As tragedies involving children with guns continue to make headlines, the issue of gun control has been dumped in society's lap.

But a potential solution may be in sight.

Under pressure from a government lawsuit, leading weapons manufacturer Smith & Wesson has agreed to make external safety locks standard on all its handguns while continuing biometrics research for a new gun design known as the "smart gun."

Smith & Wesson has teamed with Mytec Technologies Inc., a developer of biometric security software, to work on the prototype smart gun, which has been under development for about 10 months. Biometric technology measures the unique, invariable biological characteristics of an individual, such as a fingerprint, iris or retina scan, facial geometry or hand geometry.

Mytec created a small biometric module that attaches to the gun handle and identifies the enrolled authorized user via a fingerprint scan, thereby preventing unauthorized users from firing the weapon.

Terry Milkie, director of engineering for Mytec, says the smart gun is capable of reducing "accidents" because of the solid state sensor that allows only valid users — or the administrator — who enroll their fingerprints to fire it.

According to Milkie, the module resembles a magazine cartridge, with a sensor on the end. The user holds the gun and requests authentication by pushing a button on the weapon. It then sends a signal to the module. The user places a finger on the sensor, the technology reads the print and determines if it matches the print stored in the template.

If it matches, the signal will be sent to the weapon's electronics, and the module is removed. If the user puts the gun down, the weapon resets itself and the whole process must be repeated.

There are still kinks to be worked out. "With biometrics, there is a lot that works, and a lot that doesn't," says Milkie. "And weapons present a geometry challenge. But once the technology is adjusted to the object, the false acceptance/rejection rates will be as good, if not better than, existing biometrics."

Another issue is user biometric enrollment. Where will users enroll their fingerprints? Will a database of authorized users be kept, and who will be the watchdog? These issues, along with the technology's current "one to few" capability, which allows up to five fingers or individuals to enroll at the administrator's discretion, will have to be addressed before smart guns hit the market.

How Smart Is 'Smart?'

Kevin Foley, vice president of product engineering for Smith & Wesson, feels the terminology associated with the new gun can be misleading.

"There appears to be a need for this — and a market. But it's not a solution for every application," says Foley. "One of the problems is that we don't know what we really want. The terms 'authorized user' and 'child-proof' are vague. And the guns are not 'smart,' meaning they are not intelligent. People also use the terms gun 'safety' and 'security' synonymously.

"There are a number of active and passive safety mechanisms on our guns. What we are talking about here is security measures that prevent unauthorized use, whether in home with children or in the case of stolen weapons."

President Clinton is among the officials pushing for legislation that requires the manufacturing of smart guns, or at least guns that have child-safety locks. But Foley says they must define the terms and set objectives, instead of just saying smart guns are required by a certain date.

"They haven't yet defined what a smart gun is," says Foley. "Money is a second thing. All of this is R&D — it's emerging technology. So far we've seen nothing that's production worthy. With funding, we can get to a higher quality sooner."

Smith & Wesson has applied for a government grant to continue its research on the prototype, but has not received approval, despite President Clinton's request for $10 million in federal grants to contribute to the development of smart guns.

Smith & Wesson has completed its smart gun prototype, which will go through two major design turns and production tooling. The company is also developing a system that uses an electronic combination lock on the rear of the grip that requires a user to grip the handle before the gun can be fired. Or users can set a five-digit code to unlock it.

Production for a smart gun, with either the biometric module or the electronic lock, is expected to occur around the year 2002, though Foley adds, "it won't be tomorrow."

Over the next 12 months, Smith & Wesson plans to get more smart gun units into testing for user critiques, since the only people who have used the prototype are the development team.

"What we see as a plus, users may find something that gets in their way. Ideally, the user should bring nothing to the gun, which steers you toward biometrics. There is no panacea for every application."

But should people even be looking to technology to solve a problem that may have a cultural root? Milkie says no, but that technology can solve problems where there isn't an existing method in place.

"The best thing is education about the proper care and use of weapons. We can't get away from all the movies, videos and glorified violence. And kids have a tremendous ability to find bullets," says Milkie.

"However, this is extremely right for its time. It's a tremendous use of technology and I can't even begin to describe the importance. I think it will avoid terrible incidences like the ones in Flint and Littleton. People are going to keep guns, and accidents will happen."

In the end, Foley says, "Publicly people are fighting each other, but I'm not sure that everyone is that far apart on the issue. "