NEW YORK (AP) — It sounds, at first, like a bold, next-generation solution: personalizing guns with technology that keeps them from firing if they ever get into the wrong hands.
But when the White House called for pushing ahead with such new technology as part of President Obama's plan to cut gun violence, the administration did not mention the concept's embattled past. As with so much else in the nation's long-running divisions over gun rights and regulation, what sounds like a futuristic vision is, in fact, an idea that has been kicked around for years, sidelined by intense suspicion, doubts about feasibility and pressure tactics.
Now proponents of so-called personalized or smart guns are hoping the nation's renewed attention on firearms following the Newtown school massacre will kick start research and sale of safer weapons. But despite the Obama administration's promise to "encourage the development of innovative gun safety technology," advocates have good reason to be wary.
In the fiery debate over guns, personalized weapons have long occupied particularly shaky ground — an idea criticized both by gun-rights groups and some gun control advocates.
To the gun groups, the idea of using technology to control who can fire a gun smacks of a limitation on personal rights, particularly if it might be mandated by government. At the same time, some gun control advocates worry that such technology, by making guns appear falsely safe, would encourage Americans to stock up on even more weapons then they already have in their homes.
Without the politics, the notion of using radio frequency technology, biometric sensors or other gadgetry in a gun capable of recognizing its owner sounds like something straight out of James Bond. In fact, it is. In the latest Bond flick, "Skyfall," Agent 007's quartermaster passes him a 9 mm pistol coded to his palm print.
"Only you can fire it," the contact tells the agent. "Less of a random killing machine. More of a personal statement."
In real life, though, there's no getting around the politics, and the debate over personalized guns long ago strayed well beyond questions of whether the technology will work.
Those were the first questions asked in 1994 when the research arm of the Justice Department began studying prospects of making a police gun that a criminal would not be able to fire if he wrestled it away during a struggle. Scientists at Sandia National Laboratories examined available technology in 1996 and found it promising, but wanting.
By then the notion of a safe gun had long captivated Stephen Teret, a former attorney and public health expert at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who had gone after automakers for not including air bags in their cars. In 1983, he got a call that the 22-month-old son of a couple he knew had been killed by a 4-year-old who found a loaded gun in a nightstand drawer.
"Very definitely, that was the genesis," said Teret, who went on to found Hopkins' Center for Gun Policy and Research. "Because when one thinks of something as a public health person the first thing is you're sick with grief and the second thing that comes to mind is why in the world would there be a handgun operable by a 4-year-old?"
Teret began trying to get lawmakers and gun makers interested in the concept of personalized weapons. He convinced U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colorado, to earmark funding for the Justice study. And in the mid-1990s he voiced support for a project at Colt's Manufacturing Co., the legendary but beleaguered gun maker that saw an opportunity to sell safe guns to police officers and parents of young children.
Colt's developed a gun equipped with a microchip that would prevent it from firing unless the user was wearing an enabling device located in a special wristband. But gun rights activists were skeptical, partly because the government was funding research of the concept and because gun control advocates like Teret embraced it. At about the same time, New Jersey lawmakers began discussing a measure requiring all new handguns sold in the state to be personalized, three years after the technology came to market. The measure passed in 2002.
Owners' skepticism was heightened in 1997 when Colt's CEO Ronald Stewart wrote an editorial in American Firearms Industry magazine calling on fellow manufacturers to parry gun control efforts by backing a federal gun registry and developing personalized weapons.
"While technology such as this should not be mandated it should be an option for the consumer," Stewart wrote. "If we can send a motorized computer to Mars, then certain we can advance our technology to be more childproof."
Stewart did not respond to a message seeking comment left at a Connecticut company where he now serves on the board of directors.
Soon after, the Coalition of New Jersey Sportsmen — a state affiliate of the National Rifle Association — began calling for a boycott of Colt's. It warned that personalized technology might make it difficult for gun owners to defend themselves and called the company's conduct "detrimental to American-style freedoms and liberties."