Smart guns: How smart are they?

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Media captionWATCH: The handgun which can only be fired by its owner

The so called "smart gun" has recently been causing tension in both the EU and US firearms industries.

Most of these technologically enhanced guns are less about creating efficient killing machines and more about improving firearms safety.

However, some gun rights activists in the US believe smart guns are a threat to their right to keep and bear arms.

A shop owner in the US has received death threats from pro-gun lobbyists for offering to sell the weapons.

What is a smart gun?

A smart gun is a firearm that implements various technologies, including proximity sensors, biometrics, magnets, radio-frequency identification (RFID) and microchips to improve gun safety.

There are many different types of smart gun and the idea is not new, with some examples dating back to the 1970s.

Image copyright Armatix
Image caption The Armatix iP1 is a smart gun that can only work within 10in of its accompanying RFID-enabled watch

Few smart guns are currently available to purchase, but numerous unreleased prototypes are in development by weapons manufacturers such as Colt, Mossberg, TriggerSmart and Australian defence company Metal Storm.

How does it work?

Early smart weapons, such as the Magna-Trigger system, were simple in their design. The Magna-Trigger consists of a magnet placed inside the handle of a revolver.

This magnet then locks the pistol's trigger and can only be unlocked with an opposing magnet, which is worn in the form of a ring by the owner of the gun.

Fast-forward 40 years and you'll find the technology is more sophisticated but the core principles remain.

For example, the iP1 is a smart semi-automatic pistol that communicates with an RFID watch, which is worn by the user of the gun.

Thanks to an internal tracking device on both the gun and watch, the pistol will not fire if it is away from the owner. The watch can also provide useful data to the wearer, such as how many bullets have been fired.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Old revolvers can be made "smart"

A US and Austrian company called Biomac is currently working on a system that will use optical sensors to measure the biometric data below a user's skin in order to determine whether the individual holding the gun is the rightful owner of the weapon.

If the biometric data isn't recognised, the gun will not fire. The company claims it will allow for the recognition of a number of different users for a single gun and that "retro-fitting" - applying the system to older weapons - will be possible.

Can it be hacked?

We don't know. Very few people have used these weapons and as such they have not been exposed to enough external threats to determine whether hacking is a serious issue.

However, what we do know is that some RFID tags can be hacked. A video from BoingBoing in 2008 demonstrates how Pablos Holman, a self-described hacker and inventor used equipment worth $8 to read personal data from credit cards. Whether similar methods could work on certain smart guns is not entirely clear.

Biometrics can be even less secure. For example, fingerprint scanners can be compromised with a simple glue-mould hack, as demonstrated on the Galaxy S5.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Smart guns could be under threat from hackers

Who's for them?

Some gun control groups. They believe that these weapons are fundamentally safer than their traditional counterparts as they have extra safety measures to help ensure unauthorised individuals cannot use the gun.

A small group of parents who were affected by the Sandy Hook massacre have teamed up with members of the Silicon Valley technology community to launch Innovation Initiative, which will provide grants and prizes to those who use technology to improve the safety of firearms.

In 2002, New Jersey became the first state in America to issue a mandate on smart guns, which stated that three years after the retail introduction of smart guns, "it will be illegal for any registered or licensed firearms manufacturer or dealer to transport, sell, expose for sale, possess for sale, assign or transfer any handgun unless that handgun is a [smart] handgun."

Andy Raymond, a shop owner in Maryland recently announced he intended to sell what he believed to be the nation's first smart gun. However, he has since been forced to back down after receiving death threats from gun rights activists.

Who's against them?

Some gun rights activists. In the US, the right to keep and bear arms is enshrined in the Second Amendment. Any threat to this right is often met with a considerable backlash - just ask Piers Morgan.

In response to New Jersey's mandate and pressure from gun control groups, the National Rifle Association (NRA) said that it was "opposed to government mandates that require the use of expensive, unreliable features, such as grips that would read your fingerprints before the gun will fire".

The NRA went on to say that "smart gun" was a made-up term and that the devices were prone to failure and had not been proven to increase firearm safety.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Some US gun lobbyists are against the use of smart guns

In a survey produced by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, 74% of 1,200 respondents said that they would not buy, or would not be very likely to buy, a smart gun.

According to The Verge, gun rights activists have a surprising ally in The Violence Policy Center, a gun control group that believes smart guns "would affect a very small percentage of gun violence".

The Identilock is a device that might please both the NRA and the gun control groups. It is a detachable device that locks the gun's trigger, preventing the weapon from use.

"Using fingerprint technology, it allows for split-second access to a loaded gun when you need it while keeping it safe from other hands when you don't," explains their website.

As the device is not embedded into the gun, it will not be affected by the New Jersey mandate.

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