Safety tech­nol­ogy could save lives. Can it make it on the U.S. mar­ket?

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Melissa Healy

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


The Ar­matix iP1 and other so­called 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 En--

gage 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 gun­re­lated 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, Simons Voss 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, 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 nec- es­sary. 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 inf lict, 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 twothirds 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 Cease Fire 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.

Ge­naro Molina Los An­ge­les Times

THE AR­MATIX iP1 can be fired only if its user is wear­ing a wire­less wrist­band that broad­casts on a spe­cific fre­quency.

Ge­naro Molina

BELINDA PADILLA, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Ar­matix USA Inc., with the iP1 in 2013. Sim­i­lar “smart” guns by other mak­ers were scut­tled be­cause of neg­a­tive re­ac­tion. Ar­matix was able to build the iP1 “be­cause our founder has his own money — no one could fire him,” Padilla said.

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