It seemed like such a great idea at the time.
A nationally respected engineering university in downtown Newark set out to design a safer gun with high-tech electronic locks to prevent it from being fired by a thief or a child who found it accidentally. In Trenton, the governor even signed a law ordering New Jersey’s firearms dealers to sell only so-called smart guns once the first one hit the market.
But that was 2002. Much has changed since then — some say, for the worse.
The New Jersey mandate, known as the Childproof Handgun Law, is now considered a well-meaning but misguided failure that sparked a vigorous campaign by gun-rights proponents to block the sale of “smart” firearms with safety locks. The law’s Democratic supporters announced this month they want to revamp it.
Meanwhile, smart guns are not available in New Jersey — or anywhere else in America — even though consumer studies suggest that as many as two-thirds of gun owners would opt for high-tech locking systems on their firearms if they were reliable. And in Newark, an ambitious, decade-long research project at the New Jersey Institute of Technology to develop just such a reliable electronic safety lock for firearms has been shut down.
“The project is dead,” said Donald H. Sebastian, the NJIT administrator who emerged as one of America’s most vocal proponents of smart-gun research — and, as a result, a target of gun-rights advocates who argued NJIT was part of a conspiracy to promote more control over firearms.
How did this happen? How could a project that did not aim to limit guns so much as to make them safer fall so flat with gun owners?
There are many ways to examine America’s long-running debate over gun rights and why constructive solutions seem so elusive even as mass shootings have increased in recent years, including one on Friday in which a man shot a dozen people — killing a police officer and two civilians and injuring nine others — at a Planned Parenthood center in Colorado. The recent attacks in Paris also renewed fears that terrorists could obtain high-powered firearms all too easily.
Lost in the political posturing over gun control is the frustrating story of the scientists who tried to create smart guns. And one of the most poignant lessons in that fractious narrative can be found on the campus of New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Fifteen years ago, NJIT was viewed as a major hub for research on smart guns. In the quiet of two laboratories not far from some of Newark’s most violent neighborhoods where shootings are a disquieting fact of life, a team of researchers worked for more than a decade to equip firearms with a biometric code-locking system that would allow only their licensed owners to fire them.
The basic concept was to use the same type of biometric identification coding systems that are now being tested at airports to screen passengers and in some hospitals to monitor how medicine is dispensed to patients.
But the NJIT project was only one of several smart-gun research efforts.
Elsewhere, scientists had equipped guns with radio transmitters linked to special watches, medallions or rings that would be worn by a gun’s owner. Other researchers developed guns with the kinds of fingerprint locks now common to some new models of cellphones. And scientists as far back as the early 1990s had developed a rudimentary system of locking triggers with ATM-like PIN numbers and passwords.
Today, much of this research is dormant, and the NJIT story is particularly discouraging.
Staff, funding gone
None of NJIT’s smart-gun researchers work there anymore. One professor quit to take a Wall Street data analysis job that has nothing to do with firearms. Another died of pancreatic cancer.
Meanwhile, federal and state funding for smart-gun research — NJIT received $4 million, Sebastian said, and more was in the offing — has dried up. The two NJIT laboratories that were set aside for the design and testing of smart guns have been taken over by other scientists with research grants in unrelated fields.
“It’s frustrating. It’s maddening. It’s ludicrous,” said Sebastian, NJIT’s senior vice president for research and development as well as the CEO of the college’s Innovation Institute, which specializes in scientific research for business needs.
Even if Sebastian wanted to rekindle NJIT’s research, he said he would need a year or longer to gear up and hire new researchers. And then, NJIT would likely confront the same problem that overwhelmed its efforts — strong opposition from gun-rights advocates who continue to see any attempt to tinker with weapons technology as an underhanded conspiracy to limit access to firearms by private, law-abiding citizens.
What is striking about this debate over smart guns is that they don’t look all that different from the millions of ordinary handguns and rifles that are so common across America. Supporters liken the advent of smart-gun technology to the mandatory installation, starting nearly a half-century ago, of seat belts in cars, arguing that it promotes safety without altering the essential elements of design and function.
The NJIT team was working to equip guns with biometric sensors, powered by tiny batteries, by embedding them in the grip or trigger. If a child picked up a parent’s gun, it would not fire because the child’s “print” would be different. Likewise, if the gun were stolen, it would be useless because the biometric fingerprint wouldn’t match.
