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Gunmakers Add Personal Touch To Make Firearms Safer

It's a shocking statistic: Over a 10-year period, 1 in 6 police officers in the United States is shot with his or her own gun. On average, 13 law-enforcement personnel are killed that way every year.

One way to save policemen's lives is the personalized handgun. Personalized guns are engineered so only their owners can fire them. If a criminal grabs it, the weapon won't discharge.

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The secret is a special code, like the code built into a garage-door opener. When you press the button, the transmitter sends a code and the correct garage door opens. With the current versions of personalized guns, there's no button to push. Instead, the code is embedded into a special ring. When the ring gets within range of the correct gun, usually a few inches, the weapon unlatches itself and can be fired.

Of course, many officers don't like wearing a ring or bracelet. So Colt's Manufacturing is working on semiautomatic pistols that could be activated by some part of the uniform, maybe a badge. The company has just won a one-year, $500,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice to develop a next-generation prototype of the personalized gun.

Another firearms company, Fulton Arms, has already sold similar technology into the civilian market. Its Smart Gun revolver uses a ring that communicates via magnetic signals rather than the radio-frequency technology used by Colt's. It includes a second safeguard too. The gun can sense the size of the hand. (Fulton Arms won't say exactly how it does this.)

Because the gun handle is matched to the owner's hand, young children won't be able to fire the gun, even if they have the ring. Such safeguards could greatly reduce the accidental shootings that take place in the home. In 1994, for example, unintentional shootings claimed the lives of 185 children 14 years or younger. The technology might also reduce gun theft. By one estimate, more than 500,000 firearms are stolen from homes each year. Often, they're used in subsequent crimes.

Fulton's Smart Gun isn't made currently, because its manufacturing partner filed for bankruptcy. But the company is creating its own manufacturing company and plans to produce new semiautomatic Smart Guns within a few months. O.F. Mossberg & Sons has just licensed Fulton's technology for its shotguns.

Manufacturers say that personalizing technology will become standard for handguns in the long term, even if it raises costs significantly in the short term. "It's a huge market," says Kenneth Pugh, Fulton's chief executive officer.

Some 35 million to 50 million Americans say they won't own a gun because of the risks. But 20 percent of those people say they would buy a personalized gun.

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Gun-control advocates aren't exactly thrilled that the new weapons might encourage more Americans to own guns. Families are still safer without any gun in the house, they say. Still, if families feel they need firearms protection, it's much better to have a personalized weapon, says Bryan Miller, executive director of Ceasefire New Jersey, a gun-violence prevention group based in Trenton.

The group is pushing New Jersey legislators to require all new handguns sold in the state to incorporate personalization technology. It hopes to get its bill passed next year, which would give firearms companies until 2001 to make the necessary changes.

In June, Massachusetts introduced new gun-safety provisions that will require handguns sold in the state next year to come equipped with either personalized technology or low-tech alternatives, such as trigger locks.

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