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Tech Industry

Justice Dept. reaches for "smart" gun

The federal agency teams up with high-tech gun maker Metal Storm to devise firearms that recognize whose finger is on the trigger.

    The U.S. Justice Department is turning to technology to help guns recognize whose finger is on the trigger.

    The National Institute of Justice, the research and development arm of the Justice Department, is teaming up with Metal Storm, an electronic gun maker, to study how a firearm could be designed to determine whether the person wielding it should be allowed to fire it.

    "If an officer drops a gun or it is taken away from him during a tussle, a 'smart' gun could not be turned against him because there would be means of specifically identifying the authorized user," said Charles Vehlow, Metal Storm's chief corporate officer. "The study will identify the various technologies that could make this possible and recommend the best ones to use."

    The research will focus on biometrics systems such as fingerprint technologies, computer chips that could be programmed to recognize an individual's grip or other physical features, and electronic keys and codes.

    "Biometrics clearly have advantages over keys and codes in terms of time needed to activate or disarm a firearm," said Vehlow.

    Interest in biometrics--systems that recognize people by scanning for unique physical features such as fingerprints, an eye's iris and the contour of a face--has surged since the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center in September 2001. Law enforcement agencies and private companies in the airline and travel industry are hoping to rely in part on some new technologies to help counter security threats.

    Within law enforcement, there is a sense of urgency to find a way to protect officers from their own firearms. A review conducted over a 10-year period looking at how law enforcement officers were killed found that one in six was shot to death by their own firearm after being disarmed by a suspect. The report, dubbed the "FBI's Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted Uniform Crime Report," also found that 113 firearms were stolen from police officers during that period.

    Earlier, the National Institute of Justice funded the Sandia National Laboratories, to the tune of $500,000 to study the problem of firearms being taken away from police officers, identifying the extent to which officers are assaulted and killed with their own firearms and also identifying the requirements officers would want in a "smart gun."

    The institute is providing Metal Storm, a company traded on the Nasdaq Stock Market, with almost $200,000 for the current research and development. The company, based in Arlington, Va., said it would submit the results of the study in the first half of 2003, providing an analysis of the design, use, manufacturing process and costs of delivery a "smart gun."