But smart guns never reached the market. And at NJIT, the problem was not the talent of its scientists or even the reliability and usefulness of biometrics. The university’s research became captive to — and was eventually defeated by — the volatile politics of America’s debate over gun rights.
Ironically, the state law that initially provided a boost to the NJIT project — the Childproof Handgun Law of 2002 — was enacted as a political attempt by progressive Democrats and some Republicans to outflank the National Rifle Association and other firearms rights lobbyists who opposed most gun control laws.
The law, which was signed by Gov. James McGreevey, included a mandate ordering New Jersey gun stores to stock only firearms equipped with special user-recognition technology within three years after the first smart gun was made available for sale in the United States.
Some gunmakers, meanwhile, were said to be waiting for research labs like the one at NJIT to improve this biometric user-recognition technology to the point where it was reliable enough to sell to experienced gun enthusiasts and to police departments — many of which had been calling for new ways to make guns safer.
As NJIT and other labs worked on the technology, however, some of the nation’s most vocal gun-rights advocates, led by the NRA, mounted a campaign to boycott any gun dealer that tried to sell smart guns.
The NRA argued that smart gun technology was actually an attempt by the government to not only regulate gun ownership but also track how guns are used. Instead of making guns safer, the technology — and the mandate in the New Jersey law — was viewed as an intrusion on personal liberty and privacy.
The threatened boycotts were first aimed at New Jersey gun shops. But eventually the NRA threat expanded nationwide.
“The potential investors in this technology got scared away,” said Joseph Morris, a Hoboken-based gun-control advocate with the group Do Not Stand Idly By. “Why should they fund a product that nobody is going to sell?”
The result was that U.S. gun manufacturers backed away from developing a marketing plan for smart guns. And even though NJIT was able to produce a biometric user-recognition locking system that was 99 percent reliable, there was no market for it.
A German gun manufacturer reportedly spent $100 million to develop a gun that would fire only when it was in range of a wristwatch embedded with a sensor. But without a U.S. market, the firm went into bankruptcy.
“We just can’t seem to blow away this cloud of stigma that it is a government-driven agenda meant to impede access to weapons as opposed to protecting them,” Sebastian said in an interview at his office at NJIT. “This is about safety. It’s not about control.”
This month, New Jersey Democratic lawmakers who supported the Childproof Handgun Law essentially conceded defeat and announced plans to repeal the law and replace it with legislation that imposes fewer restrictions on the sale of traditional handguns.
The Democrats say they support a less stringent law that would require New Jersey gun stores to sell at least one smart-gun model. The goal, they explained, was to open the door — if only a crack — for some smart guns to reach the market while not stirring up opposition from the gun lobby.
But Anthony Colandro, the owner of a shooting range in Woodland Park and one of New Jersey’s most vocal firearms rights proponents, said state legislators should keep their hands off the issue of smart guns.
Colandro, who has testified before legislative committees on gun laws, said he is not necessarily against high-tech safety systems for firearms.
“I don’t believe there should be a mandate,” he said. “And I don’t believe that every gun store should have to carry smart guns if they don’t want to.”
The market, he said, should decide the success or failure of smart guns. “I’m a capitalist marksman,” he said.
But that’s the problem. With its threat of a boycott, the gun lobby has essentially shut down the market.
Colandro also said he does not believe that the “smart” technology has been developed enough to be foolproof from hackers or from breakdowns in an emergency.
“Anything that has a battery and biometrics, I just don’t trust it,” Colandro said.
“Let’s see the police and military test it. If police and military accepted it, I would accept it,” he said. “That means they’ve tested the hell out of it. I would go for it in a heartbeat.”
Colandro said he would even offer his gun range as a testing ground.
So far, neither the Pentagon nor state authorities have embarked on formal and extensive testing of smart guns.
Rabbi Joel Mosbacher of Oakland, who recently led a rally outside the White House to call for greater federal efforts to control firearms, said the possible easing of the state’s smart-gun mandate may help to spur more testing and trust of the new safety technology.
“The gap between the technology and the marketplace is really quite small,” Mosbacher said. “The technology is far enough along that it could be made market ready relatively quickly. That is what is tantalizing and infuriating.”
Despite the setbacks at NJIT, Sebastian agrees that the technology had advanced to the point where it could have been marketed in short order.
But he also wonders whether that U.S. market has been too poisoned by politics. Perhaps, he said, smart guns may have to be sold in another country first before gun owners in America warm up to them. “A smart gun — it’s not going to happen in my professional lifetime,” he said, “unless it happens someplace else.”