TRENTON, N.J. - Capping six years of controversy, Gov. James E. McGreevey has signed legislation making New Jersey the first state to require that all new handguns be equipped with "smart gun" technology that would allow only a weapon's owner to fire it.
The law was hailed by advocates for gun control and assailed by supporters of gun rights, but it has no immediate impact because the technology does not exist - and there is no agreement on when it will.
Nevertheless, McGreevey received loud applause from about 200 supporters of the bill, many of them participants in the Million Mom March movement who came to Trenton recently to celebrate their long-fought grass-roots political victory.
"This is common-sense legislation," McGreevey said. "There are safety regulations on cars, on toys. It's clearly time we have safety regulations on handguns."
The law does not specify what kind of technology must be on a smart gun, only that it be able to recognize the owner of the gun and be feasible and commercially available.
Supporters of the law have cited examples using fingerprints, retina scans, or sensors that recognize the unique characteristics of someone's grip.
Once the attorney general concludes that one manufacturer has made a handgun with such technology available for sale in New Jersey, other makers would have three years to equip their weapons with such technology or be banned from selling in the state.
Gun control advocates insist that the law will have a national effect.
"It will soon cause the gun industry to forever change the way it designs and manufactures its products," said Bryan Miller, executive director of Ceasefire NJ.
Not surprisingly, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association disagreed, arguing that the new law makes no sense.
"The technology has yet to be developed," said lobbyist Ted Novena. "It's ridiculous. They have no idea where this will lead."
Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg, a Teaneck Democrat, fought for six years to get the bill passed against NRA opposition, and she mocked that stance.
"If it's silly and the technology hasn't been developed, what are they afraid of?" Weinberg asked.
A view from Hopkins
Stephen Teret, a professor of public health at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who first helped develop the smart gun concept 20 years ago, said he was confident that the first smart guns could be commercially available in as little as two years.
Teret said several manufacturers were competing to be the first on the market, but he provided no specifics.
The manufacturer Smith & Wesson has received a $1.7 million federal grant to work on the technology, and has spent $5 million on development since 1993, gun control advocates said.
Several years ago, the state also provided the New Jersey Institute of Technology with a $1 million grant to research smart guns. NJIT has developed a prototype that uses sensors on a pistol grip to identify a user.
Teret was one of several people at the bill-signing ceremony who was personally affected by gun violence. He said he was friends with a family whose 2-year-old child was accidentally killed by a 4-year-old who found a family handgun.
Joyce Sooy of Emerson saw her 41-year-old son killed with a hunting rifle in 1991.
Although the new law applies only to handguns, Sooy said it will help reduce gun violence.
"This is a very important day," she said. "Children's lives will be saved."