Join Date: October 29, 1998
I would never have one, especially a "fingerprint identification" one per S&W, but here's an interisting article:
May 12, 1999
Personal Weapon: How a Gun Company Tries to Propel Itself Into Computer Age
By PAUL M. BARRETT and VANESSA O'CONNELL
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
WEST HARTFORD, Conn. -- Steven M. Sliwa grips a black semiautomatic pistol -- a prototype of his company's controversial "smart gun." Colt's Manufacturing Co. has spent six years and millions of dollars to develop this pistol, the chief executive explains.
The Colt Z-40 -- a computer microchip embedded in its handle -- is supposed to fire only when held by someone wearing a wristband that emits a coded radio signal. His wristlet in place, Mr. Sliwa pulls the trigger. Nothing.
He tries again. It doesn't budge. "For a while it worked fine," he says.
This is the prospective wonder weapon that is roiling the firearm business.
Much about the evolution of the smart gun is strange -- not least, its performance at a carefully choreographed demonstration earlier this week. Promoted since the mid-1980s by a gun-control crusader, the notion of a high-tech gun lock was roundly rejected by the industry and some Second Amendment enthusiasts. But in 1994, a New York financier, Donald Zilkha, rescued an ailing Colt's and decided the smart gun could propel an essentially 19th-century operation into the computer age.
Colt's pursuit of the ambitious smartgun project, however, turned the company into a pariah within its industry and made it the target of a boycott last year that cost Colt millions in sales.
Almost all guns have safety components, such as a manual latch that prevents firing, yet these features are easily bypassed by children or thieves. Basic padlocks or combination locks have been on the market for years. But in theory, smart technology would incorporate what amounts to a lock into the actual design of the gun, offering an easier, personalized -- and therefore more secure -- alternative to the low-tech devices.
Still nowhere close to being marketed, the smart gun has become critical ammunition in the legal assault against guns. In a growing wave of lawsuits against firearm makers, nine municipalities around the country are alleging that the industry's failure to offer a smart gun amounts to negligent disregard in shootings by children and criminals.
Just last week, lawyers for four of the cities -- Atlanta, Cincinnati, Cleveland and New Orleans -- demanded that the industry set aside 1% of its gross revenue for smart-gun development as one of the conditions for settling the litigation.
At Colt's headquarters in West Hartford, Dr. Sliwa, a 44-year-old former NASA engineer, apologetically explains that the failed demonstration is a result of the prototype pistol's overheating, after having been test-fired about 150 times. After the company's chief engineer whisks the Z-40 away for a 15-minute tuneup, it functions as promised.
Once the kinks are worked out, Dr. Sliwa predicts, the smart gun will be "a big contribution to society and a good business as well."
The idea that gun makers can -- and should -- produce weapons that operate only for authorized users is the brainchild of a former plaintiffs' lawyer who today is a leader in the antigun crusade. After years fighting manufacturers in court for after-the-fact damages, Stephen P. Teret decided in the 1980s to explore using litigation to prevent injuries -- for example, by suing car makers to pressure them to install air bags. He refocused on guns in 1983, after the 22-month-old son of friends was shot in a caretaker's home by a four-year-old who found a gun in a bedside dresser. (In 1995, 181 children under the age of 15 were killed in unintentional shootings, according to the most recent compilation by the National Safety Council.)
At the time, the gun-control movement was just getting started, and most activists were pushing to regulate the sale and possession of guns. Mr. Teret, director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore, emphasized regulating the manufacture of guns.
"Why in the world do we make a gun that a four-year-old can operate?" he asks. "And why is it that we are not regulating guns for safety?" (Congress has exempted firearms from the main federal consumer-safety law.)
Mr. Teret lectured on gun-related injuries and tried to get lawyers and legislators interested in forcing gun makers to use automated devices as the most fail-safe way to "childproof" or "personalize" guns. But the problem was, he lacked proof such a gun could be made. In 1992, he attracted some attention by having Johns Hopkins engineering students fabricate what he says was a personalized gun from an ordinary revolver and off-the-shelf electronic supplies worth less than $2,000. "It wasn't pretty -- it was a gun with wires hanging out of it -- but it demonstrated that the technology was there," recalls Mr. Teret, 54 years old.
A chance meeting on an airplane a year later launched an unlikely series of events that ultimately resulted in Mr. Teret's idea being embraced at Colt's.
Returning from Los Angeles to Baltimore, he happened to sit next to Andrea Camp, an aide to Rep. Patricia Schroeder, who was in the market for ways to convert Cold War military know-how into civilian products. As Mr. Teret sermonized about how personalized guns would be harmless in the hands of children and robbers, "a light of hope went off" in Ms. Camp's mind, she says. Why not use government dollars to spur the development of a safer gun with microchips?
