'Smart' Guns Would Only Allow the Right Hands to Shoot Them

We're getting closer to creating personalized weapons that respond only to the proper touch or signal.

May 22 2013, 7:15pm
Image via Armatix

We often talk about guns "falling into the wrong hands," an acknowledgement that weapons are as innocent as the people they kill and only as righteous as the people who use them. Stopping guns from ending up in the wrong hands is a monumental task, but what if only the right hands could actually fire them?

We've tried for decades to develop "smart guns" that discern the identities or the integrity of their handlers. But attempts to mix microchips and guns in the 1990s were hampered by dodgy, costly, and cumbersome technology.

Now, technologists and entrepreneurs are getting closer to creating personalized weapons that respond only to the proper touch or signal.

"Suppose you and your family are on vacation in Las Vegas, and your firearm is back at home.  Wouldn’t you want to know in real time if an intruder or worse, a child is handling your gun?" said Bob Stewart, CEO of San Francisco Bay Area company Yardarm Technologies.

Yardarm has developed a wireless controller that alerts gun owners when their weapons are being moved, and allows them to disable the guns remotely. With the push of a button—accessed through a laptop or smartphone app—the owner can activate the gun's trigger safety, rendering it useless. The company calls it the "Safety First solution."

Yardarm presented a prototype of its technology at an IT conference in Las Vegas this week. When the company is ready to roll out its service, gun owners can pay $50 to install special geo-locator microchips in their rifles and pistols. When the chip receives a signal from its owner, it activates a series of "antennas" wrapped around the gun's grip that lock the safety. Ta-dah! James Bond's palm-print-activated Walther PPK has nothing on a remote control on/off switch.

Speaking of which, that very same gadget is being pursued by researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology as we speak. Rather than reading a palm print, per se, the gun grip would analyze the holder's hand size and shape and grip strength.

"Only you can fire it," Bond's quartermaster tells him in the latest film. "Less of a random killing machine. More of a personal statement."

Two other companies, Armatix and Triggersmart, outfit guns with radio frequency sensors that unlock only if the handler is wearing a special wristwatch or bracelet and enters the right PIN code. Gun owners might one day have the option of getting little hand implants to avoid the burden of wearing a certain piece of jewelry any time they want to shoot something. The guns are already for sale in Asia and Europe.

Just beyond ensuring safety, smart guns present a political conundrum we haven't even begun to unravel. The NRA is, of course, skeptical that any kind of sensors or geo-locators in guns could be used by the feds to track gun owners into their living rooms and watch them in their sleep. The group says that any added cost associated with a safety device amounts to "a luxury tax on self-defense."

But with just about everything else in Barack Obama's 23-point gun violence reduction plan from January gun having failed, smart guns might be the safest step to take—personally and politically.