Guns That Know Their Owners

handgun against backdrop of U.S. flag and the capitol building
Handgun buyers in New Jersey may eventually have another step to take to meet state regulations - getting their gun grips programmed at a shop or police firing range.

In an attempt to prevent accidental gun deaths and suicides, New Jersey is requiring handguns of the future to have a special mechanism that will allow only their owners to fire them.

It's the first law of its kind in the nation. Similar bills have been introduced in other states, including New York, Ohio, Tennessee and in Congress.

Although the state enacted the legislation Monday, the law will not go into effect immediately because the technology is still under development and it could be years before it becomes a reality.

It will be required in all new handguns sold three years after the state attorney general determines the so-called smart gun prototype is safe and commercially available. Weapons used by law enforcement officers would be exempt until a commission determines whether the requirement should apply to them.

Although the technology is not ready to be used yet, supporters hailed the law as an important milestone in the campaign to reduce handgun deaths.

"This is common sense legislation. There are safety regulations on cars, on toys. It's clearly time we have safety regulations on handguns," Gov. James E. McGreevey said the bill signing ceremony.

But opponents argued that it makes little sense to legislate a technology that does not yet exist and have raised questions about its reliability.

"No technology is foolproof," said Nancy Ross, spokeswoman for the Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs. "Anyone who has a computer knows how many times it crashes."

The smart gun concept first started to receive attention in New Jersey when Jacob Locicero, whose daughter Amy was murdered in 1993, approached Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg about it six years ago.

At the New Jersey Institute of Technology, a "smart gun" prototype is being developed that would use sensors on the pistol grip to identify a user.

Owners would have their grip programmed by practice-firing the weapon. A microchip in the weapon would remember the grip and determine in an instant whether the authorized user was holding it. If not, the gun would not fire.

Other possibilities include the use of fingerprints to identify the owner.

Researchers say a viable smart gun prototype can be developed in about two years with $4 million to $5 million more in funding.

"What we have is a demonstration concept," said Donald Sebastian of the New Jersey Institute of Technology. "It is not yet a proven technology."

By Peter Saharko