Working the mysterious levers of the appropriation process, Ms. Schroeder, who has since retired from Congress, routed about $650,000 from the 1994 Pentagon budget to the Justice Department's law-enforcement research arm, which, in turn, commissioned the military's Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., to look into the possibility of personalized guns. The inquiry was framed as a response to the problem of police being shot when people grab their service guns. An average of about 12 such "takeaway" shootings result in deaths nationwide each year.
At first, firearm-industry leaders uniformly assailed the smart-gun concept. At a meeting of activists, industry representatives and federal bureaucrats in December 1994, Richard Feldman, then director of the American Shooting Sports Council, a gun trade group, attacked "the idea that this was some sort of panacea," he recalls. It would add hundreds of dollars to the $400-to-$600 price tag of a midrange handgun. And what happened if the tiny batteries powering the microchip failed, he wanted to know, or the firing of the gun jostled the delicate wiring? With antigun sentiment rising, gun makers also invoked the slippery-slope argument, fretting that the research would lead eventually to a ban on guns that weren't smart.
But outsiders who were taking over at Colt's saw the smart gun as a way to re-energize a company burdened by labor troubles, backward machinery and lack of innovation. Mr. Zilkha, who bought the company in the midst of bankruptcy-court proceedings, thought that the first truly new product in the gun industry could enable Colt's to crack the law-enforcement market and reach an untapped market of parents who otherwise feared having guns in their home. He hired Ronald Stewart, a former auto executive without any gun-industry loyalties, to run the company. Mr. Stewart later hired Smart:Links Corp., a Berkeley, Calif., microchip designer, to fashion the electronic innards of the new product.
Early reports from Sandia Labs encouraged Colt's to focus on radio-frequency technology -- similar to that used in antishoplifting sensors in clothing stores -- to confirm that the person holding a gun is authorized to use it. When Rep. Schroeder helped engineer a $500,000 federal grant to accelerate the research, Colt's was the only company to step forward.
By the time Rep. Schroeder held a press conference in September 1996 to announce progress on the smart gun, Colt's already had a prototype, which a senior company engineer held aloft for photographers. Also in attendance was Mr. Teret, the gun-design reformer. Although a cautious 160-page report from Sandia Labs concluded that a workable smart gun was years away, Mr. Teret hailed Colt's test version and called for states to pass legislation requiring that all guns include new personalization technology.
The tableau left a lasting impressionon the gun world. "Here was Colt's getting money from the government and standing with Schroeder, and the antigunners," recalls Richard Miller, head of the Coalition of New Jersey Sportsmen, a local affiliate of the National Rifle Association. "We saw the smart gun as a step toward a ban, and Colt's was part of it." In fact, New Jersey was one of a handful of states that began considering legislation to require personalized guns. None of the bills have been enacted, but many gun owners suspected that Colt's was pushing them behind the scenes -- a charge the company denies.
Mr. Stewart provoked further hostility in December 1997, when the trade magazine American Firearms Industry published his editorial urging other manufacturers to drop their opposition to personalized firearms and to accept national registration of gun owners, a step vehemently resisted by the formidable NRA, which represents gun owners and has nearly three million members.
Mr. Stewart didn't return repeated telephone messages, but Colt's No. 2 executive at the time, Marc A. Fontaine, says that the company never backed a government mandate of personalized guns. He says some rivals and gun owners misinterpreted Mr. Stewart's call for "using technology to get over the problems we have with children and guns... . A lot of people think they are safe with a [mechanical] gun lock. But most gun locks can be defeated by a six-year-old with a screwdriver."
The growing ranks of Colt's detractors took action. At the NRA's annual convention in Philadelphia last June, the New Jersey gun owners' group distributed fliers calling for a Colt's boycott to protest the smart gun. Calling the newfangled weapon "a deadly product" that could malfunction in the face of armed intruders, the group posted a widely read Internet protest calling Colt's management "detrimental to American-style freedoms and liberties."
Gun owners responded by clogging the company's phone lines. Gun dealers as far away as the West Coast stopped ordering Colt's merchandise. Bob Kahn, who owns two dealerships and a wholesale gun business in California, says he stopped carrying Colt's products last year and now will order them only if customers insist. The smart gun "isn't about safety," he says. "They want to disarm America."
