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Electronics personalize guns

DN Staff

July 7, 1997

5 Min Read
Electronics personalize guns

Of the victims of serious crimes in 1993, 1.3 million victims report that they faced an offender with a firearm, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey. Add to that the FBI report of 17,168 murders committed with firearms that same year, and it's clear that any discussion of ways to reduce crime and its effects has to consider gun safety.

The statistics parade continues: Thirteen police officers are killed each year in the line of duty with either their own or a fellow officer's gun, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice.

More than half a million guns are stolen from homes each year, says a report in the Journal of Crime and Criminology. Many of those guns are then illegally sold on the street and used to commit still more crimes. In fact, studies show that 40 to 70% of the guns used by felons are stolen--most from private homes.

But what if only a gun's legal owner could fire the weapon? By personalizing a gun, manufacturers could reduce gun deaths through design changes--and maybe take a bite out of crime.

Clearly, not all gun deaths are preventable with personalized, or "smart," guns. There were 38,500 gun deaths in the U.S. in 1994, says Jon S. Vernick, associate director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University. "No one would want to suggest that personalized guns would have prevented all those deaths," he says, "but we think it might prevent not just the law-enforcement killings, but teen suicides and some unintentional deaths among children."

And manufacturers say that if a personalized gun were stolen, the criminal would have to have access to a machine shop to make that gun operable. "The technology also decreases the temptation for a criminal to burglarize the home," adds Vernick, "because the value of a personalized gun on the street might be dramatically diminished."

No guns come standard with devices that effectively personalize a weapon, but there are several that can be fitted to the firearm after purchase. Many of these devices use magnets, which are easy to overcome. In some cases, a magnetized ring on the finger lets someone fire any gun that has been modified. Other magnet-based systems require the owner to have the magnet in a precise position to get the gun to work. If the magnet's off by just a degree, the reliability takes a dive.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) funded preliminary smart-gun research at Sandia National Laboratories. Sandia researchers concluded that radio-frequency (RF) technology would be best for the application because an RF signal could contain a code programmed into one or more firearms so that one or more officers could use the same gun. Basically, it's the same technology that lets you push a button on your car's keyfob to remotely lock or unlock the doors or trunk.

Colt's Manufacturing Co., Hartford, CT, got funding from the NIJ to develop a smart gun prototype for law enforcement based on the Sandia research. The platform is Colt's Law Enforcement Pistol--a .40-caliber semiautomatic. TEK Industries, Manchester, CT, did the electronics work for the first prototype.

Radio signals allow an RF receiver in the weapon to recognize and respond to a transponder worn by the authorized user. The transponder's range is only a few inches, so the gun won't work for a stranger who snatches it. The weapon can recognize up to 50 transponders, so other police officers could fire the gun, if necessary.

Kevin Kaminski is the development engineering test lab manager for Colt's. "Reliability was one of the key design requirements," he says. "Another was ease of use. You wouldn't want to change the design of the base firearm to the point where it would actually change the characteristics of use. You want it to work the same way an ordinary firearm would work, but with a smart gun, you're adding another level of safety: use denial."

Colt's just got funding from the NIJ for the second prototype, which will be tested by a group assembled by the Law Enforcement Council. The program started in May 1997 and will last one year.

Changes. In the second prototype, the goals are to improve reliability and shrink the electronics.

Designers plan to include everything that was in the magazine into the frame--but without changing the basic dimensions of the gun.

Another feature slated for change is the transponder. The first prototype uses an active device that transmits an RF pulse all the time and so requires a battery. The plan for the second prototype to go to a passive system. Such a system would be an inductively coupled transponder that wouldn't need its own power supply, but you'd have to charge the gun's electronics or get batteries that last an entire shift.

Colt's officials and others estimate that adding the electronics to make a gun smart would initially increase the price about 50%. The firm's plan is to make the gun available for law-enforcement personnel within three years and then approach the civilian market.

How a personalized gun works

Colt's Manufacturing Co.'s first working smart-gun prototype, the EP-1, works by using short-range radio frequency (RF) to enable and disable the gun. When energized, the gun emits a radio signal from the electronics in the magazine. When within 10 inches of the gun, a small transponder, worn by the person authorized to use the gun, receives this signal and returns a 918-MHz signal with a unique embedded HEX code. When the gun picks up that signal, a micromotor removes a blocking pin from the trigger mechanism, enabling the gun to fire. When the transponder is beyond 10 inches of the receiver, the motor turns in the direction that causes the armature's appendage to block the trigger pull.

EP-1 demonstrates that all the necessary electronic and mechanical components can fit inside a full-size pistol, and that authorization can be made well within the time required to draw and aim a weapon.

Colt's started designing its second smart-gun prototype in May. It will incorporate a much smaller transponder, an integrated power supply and RF module in the grip, a laser aiming device, an improved blocking device, and a small on-board diagnostic display.

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