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High-Tech Guns Being Developed

October 24, 1998

WEST HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Apparently upset with a report card, 8-year-old Christopher Parks climbed atop a dresser, pulled down a gun hanging on the wall and shot himself in the head.

The Arkansas third-grader’s death Thursday has prompted more calls for the introduction of a high-tech handgun that would put an end to such stories.

Called childproof, personalized or smart guns, the weapons are designed be used only by the people who buy them.

But developers of the safer guns, led by Colt’s Manufacturing Co. Inc. in this Hartford suburb, say it will be years before the weapons are on the market.

Several different versions of the smart gun are in the works. Colt’s _ with the help of a $500,000 federal research grant _ is the closest to production, though company president Stephen Sliwa said Friday they won’t be available for at least two years.

Colt’s smart guns look like an ordinary weapon, but each contains a tiny radio transmitter. The shooter must wear a transponder, which fits in a ring or bracelet, to operate the trigger.

The gun was developed for police officers. Sixteen percent of officers killed each year are shot with their own guns, according to studies including one by the Police Foundation, a national organization for law enforcement.

``If we can have aspirins that are childproof, why can’t we have guns that are childproof?″ Codey said Friday.

New Jersey state Sen. Richard J. Codey has called smart guns a safety breakthrough, saying the technology will make useless guns that children pick up or criminals steal. He introduced legislation that calls for all guns to be sold with the new feature.

Similar measures have been introduced in Pennsylvania, California and Maryland; one failed in New York.

``If we can have aspirins that are childproof, why can’t we have guns that are childproof?″ Codey said Friday.

About 36,000 people died from gunshot wounds in 1995, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy and Research. About 500,000 guns are stolen every year.

Dennis Henigen, legal director of the Washington, D.C.,-based Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, said smart guns will change the gun industry the way seat belts and air bags did the auto industry.

``The gun industry has been very resistant to changes for safety,″ he said. ``They don’t want to acknowledge any responsibility for the death of children from their products.″

Once people realize the technology is possible, Henigen said, they will be clamoring for it _ and taking on the companies that don’t use it. He pointed to the family of a 15-year-old Oakland, Calif., boy who sued gunmaker Beretta after their son was accidentally shot to death by his best friend.

Henigen also cites a 1997 national survey by the Johns Hopkins center, which shows that 71 percent of those polled _ and 59 percent of gun owners _ want all new guns on the market to be smart guns.

But the Violence Policy Center in Washington, which favors phasing out all handguns altogether, said the survey shows that smart guns will become just another product on the market and they will have no effect on the 65 million handguns already in use.

``The gun industry thinks of this as a way to resell the market,″ said Kristen Rand, director of the Center’s federal policy.

Though the New Jersey bill would give the gun industry three years to develop the technology, Smith & Wesson, which is working on its own smart gun, said it is too soon to be marketing the product, especially as a solution to gun tragedies.

``If someone wants to misuse his gun, he’s going to,″ said Ed Schultz, president and chief executive officer of the Springfield, Mass. company.

Sliwa said Colt won’t finish testing the gun until late next year, and it will be at least a year after that before the first police officers get the weapons. He said more research needs to be done before the guns will be available to consumers.

Another gun maker said no matter how high-tech the weapons get, the ``smart″ technology will never be 100 percent reliable.

``If so-called smart guns or childproof guns are touted as such, it will encourage unsafe behavior because the owner expects he can leave it out and it’s safe now,″ said Steve Sanetti, vice president of Southport-based Sturm, Ruger & Co, which sells lock boxes and trigger locks for their guns.

``You’re setting yourself up for a tragedy.″

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