an industry that pours onto our markets millions of deadly, lethal killing instruments. And weÂ've got to stop that,Â'" he observes.

"I feel that the smart gun ultimately will take more livesÂ…than it will save," he says.

Every day in America, an estimated 87 people are killed by guns. The government projects that in just three years, more people will be dying from gunfire than in automobile accidents.

Since most people who kill with guns are authorized to own them, the question is what kind of impact will smart guns have?

"A truly smart gun, if it was that smart, would be able to recognize the intentions of the user," says Shultz. "And so I doubt if weÂ'll get to that, at least in my lifetime."