In 1999, New Jersey's lawmakers approved a grant to researchers at New Jersey Institute of Technology to study personalized gun technology. Those efforts focused on adding transducers to a gun's handle to detect the grasp of an authorized user. Meanwhile, the Justice Department offered a challenge grant to gun makers and although two responded, they made limited headway by the time $7 million in funding ran out.
Work on personalized weapons suffered another setback after gun rights' groups boycotted Smith & Wesson over a 2000 agreement it signed with the Clinton administration in which the manufacturer made numerous promises, including one to develop smart guns.
Meanwhile, the New Jersey school, funded by Congressional earmarks, tried repeatedly to find a commercial partner for its work. But even as NJIT bolstered the reliability of its prototype, which now has a recognition rate of about 97 percent, it found it a hard sell. Talks with a Florida gun maker at first seemed productive until industry activists pressured the company to back away, said Donald Sebastian, NJIT's senior vice president for research and development .
"Their claim that these are just blue state liberals looking to take your guns away, it just inflames people to not think a little more rationally," Sebastian said.
"Yes it's a frustrating experience, but we have to be adults," he said. "I think it's been a long lesson to learn that this intermingling of the concepts of gun safety and gun control are ultimately poison."
Mike Bazinet, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents gun manufacturers, said questions remain about whether the technology has been improved enough to assure police officers and civilians a personalized weapon would fire when they need protection. But there are also concerns "about individual consumers' ability to choose the firearm that they think is best for them," Bazinet said.
But gun makers and owners have not been the only critics. Activists from the Violence Policy Center, an outspoken gun control group, also spoke against personalized weapons.
"If a smart gun did exist what would its effect be, taking into consideration the nature of gun violence in this country?" said Josh Sugarmann, the group's executive director. "Would you place families at risk or people at risk by giving this impression that this is a safe gun? You know, people who wouldn't normally buy a gun, would they buy one now?"
NJIT's Sebastian, who joined a group of personalized gun advocates who met recently with Attorney General Eric Holder to push for their development, said his school has seen some renewed interest and is talking with officials at Picatinny Arsenal, which develops weapons for the U.S. military.
Meanwhile, two European companies working on personalized gun technology have their eyes on the U.S. market. One of those firms, TriggerSmart Ltd. of Limerick, Ireland, has developed a system using Radio Frequency Identification that would be built into the handle of a gun and triggered by a device the size of a grain of rice inside a user's ring or bracelet. Co-founder Robert McNamara said he is seeking to license the technology to a U.S. manufacturer, but is looking at the possibility of producing kits for retrofitting existing guns.
Another venture, Armatix GmbH of Unterfoehring, Germany, says it has developed a personalized gun, with settings based on radio frequency technology and biometrics, that was approved by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in late 2011. Armatix said it hopes to begin selling the gun as well as accompanying safety and locking systems in the U.S. this year, but would not provide details.
Teret, who long ago launched the campaign for personalized guns, acknowledged much has to happen before they become a reality. But the White House has promised to issue a report on the technology and award prizes to companies that come up with innovative and cost-effective personalized guns, and its interest has rejuvenated hopes that the gun of the future may actually have one.
"For 30 years, at best we've been inching forward at a glacial pace," he said. "And now this puts it up to warp speed."
Associated Press writer David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report. Adam Geller, a New York-based national writer, can be reached at features(at)ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/AdGeller .