Biometric technology and the gun-control debate

The atrocity in Newtown a few weeks back threw gas on the fire of the gun-control debate. The arguments — and the arguers — haven’t changed much.

Liberals mostly want to see draconian gun control laws governing the sale, possession, modification and use of firearms, especially the military-style so-called “assault weapons” (please, no hate mail — that term is in quotes for a reason). Conservatives stick to a strict interpretation of the Second Amendment and cite the need for Americans to be able to defend themselves against crime and an overreaching government.

There are some technology solutions that could, in theory, limit the use of some firearms to their rightful owners or to shoot only designated targets. Are any of these practical?

An editorial in the online Huffington Post, a strongly liberal news and opinion outlet, described what David Shuster calls “smart gun technology.”

What he is describing is essentially a biometric application.

A 2009 report on CBS News described a system called Dynamic Grip Recognition (DGR), developed at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). A handgun fitted with DGR would be initially programmed for the intended user at a firing range or retailer. Sensors in the gun grip sense and record the geometry of the designated user’s hand(s), as well as the pattern of pressure on the grip.

This isn’t necessarily unique to everyone, but it’s sufficiently selective to identify the rightful owner from a random group of passers-by who try to fire the gun. If the sensors don’t detect the correct hand is holding the gun, it won’t fire.

Hand geometry is a reasonably fast and reliable biometric technology that, while not unique, separates one person from the crowd.

If you’ve been to Disney World in the last ten years or so, you’ve probably used it. Disney World uses a single guest pass card for almost all transactions on the property. It’s your room key, your charge card, and your admissions pass. Buy something in a souvenir shop with the card, and if you’re staying at one of the Disney hotels, the purchase will be delivered to your room (and added onto your bill). The first time you use it at an admissions gate, you swipe the card and stick your fingers into a scanner on top of the card reader.

Many people think the scanner is reading fingerprints, but that would take too long and be too error-prone for a high-volume checkpoint. Instead, the scanner measures the size of your fingers, both in gross dimensions and relative to one another, and compares the arrangement to the sample associated with that card. This isn’t a unique characteristic, but it will differentiate one person from hundreds of others. The system keeps people from handing off the card to one another, ensuring that each guest has (and pays for) their own admission.

Although biometric hand geometry is a mature technology, at Disney World, it is run on a networked computer system with the scanners mounted on a platform that would still be upright after a hit from a NFL linebacker. Whatever processor and sensors the NJIT has managed to fit inside the grip of a handgun are probably not going to be quite so reliable.

Several years back, a major holster manufacturer whose name you would recognize introduced a groundbreaking product at the annual IACP show. It was a police duty-style handgun holster with an embedded fingerprint scanner.

People authorized to take the gun out of the holster had their index fingers “enrolled” to the scanner mechanism. Once that was done, the user would grip the holstered gun in the conventional way, with the index finger resting on the scanner pad recessed into portion of the holster covering the trigger guard. The holster would read the print on the finger and release the gun.

An additional feature (or curse, depending on your point of view) recorded the precise time and date of each draw and return to the holster. The draw-and-holster data could be downloaded to an external database.

The propeller-head in me thought this was a really cool invention. The cop was thinking, “I don’t want to be the first policeman in America trying this out.”

I have a fingerprint scanner on my laptop computer, and it works pretty well 99 percent of the time. When it doesn’t, it sneers at me and requires me to enter the password manually. The laptop gets used in warm, dry, tech-friendly environments, not in the temperature, dust, and humidity extremes my duty gun leather was exposed to.

My take on Mr. Shuster’s solution to the gun control problem is that he doesn’t have a grasp of the situations where being able to fire your sidearm is most critical.

New Jersey, not known as the most gun-friendly state in the union, thinks highly of the technology. A New Jersey law enacted in 2002 requires that, three years after this technology becomes available, the only guns permitted for sale in the state will have to carry it. 

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