`Smart' handgun may take 4 years

Childproof model needs extensive testing, gunmaker tells state

October 08, 1999|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

The firearms manufacturer working most aggressively to develop a high-tech, childproof handgun is still two to four years away from marketing such a weapon, company officials told a Maryland panel studying the issue yesterday.

Colt's Manufacturing Co. has developed three prototypes of "smart" weapons, but none has withstood extensive testing, company vice president Andrew J. Brignoli told the panel.

"The technology exists in a package that at least makes it feasible," Brignoli said. "Now that I've got it in a gun, can I make it work time after time? That's the component we don't know."

A possible four-year wait for marketing such a weapon did not discourage the members of the task force, created by Gov. Parris N. Glendening this year to draft legislation for consideration in the General Assembly next year.

The governor wants to make Maryland the first state in the nation to require that handguns sold here be equipped with a device to prevent unauthorized users from firing the weapon.

No such weapon exists today and Colt's of Hartford, Conn., is the only handgun manufacturer in favor of developing smart-gun technology.

"What I heard today is, `It's possible. We've developed it, but it's not ready to market,' " said Maryland State Police Superintendent David B. Mitchell, who heads the task force. "It's very encouraging."

Mitchell and other panel members said their proposed legislation will have to take into account the time still needed to develop new guns.

"I have no illusions about this happening overnight," said Del. Ann Marie Doory, a Baltimore Democrat who serves on the task force and a longtime supporter of requiring childproof guns. "This is technology for the future."

Doory and other panel members said they would support a requirement that guns sold in Maryland be equipped with relatively unsophisticated, built-in trigger locks to prevent children from accidentally discharging them.

Some guns sold already have such low-tech devices, and several police departments use versions of those weapons. "This is straightforward technology that already exists," said Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas Gansler, another panel member.

But the much more complicated, smart-gun technology is proving to be an elusive goal for weapons companies.

Colt's Manufacturing is looking at using a variety of technologies -- including fingerprint recognition -- to make a gun that can only be fired by authorized users.

Brignoli said the company's first two prototypes using sophisticated recognition devices did not survive various tests. A third model is in the initial testing phase, with much more to come.

"The electronics have to be at least as reliable, or better, than the mechanical components of the gun," Brignoli said.

A police officer will demand nothing less, he said. "When he or she draws that service revolver, it better work," Brignoli said.

Among gun manufacturers, Colt's alone supports the development of smart-gun technology, but the company opposes Glendening's plan to order the sale of smart guns here.

Rather, Brignoli said, weapons manufacturers should be left to make the decision about what kind of guns to sell based on the public's demand.

Colt has recently created a separate company, iColt, to lead its research and development of smart guns.

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