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Gun safety advocates support ‘smart’ technology to prevent accidental deaths

October 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
New guns that won't fire for anyone who hasn't been authorized are on their way to the market. Proponents of these "smart" firearms say they can prevent accidental deaths, but gun rights activists say additional safety feature aren't necessary. Ray Suarez reports on the new technology in the gun debate.

GWEN IFILL: Next: Can guns be made safer by making them smarter?

Ray Suarez explores the possibilities of personalizing gun technology.

BELINDA PADILLA, Armatix U.S. Division: This is button number one, number two, number three, and number four.

RAY SUAREZ: At a firing range in Southern California, Belinda Padilla prepares to demonstrate a new gun. The gun knows if you are allowed to fire it.

BELINDA PADILLA: Once you synch the watch to the firearm, it is now a personalized firearm, and you can never use it as a regular firearm. So, only the authorized user will be able to shoot the firearm.

RAY SUAREZ: The new handgun, manufactured by the German company Armatix, uses radio frequency built into a wristwatch that must be worn in order to fire the gun.

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So they’re — these two units are speaking to each other?

BELINDA PADILLA: These two units — yes, this is radio frequency technology.

RAY SUAREZ: Belinda Padilla is the president and CEO for the U.S. division of Armatix. A personal pin or code number activates the gun.

BELINDA PADILLA: If I only want to activate the handgun for four hours or two hours, I decide.

RAY SUAREZ: The Armatix gun is not yet on the market in the U.S., but national debate this past year over how to decrease gun violence has brought attention to owner-authorized technologies.

BELINDA PADILLA: The purpose is to provide safety for the Americans that want to protect their family.

RAY SUAREZ: Padilla showed us how the gun won’t fire when taken away.

BELINDA PADILLA: What Victor is going to do is, he’s going to shoot two rounds. And then what I’m going to do is I’m going to demonstrate how the technology works. I’m going to take the firearm from him once he has shot the two rounds, and you will see the light turn green, from green, which means he’s the authorized user, to red, which means I’m the unauthorized user, and the firearm will not shoot.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let’s see. The red light on the handgun indicates Padilla is not the owner.

BELINDA PADILLA: It won’t fire.

RAY SUAREZ: And then he takes it back and it will just rev up again? He doesn’t have to do anything, huh? Oh, there’s the green light.

Long in research and development, owner-authorized guns like Armatix’s have been dubbed smart guns. Other personalized technologies in development include the use of biometrics, like fingerprints or palm prints, to identify the owner. Hollywood wowed moviegoers with the personalized gun technology in the James Bond movie “Skyfall.”

ACTOR: It’s been coded to your palm print, so only you can fire it.

RAY SUAREZ: And while the Bond-style gun is now only available on the silver screen, gun safety advocates believe the time is right for such technologies.

Stephen Teret is the director for the Center for Law and the Public’s Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He believes not enough focus is spent on changing the design of guns as a way to decrease gun violence.

STEPHEN TERET, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Instead of saying to people, here’s how you have to handle your gun, here’s how you have to behave with your gun, we should look at the product itself, the gun, and say, is there something we can do to the gun to reduce at least some of these deaths?

RAY SUAREZ: The latest gun death figures from 2010 reported more than 31,000 deaths from firearms; 61 percent of those, three out of every five, were suicides, some of which were teenagers, between 2 percent and 4 percent were accidental deaths, and the rest, more than 10,000, were homicides.

Armatix hopes its technology will prevent some of those deaths.

BELINDA PADILLA: We don’t want children killing other children. We don’t want mentally ill committing suicide. Our goal is to provide firearms that are safe that only the authorized user can fire.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Teret says technological changes to guns could make a difference, the same way automobile deaths decreased sharply after safety devices like seat belts and air bags were introduced.

STEPHEN TERET: The most effective tool was changing the design of cars, and that’s in large part why I believe that we and do the same thing with guns. We do have to try to get people to act prudently with the gun that they have, but if we change the product, we’re going to be even more effective than trying to change the behavior of hundreds of millions of people.

LAWRENCE KEANE, National Shooting Sports Foundation: The firearm is now secure.

RAY SUAREZ: That is not a view shared by Lawrence Keane from the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

LAWRENCE KEANE: Every firearm can be locked one way or another, without the use of some high-tech — high-tech gadgetry or so-called smart guns.

RAY SUAREZ: Keane says focusing on product safety and changing the design of guns is unwarranted.


LAWRENCE KEANE: Firearms are safe if they’re used properly. And so — and the statics support that. Accidents are declining. Firearm manufacturers are providing a locking device with their products free of charge, so if you buy a firearm today, you’re going to get a lock with that gun. Federal law requires locks to be provided by the dealer when they sell a handgun, for example.

RAY SUAREZ: Meanwhile, politics has taken aim at the gun market with the introduction of a law that would mandate the sale of so-called smart guns.

Congressman John Tierney of Massachusetts introduced the Personalized Handgun Safety Act of 2013, which wouldn’t only fund more research for owner-authorized guns, but mandate their sales.

REP. JOHN TIERNEY, D-Mass.: It gives a two-year period of time, after which all the manufacturers have to sell only handguns that are personalized, whether they use the radio technology, or fingerprint, or palm pressure.

RAY SUAREZ: And while Tierney’s bill has little chance of passing, the congressman says he wants the legislation to bring attention to accidental child deaths.

Tierney points to cases like that of 12-year-old Brian Crowell a boy in his Massachusetts district who in 1997 was shot and killed accidentally by a loaded gun in his best friend’s house.

Ann Marie Crowell is Brian’s mother.

ANN MARIE CROWELL, mother of victim: The gun went off, and it hit Brian right in the neck. And the last words he said to his friend were, “I can’t believe you shot me.” And he ran out of the room, and he attempted to run home, and he only made it down the stairs to the living room in the boy’s house, and collapsed on the floor. It was life-changing for the family.

RAY SUAREZ: Since the accident, Crowell works to get parents to ask other parents if guns in their house are safely stored and locked. She supports the legislation.

ANN MARIE CROWELL: Now, I’m not against people wanting to be secure, you know, feel safe in their own home, but what is wrong with having a little more safeguards to it?

RAY SUAREZ: But Lawrence Keane doesn’t believe the personalized guns are safer and says mandates are the wrong way to go.

LAWRENCE KEANE: The industry is not opposed to the research and development of this technology. What we are opposed to is legislative mandates to require this one-size-fits-all technology for all firearms owners, and we don’t think that that’s the way things ought to work. You can bring a product to market. If there’s consumer demand, consumers will buy it, but you shouldn’t force it upon all consumers.

RAY SUAREZ: I have a green indication.

Armatix hopes to have its owner-authorized gun available for sale in the U.S. this fall.