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Michael Recce of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, inventor of a 'smart gun' technology, holding a prototype of the gun with grip recognition technology at a 2004 news conference.
For years, they've existed only in science fiction and the archives of the New Jersey Legislature: handguns that fire only in the grip of an authorized user.
And yet these so-called smart guns soon could be the only kind sold legally in New Jersey under a state law that has languished on the books for a decade.
The law, which requires the state's gun dealers to exclusively sell smart guns within three years after the first one hits the market, has been largely forgotten since the Legislature adopted it in 2002. But it could be dusted off as early as this year as technology finally catches up to the vision of lawmakers at a time when the debate over gun control is more combative and divisive than at any time in recent history.
After years of stalled and inconclusive research — hampered in part by political resistance from groups like the National Rifle Association — a German company called Armatix says it will introduce the first gun equipped with a user-recognition system within 45 days.
It is unclear whether that model, which will fire only within range of a sensor embedded in a wristwatch, will trigger the New Jersey regulations. But advocates predict that the first sale is likely to create a domino effect as other companies and publicly funded groups — including one at the New Jersey Institute of Technology — are spurred to bring their own prototypes to the market.
After that, it's probably just a matter of time before the technology becomes standard, said Stephen Teret, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
"Who is going to want to buy an old stupid gun rather than a smart gun?" Teret, who has been working on the issue for 30 years, said. "I am very optimistic about this."
Critics of user-recognition technology, and legislation that would require it, have said for years that it is not reliable or user-friendly enough for guns kept for self-defense. They say major gun manufacturers would band together to thwart the New Jersey requirement, the only one of its kind in the country, by refusing to sell guns in the state.
The NRA did not respond to requests for comment, but Scott L. Bach, the executive director of the Association of New Jersey Rifle & Pistol Clubs, said the technology is flawed, and could put gun owners in danger when it fails. He also questioned why law enforcement officers are exempt.
"New Jersey's smart-gun law is as dumb as it gets," Bach, of West Milford, said in a statement. "It forces you to use an unproven technology to defend your life, and then exempts the state from liability when the gun goes 'click' instead of 'bang.' If it's such a great idea, then law enforcement shouldn't be exempt, and the free market should be allowed to determine its viability."
Advocates for the law predict that such resistance will fade as consumers become more comfortable with fingerprint locks on laptops, keyless ignition sensors in cars and other user-recognition technology in personal electronics and home-security software.
They say putting the same kind of safety features in handguns would significantly reduce suicides and accidental shootings, particularly those involving children. They could also protect gun users from having their own weapons used against them and reduce illegal firearm sales.
"People are starting to realize that it's just another gun industry line, where they're refusing to put safety over profit," said Nicola Bocour, project director of Ceasefire New Jersey, a group that was instrumental in getting the New Jersey bill passed.
But so far those discussions have been purely hypothetical.
When Gov. James McGreevey signed New Jersey's law in 2002 after five years of debate, nobody had managed to bring a smart-gun model to the testing stage. Because there was no such thing on the market, the law left it to the state attorney general to consult with "neutral and detached" private entities to determine whether a so-called personalized gun had gone on sale.
For the waiting period to start, the law says the attorney general would have to find that "at least one manufacturer has delivered at least one production model of a personalized handgun to a registered or licensed wholesale or retail dealer in New Jersey or any other state."
The law defines a personalized handgun as any handgun that is manufactured with technology that would automatically limit its use to authorized people, and which could not readily be deactivated. Such technology could include radio frequency tagging, touch memory, remote control, fingerprint, magnetic encoding or biometric, mechanical or electronic systems.
At the time, Smith & Wesson and Colt's Manufacturing Co., which were among the only major manufacturers to try to develop user-recognition devices, had given up or scaled back their plans. Both cited too many technical glitches — although gun safety advocates say the real reason major manufacturers dropped smart-gun development was organized resistance from gun-rights groups.
Researchers at NJIT were already working on a model, funded by state taxpayers, but they said it would not be ready for at least five to 10 years, according to published reports at the time.
But the lawmakers who pushed for New Jersey's regulation were optimistic.
Former state Sen. Joseph A. Palaia, R-Monmouth, who was a primary sponsor of the bill, told The New York Times that he thought it would be only a few years before a proto-type was ready.
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck, who was also a primary sponsor, said in a recent interview that she never thought the reaction to the bill would come quickly, but that she hoped it would encourage more investment in research to develop child-safe technology.
"If, in fact, the technology is available, if, in fact, it can be manufactured and if, in fact, it proves to be dependable, why would anyone be against it?" she said. "It means that a firearm kept in your home, a handgun, couldn't be used by a 4-year-old to kill his 3-year-old playmate."
New Jersey's law inspired similar legislation in California that, if passed, would require all guns sold in that state to be owner-authorized within two years of the first such product hitting the market.
And versions of the same requirement have been proposed several times in Congress, including in bills introduced in 1999, 2001 and 2005 by U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson, and one sponsored in May by Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass.
Those measures would be strengthened if New Jersey's law went into effect, Pascrell said.
"I think it would be revolutionary because it would lead to a lot of other research and it would really precipitate action in a lot of other states besides New Jersey," he said.
Since New Jersey's law passed, however, the only place a smart gun has been seen by a mass American audience was in the 2012 James Bond movie "Skyfall."
The gun that Bond wielded in that movie had a pistol grip that read his palm print, much like the model that the NJIT researchers were working on when New Jersey's law was passed. After the law was on the books, the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Gov. Jon Corzine secured a pair of $1 million federal grants for NJIT to continue its research.
The university reported positive findings in early tests, but the project seemed to fizzle, until recently.
The first prototype, which used computerized sensors to identify a shooter's trigger grip, was reliable 90 percent of the time. But the project was delayed when the manufacturers that had been working with the university backed out, said Don Sebastian, senior vice president of research and development at NJIT. Those companies included an Australian defense technology company called Metal Storm and the gunmaker Taurus International Manufacturing.
But the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut last year renewed interest in gun safety devices, Sebastian said. Now the university has partnered with Picatinny Arsenal, the American military research and manufacturing facility in Morris County, to create a new prototype that could be mass produced and installed as an after-market conversion.
With the help of the more advanced technology available today, researchers have been able to ensure that the new model will almost always recognize the rightful owner or a child user. The next step is to reach the same level of reliability with male unauthorized users, Sebastian said. The university has also been in contact with Armatix about incorporating the NJIT technology into the weapon the company is preparing for the American market, he said.
Other companies are working on their own models, including the Irish company TriggerSmart, which uses remote sensors like the ones in the Armatix model, and a company called Kodiak, in Salt Lake City, which is already accepting orders for a gun with fingerprint technology.
Sebastian, who says the New Jersey mandate was premature, said that as such technology develops, the market for it will materialize.
"If it can prove itself, it can sell itself," he said.
Belinda Padilla, CEO of Armatix USA, said her company hasn't encountered any backlash to its new gun, which also has features that restrict its shooting range during target practice and keep it from firing when the cartridge has been released.
"Everyone I have spoken with thinks it's a great product, and everyone is waiting for me to get the first shipment," she said. "The demand is there, it's just a matter of selling it."
Staff Writer Abbott Koloff contributed to this article. Email: email@example.com