A gun is a pretty simple technology: a chamber, a projectile and a controlled explosion. Recently, amidst the media's frenzied search for an explanation for our flurry of American-style shootings, the high-tech sector has weighed in with some solutions to gun violence that update the centuries-old version with some 21st-century tech.
"Smart guns" are firearms that only let pre-approved people pull the trigger. They pop up in the media every time a research firm gets close to testing a version that actually works.
Last year the New Jersey Institute of Technology turned the hype into reality and trained five New Jersey police officers with handguns that recognized their owners' hold on the grip. Tiny sensors in the grip memorize muscle positioning and refuse to let a strange hand pull the trigger.
The research and development of smart gun technology is being fuelled by legislation passed in New Jersey in December 2002 that requires all handguns sold in that state to contain some sort of user recognition feature three years after the first version hits the market.
Other user-recognition systems are being tested as well. Toronto company Mytec Technologies Inc. has partnered up with Smith & Wesson to create a biometric smart gun. Mytec has developed something called the Infineon silicon finger-tip sensor, which compares the fingerprints of the person holding the gun to pre-approved patterns stored in the gun itself.
But guns themselves aren't the only things turning smart.
Guns aren't very effective without bullets, so another Canadian firm, Forensic Technology Inc., has focused on making bullets easier to trace. When a bullet is fired, it's inscribed with scratch marks from the explosion that can be matched to the gun that shot it.
Previously, this had to be done with a microscope in two dimensions, but thanks to Forensic Technology's Bullettrax-3D, this analysis can be performed in three dimensions on a computer screen.
The markings are cross-referenced in mere seconds with a database containing thousands of other such markings. Before new guns are ever sold, they can be tested on a firing range so that a bullet with the gun's signature scratch can be digitally scanned and added to the database.
It turns out that guns also have another characteristic that can be used to track them: they make a really loud bang. Illinois-based Safety Dynamics has developed security cameras that recognize the sound of a gun firing, turn toward the sound source and download images directly to police cruiser laptops.
On its website, the company claims its cameras can be trained to discriminate between the sounds of different gun manufacturers and even to discern the delicate clatter of guns being cocked or loaded.
The system, called Smart Sensor Enabled Neural Threat Recognition and Identification (SENTRI) has been installed at 45 sites in high-crime neighbourhoods in Chicago. They've been so effective that Chicago's gun-related crimes are currently at a 40-year low. The city has plans to install 35 more by year's end, and other cities, including San Francisco, Philadelphia and Los Angeles plan to test their own versions.
Although it might seem like an oxymoron to put the words "smart" and "gun" in the same sentence, some of these initiatives might be useful in stemming the continued horror of gun violence.