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The Business of Guns

With New Smart Gun, Industry Pioneer Bets Bigger Is Better

Armatix hopes its 9mm handgun will ease law enforcement's concerns about reliability.

The leading manufacturer of smart guns thinks it has developed a weapon that police will finally trust.

The German gunmaker Armatix has built a prototype of a 9mm semiautomatic pistol, the iP9, that it says should ease concerns from law enforcement and the public at large that firearms equipped with technology that prevents unauthorized firing may be unreliable.

The gun looks like a slightly futuristic, streamlined version of the semiautomatic pistols that have been standard police sidearms for the past three decades. In addition to using a wristwatch equipped with a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip that unlocks the iP9 to fire when it is within 10 inches of the weapon, shooters can activate the gun on a smartphone app, which works at a longer range than the watch (the exact proximity is still being decided) and collects data on the number of rounds fired.

The company has also turned the gun’s pistol grip into a PIN pad. Users who don’t want to rely on a watch or their phone can unlock the gun by squeezing their fingers in sequence, which will enable the weapon to be fired until the same code is re-entered to turn it off.

The new weapon is the closest any company has yet come to a personalized version of the 9mm, single most popular type of handgun in the United States, carried widely by police and civilians. The company believes the iP9’s caliber, and technological improvements, give  consumers a product they can actually use — and trust.

“The 9mm is the most popular caliber of handgun in the world,” Wolfgang Tweraser, the CEO of Armatix’s American subsidiary, told The Trace. “Now that we have this new model, we can get smart guns out to the world.”

The company recently gave Al Jazeera a sneak peak of the prototype on a visit to its Munich headquarters.

 

The iP9 should be ready for a demonstration before law-enforcement officers by late summer, Tweraser says, where they will be able to try out the weapon at a range. He said he hopes to put the weapon into production by early 2018.

The potential of smart guns has excited gun-safety advocates for years. Making it possible for only an authorized user to fire a weapon could potentially prevent accidental shootings and shootings by children, as well as reduce gun theft and protect owners from having their own guns turned on them. But the technology has been dogged by fears that it could make weapons less reliable in a life-or-death self-defense scenario.

For the past three years, a group of activists in a coalition called MetroIAF have been pleading with police forces to explore smart guns. While more than a hundred police departments have signed a letter of interest in smart guns in the abstract, none were willing to try out existing models while on patrol.

Jim Pasco, head of the Fraternal Order of Police, the national patrolmen’s union, told Politico that officers “shouldn’t be asked to be the guinea pigs in evaluating a firearm that nobody’s even seen yet.” Big city police chiefs, like Greg Suhr, the recently retired head of the San Francisco Police Department, have been more enthusiastic about the technology, but none have yet initiated any pilot program to actually test a smart gun. One roadblock has been a lack of a model that actually fits police officers’ needs.

“All of them said they find the technology promising,” said Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, a MetroIAF leader. “But they need a 9mm option.”

Armatix’s previous release was the iP1, a futuristic-looking pistol, which only fires when the user is wearing a wristwatch embedded with an RFID chip. But the iP1 could  chamber only a .22 round, the smallest caliber available, and cost $1,375 for both the gun and watch.

Tweraser said he believes the iP9’s larger caliber will be more appealing to police, who might then agree to try them out in the field and thus demonstrate their reliability to consumers. Crucially, Armatix’s 9mm model meets the federal standards for smart guns set by the Department of Justice last November. The standards were created after President Barack Obama requested that the Department of Justice research what would be necessary for a smart gun suitable for law enforcement use. The DOJ required that any suitable pistol be chambered to shoot either a 9mm or the somewhat less common, slightly larger, .40-caliber round.

Tweraser said he thinks that the new model, with its multiple methods of authentication, will exceed law enforcement expectations. The PIN-code activated grip, in particular, is designed with law enforcement in mind.

“Police were worried about what might happen, say, if they are hurt while on duty and need to switch shooting hands, which could move the gun too far from a watch or phone, or if partners had to switch weapons,” Tweraser said. “Many police also wear gloves, which would make a fingerprint reader unsuitable. Those shouldn’t be problems with the PIN.”

Stephen Teret is a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Gun Policy and Research, and an expert on smart guns. He agreed that the new varied authentication methods will be seen as favorable to law enforcement, but notes that they could come with trade-offs, too.

“The whole point of the movement to get personalized guns out there is to reduce as much as possible the likelihood that an unauthorized person could use the weapon,” Teret said. “If the gun can be activated by anyone who can squeeze their fingers around the grip in the right order, that’s not as highly personalized as a fingerprint reader or an RFID chip. It’s a compromise.”

Even if the new security features prove more marketable, Armatix may have a hard time getting the iP9 into stores until it overcomes some policy hurdles. New Jersey notably set back the cause of smart guns when it passed a law in 2002 mandating that as soon as the personalized weapons were commercially available anywhere in the country, no other kind of firearm would be allowed for sale in the Garden State. That had an unintended consequence: gun advocates boycotted and threatened the two stores that attempted to stock the iP1, believing that might trigger the New Jersey law.

The incidents generated bad public relations for smart guns, even though New Jersey’s attorney general determined the iP1 did not, strictly speaking, meet the standards for personalized firearms set by the law.

Last year, the New Jersey law’s original sponsor, State Senator Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat, put forth a new bill with a less rigid mandate, which would simply require New Jersey gun stores to stock smart guns alongside conventional guns. The proposal passed the state’s legislature, but was vetoed by the state’s Republican governor, Chris Christie.

The New Jersey law also drew the ire of gun-rights groups like the National Rifle Association.

“NRA opposes government mandates of expensive, unproven technology, and smart guns are a prime example of that,” a post on the gun group’s website reads.

The problem could be compounded if Massachusetts passes its own law with a mandate on smart guns, which  State Senator Cynthia Creem, a Democrat, recently introduced to the legislature. An aide says that bill may be revised in committee in light of its similarities to the troubled New Jersey law.

For his part, Tweraser, the Armatix executive, opposes any kind of smart gun mandate, though he would have preferred it if New Jersey had revised its law last year.

 “I agree with the NRA,” he said. “I don’t think there should be a mandate. Armatix doesn’t want to be at odds with other gun manufacturers.”

[Photo: Al Jazeera YouTube]

Correction: an earlier version of this article stated that the Armatix iP1 was sold for $1,800. That price is out of date.