Colt's distributed statements rebutting all of the allegations, and in response to a threatened defamation lawsuit, the New Jersey gun owners' group retracted its attack and apologized. But the boycott and legal threat left many owners and dealers bitter. Looking for evidence that despite its denials, Colt's was pushing for mandatory smart-gun laws, they were incensed that Mr. Stewart openly declared that he wasn't an NRA member and that Mr. Zilkha had made political-campaign contributions to New York Sen. Charles Schumer, a leading gun-control advocate. The owners' group later acknowledged that the contributions were relatively small and that the financier had also given money to gun-friendly Republicans such as Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole and George Bush.
But the damage had been done. Doug Kiesler, owner of Kiesler's Wholesale in Jeffersonville, Ind., one of Colt's biggest customers, says his sales of Colt's products to dealers fell by about $1.5 million in 1998, a 20% decline. "The inventory built up big time," he says. In the wake of all this, Mr. Stewart resigned last fall, a move he described at the time as reflecting his satisfaction that the company had stabilized, but which many others in the industry saw as evidence of difficulties.
Responding to questions asked of Mr. Zilkha, a spokesman says that Mr. Stewart had a two-year contract and left when it expired. "He did a very good job" and remains a consultant to the company, the spokesman adds. "That beating he took is unfortunate, but the good news is that he called attention in the industry to the issue" of the smart gun.
On top of these financial and public-relations hits, Colt's, along with its competitors, faced the launch of lawsuits last fall by New Orleans and other cities that allege that gun makers generally have failed to sell guns with available personalization technology. Handgun Control Inc., the group that helped devise the litigation, had for years been trying to find a way to hold gun companies liable on this basis for shootings, especially those involving children. Specifically, Handgun Control lawyers are prospecting for evidence that despite its research, Colt's has allowed usable technology to gather dust.
Jonathan Lowy, an attorney with the gun-control group, suggests that the city lawsuits could be aided by testimony from William Phillips, chief executive of Smart:Links, the tiny Berkeley firm that Colt's hired to design smart-gun electronics. Mr. Phillips confirms that in his view, Colt's interest in the project diminished noticeably last year after it came under attack and Mr. Stewart resigned. "I have a [smart] gun right here in my hands that is workable and ready to go to market," Mr. Phillips says. Openly eager for his firm to gain attention from the smart gun's introduction, he adds, "We didn't intend for this technology to be put on the shelf."
When told of Dr. Sliwa's unimpressive demonstration this week, Mr. Phillips says that the balky prototype at company headquarters is already outdated and has a limited "field" in which it can pick up signals from the user's wristlet. The latest version, which Mr. Phillips says he has in Berkeley, has a far broader field. In any event, he adds, these "issues of range and directionality aren't essential" and will be smoothed out.
In response to claims that the smart gun is ready, Mr. Sliwa says, "There are a lot of people with wishful thinking, hoping for the fact that personalized guns are here. But so far, nobody" -- including Colt's -- "has been able to demonstrate it." The Colt's spokesman adds that the company has faith in Smart:Links and is optimistic that its microelectronics eventually will be marketable.
Colt's already is lobbying for a big chunk of the millions of dollars that Congress this year is expected to appropriate for additional smart gun R&D. And Mr. Sliwa hints that the company is investigating approaches other than the "wristband gun," and may even be leaning toward the other models.
While the wristband might save the life of a police officer struggling with a violent thug, a homeowner is likely to store the wristband close to the gun, where children may find it. "We won't put all of our eggs in one basket. We have solutions in mind for the tougher problem" of making a childproof smart gun, Mr. Sliwa adds.
Other companies think they do, too, especially now that more federal money is on the horizon. The U.S. unit of Austria's Glock GmbH, which previously scorned the idea of putting microelectronics in its pistols, has lately signaled interest in competing with Colt's for any additional federal money that becomes available.
In North Haven, Conn., O.F. Mossberg & Sons quietly has produced a test version of a shotgun activated by a magnetic ring. An inventor working with Mossberg has even filed a claim against Colt's with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, contending it stole the "smart gun" brand name. Colt's denies the allegation.
Smith & Wesson Corp. of Springfield, Mass., a unit of Britain's Tomkins PLC, has been working even more furtively on a weapon that uses fingerprint-recognition technology to identify the proper user, according to industry officials.
The stirring goes beyond possible government grants. Pointing to research done by Mr. Teret, the gun-control advocate and smart-gun granddaddy, Dr. Sliwa says one-third of people who don't own guns tell interviewers in surveys that they would buy a smart gun if it existed. "Suddenly you have an extra 60 million people" in the gun market, he says. "That group is bigger than the number of people out there who currently own guns."
--Philip Connors contributed to this article.