We’ve all seen the cool James Bond clip where Q hands over a Walther PPK/S that can only be activated by 007’s palm print .
If a bad guy tries to pick it up and shoot the superspy, no joy.
For years the idea of a so-called “smart” gun like Bond’s has been largely out of reach for anyone but the covert operators of fiction, but that hasn’t stopped the government from trying to make one for real life. And the feds just took the first step in what could eventually be a handgun fielded to law enforcement and the military that only shoots for an authorized user.
As part of a series of executive actions on gun control released in January, President Barack Obama ordered the Department of Justice to look into what a smart gun should look like for military troops and federal agents. His intention was to deploy government resources to push the technology beyond what the civilian market has yielded in hopes of making smart gun technology available for most handguns.
“As the single largest purchaser of firearms in the country, the Federal Government has a unique opportunity to advance this research and ensure that smart gun technology becomes a reality,” the White House said. “In connection with these efforts, the departments will consult with other agencies that acquire firearms and take appropriate steps to consider whether including such technology in specifications for acquisition of firearms would be consistent with operational needs.”
The Armatix iP1 is the first so-called “smart gun” available for consumers. It’s chambered in 22 LR and requires a special watch for the shooter to active the gun.
In July, researchers with the National Institute of Justice released its long-awaited specifications for what a smart handgun should be able to do and how its safety features should work. The requirements represent a high technological bar for military and law enforcement smart gun use, including overrides if the system is jammed, near instant activation and a 10,000 rounds before failure limit.
The Justice Department described “the potential benefits of advanced gun safety technology, but noted that additional work was required before this technology is ready for widespread adoption by law enforcement agencies,” the NIJ report said. “In particular, the report stressed the importance of integrating this technology into a firearm’s design without compromising the reliability durability, and accuracy that officers expect from their service weapons.”
The NIJ specs essentially call for a polymer-framed, striker fired 9mm or .40 SW handgun without any external safety. Basically, the specs point to a Glock 19 or similar modern handgun when it comes to ergonomics, size, and function.
Researchers said the smart gun should able to be programmed to work only for authorized users, could be activated with a wearable device such as a ring or bracelet, and should be able to shoot even if the smart safety fails.
But the researchers went on to call for functions that go well beyond what current technology allows, including that “the security device shall not increase the time required by the operator to grasp, draw from a holster and fire the pistol as a pistol of the same design that is not equipped with the security device.”
That means zero lag time for the pistol to draw, authorize and fire in a split second.
The smart gun will also have to detect and alert the shooter if there is an attempt to jam the system and be able override the safety and fire despite the countermeasures. And the gun must be able to fire with both a bare or gloved hand, making it tough for technology using biometric sensors to read fingerprints.
Most importantly, the smart gun will have to endure 10,000 rounds with 2,000 draws between any failure. Engineers who build systems like small lights and lasers that attach to handguns have said one of the biggest technological challenges to building miniature electronics is making them tough enough to withstand the repeated recoil of a pistol.
Skeptics have long argued smart guns insert an unreliable technology into a system that’s build to work every time at a moment’s notice and that forcing anyone to use an electronic safety on a handgun could mean the difference between life and death.
“Generally speaking, additional complexity brings increased risk of malfunction and error,” the Justice Department has said. “The types of firearms most commonly used by law enforcement and the broader American public … are relatively straightforward mechanical devices, and manufacturers have faced significant engineering challenges as they seek to seamlessly integrate electronics into firearms’ operations.
But the White House has signaled its intention to push the technology to the field as soon as possible, and the latest NIJ report shows just how solid that technology has to be for troops and law enforcement to trust it with their lives.