New Smart Guns Can Prevent Gun Grabs and Save the Lives of Corrections Officers

The news out of Putnam County, Georgia last June was shocking yet chillingly familiar. Two Georgia State Corrections Officers were overpowered by two inmates they were transporting and killed with their own guns. Gun grabs are a concern for all in Law Enforcement but particularly for Corrections Officers whose job ensures they will be in close contact on a regular basis with hardened criminals. A 2017 independent national survey of 401 law enforcement officers showed that 87% were concerned with gun grabs.

It’s no secret that Corrections work is a dangerous business. According to the website almost 600 US Corrections Officers have been killed in the line of duty since records have been kept. The website also lists that there are 33,000 inmate on staff assaults each year and a Corrections Officer will be seriously assaulted on average about twice in a twenty year career. Not all involve a firearm, but when they do the severity of the outcome is significantly increased.

Despite the danger in Corrections work, there has been surprisingly little research into injury prevention for Corrections Officers. It doesn’t take a PhD to appreciate the benefit of having a firearm that can only be operated by the Corrections Officer but is useless in the hands of a hardened criminal. And while technology for personalized guns has been around for decades, only now is their availability for Law Enforcement and Corrections Officers on the horizon.

Personalized guns, aka smart guns, have been a possible option for almost twenty years but a combination of factors have prevented their broad adoption. In 2003 the State of New Jersey passed its Childproof Handgun Law which mandated that all guns sold in New Jersey be smart guns thirty months after the commercial sale of a smart gun anywhere in the country (the so-called “New Jersey Mandate”). This law sparked furious opposition from the NRA and many gun owners who unsurprisingly didn’t like being told what type of gun they could or could not buy. A smart gun business is not viable if smart guns can only be sold to the Law Enforcement and Corrections communities without the promise of the much larger consumer market.

Along with its legislative effort New Jersey also invested millions in grants to the New Jersey Institute of Technology to successfully develop a “biometric” smart gun. Biometric smart guns such as those that recognize one’s fingerprint have thus far proven to be insufficiently reliable particularly for law enforcement/corrections officers who often grip a gun with hands that are sweaty, muddy, bloody or even gloved. All of these conditions interfere with the effectiveness of the biometric fingerprint reader.

One company in Germany, Armatix, did successfully develop a smart gun using a different technology — radio frequency identification (“RFID”) — in which a chip worn by the user creates a “digital handshake” with another electronic chip imbedded in the gun itself. But its .22 caliber iP1 pistol was exorbitantly priced at $1800 or about 4x the going rate for a traditional handgun. Although sales of the Armatix product were effectively blocked by the NRA boycotts and the New Jersey Mandate, Armatix successfully proved that a RFID smart gun can be infinitely reliable. Armatix entered bankruptcy and is no longer marketing its iP1 smart gun in the United States.

Despite this checkered past, there is now reason to believe that an RFID smart gun, preferably a more powerful 9mm, can be on the market within two years due to major changes in the US environment for smart guns. Significantly, the New Jersey legislature is expected to introduce a bill to amend its Childproof Handgun Law to remove the “New Jersey Mandate” and replace it with provisions to the likely satisfaction of the majority on both sides of the gun debate. And just as significant, a new study of almost 4,000 households by Johns Hopkins shows that 43% of current gun owners would consider buying a smart gun.

Another positive sign is that law enforcement leaders across the country such as former US Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske and former Seattle Police Chief John Diaz have expressed strong support for smart guns. And the 2017 nationwide survey of law enforcement officers mentioned earlier shows that 58% are interested in new smart gun technology.

Between the amendment of the New Jersey Smart Gun Mandate and the growing acceptance of smart guns by law enforcement, gun-owning families with children and younger gun owners more trusting of technology, it’s easy to foresee a rapid adoption rate for smart guns once all involved are comfortable that smart guns can indeed be highly reliable. And for those who work in the dangerous field of Corrections, this can only be a good thing.

Gareth Glaser

Co-Founder and CEO LodeStar Firearms