New Jersey became the first state to enact "smart gun" legislation. What does that mean? You'll find out in this Science Update.
A gun that knows its owner's grip. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.
New Jersey law requires future handguns to be "smart" guns that fire only in the hands of their owners. Don Sebastian of the New Jersey Institute of Technology is leading the research.
His team didn't have much success using fingerprints or other physical features to identify the gun's owner. But they discovered an alternative:
...That when we measured pressure, by putting little tiny pressure transducers on the grip of the gun, and we measured how you squeeze while you're pulling the trigger over a finite period of time—about a tenth of a second—that we could differentiate amongst people.
In a months-long trial, a crude prototype gun correctly identified its owner 90 percent of the time, with or without gloves. Their next step is to make the technology reliable enough for the general public. I'm Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.
Making Sense of the Research
Here's an issue in which science and politics intersect. The State of New Jersey's "smart gun" law was an unusual kind of law: it made smart guns mandatory before smart guns really existed. Smart guns have been in development for many years, but they're still not quite ready for prime time. New Jersey's law requires that handgun manufacturers may sell only smart guns starting three years from when the technology hits the market.
There are many different ways to build a smart gun, but the end goal is always the same: to allow the gun to fire only in the hands of its registered owner. Theoretically, this would prevent a criminal from stealing a police officer's gun and using it to kill the officer (or someone else). It would also prevent children from accidentally killing themselves or others with a parent's gun.
The smart gun described here uses a system called dynamic biometrics. Biometrics is the science of using a person's unique physical features to identify him or her. Other biometric identification systems include fingerprint scanners, iris and retina scanners, and voice recognition programs.
Rather than identifying something fixed, like a fingerprint, a "dynamic" biometric system measures changes over time. As it turns out, the way you grip a gun—all the little changes in pressure as you squeeze the trigger—creates a pattern that's unique to you. What's more, the pattern is consistent: it can be identified even if you're tired, wearing gloves, or even if your hand is injured. (It turns out that your signature works in a similar way: the changes in pressure over time as you put pen to paper are far more consistent and recognizable than the way your signature actually looks.)
A 90 percent success rate is a good start, but Sebastian says the guns need to be nearly foolproof. By the time a gun actually falls into the wrong hands, one must assume that all the normal safeguards (like hiding the gun, or using trigger locks) have already failed. So part of the research will involve improving the gun to the highest possible standards.
Still, the very idea of smart guns remains controversial, no matter how successful they may appear. Some gun owners say the technology is unnecessary, while some gun opponents say it provides a false sense of security. You can read and discuss some of the political pros and cons by following the links below.
Now try and answer these questions:
- What is a "smart gun?"
- What are "dynamic biometrics?" How does this smart gun use dynamic biometrics?
- Can you think of other possible uses for dynamic biometric systems?
- Do you think smart guns are a good idea? Should they be required by law? Why or why not? (Use the links below to stimulate discussion.)
Read the State of New Jerseys press release, McGreevey Signs Law Requiring Child-Proof Handguns, on its smart gun law.
Read about objections to smart gun laws from both ends of the political spectrum: the Statement by NRA Chief Lobbyist Chris Cox on New Jersey 'Smart Gun' Legislation and The False Hope of the "Smart" Gun by the Violence Policy Center.