New tech makes guns safer, but can't solve political pressure

Our former CIA contributor tests a gun with features limiting who can shoot it, but still won't have it in her house.

When people find out about my previous career as a CIA operative, they often ask, “So have you ever killed anyone?” Depending on my mood, I answer either playfully, “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you,” or honestly, “”

The truth is, like most in the CIA, not only did I never assassinate anyone in service to our country, I rarely even carried a gun! Sure, we all received training to become “weapons qualified,” and my time spent at the Agency’s outdoor range conjures distinctly fond memories for me. I loved testing the myriad of firearms made available to us at the CIA’s top secret training facility, commonly known as The Farm.

At that time, the late 1990s, our instructors would tack photocopied images of Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden to the targets, and we neophyte spies would merrily take turns annihilating then public enemies No. 1 and 2. Using Beretta pistols, Browning revolvers, or sometimes even AK-47s, I was a decent shot, and I thought it was all exceptionally fun.

That said, once deployed to the field, I was bizarrely relieved not to be issued a weapon. Truth is, no matter my training—and an unprecedented for me level of physical fitness at the time—I was never confident that an assailant or adversary wouldn’t be able to overpower and disarm me...and then use my own gun against me. And how embarrassing would that be?

Some people are surprised to find out that, nowadays, while I still enjoy visiting a range—the act of shooting is arguably a lot of fun—I’m adamantly opposed to having any kind of firearm in my home. Not only do I firmly believe there’s a greater chance of that weapon being used against me than of me being able to defend myself with it, I simply won’t risk one of my children getting their hands on it.

When my “TechKnow” producers floated the idea of a story on new “smart gun” technology that would make it nearly impossible for my own weapon to be used against me, let alone for my kids to accidentally fire it, I was more than mildly intrigued. The IP1, developed by the German company Armatix, is actually a two-component system consisting of a .22-calibre semi-automatic handgun and a personalized watch, which controls gun access and use.

The IP1 will only shoot if it’s within range of this radio-controlled watch. And if it’s knocked out of a shooter’s hand, or lost or stolen, the weapon automatically deactivates itself. To top it all off, from the photos and descriptions, the IP1 looked like something James Bond would carry. (Full disclosure: I never possessed any gadget remotely that cool at the CIA.)

Belinda Padilla

Belinda Padilla, the hard-charging CEO of Armatix, proved difficult to track down for our story. Little did I know, she was laying low—all while trying to market her exciting new product—because of a slew of threats she’d received. A newspaper article about this potentially game-changing technology had quite literally triggered a furious backlash on the part of the NRA and other gun enthusiasts.

Somewhat ironically, those who most virulently defend our Second Amendment “right to bear arms” don’t want anyone to be able to buy this particular gun. They’ve boycotted and threatened not only the manufacturer, Armatix, and Padilla—but also any vendor considering offering the product. As of now, the IP1 is not available in the U.S., nor is it expected to be anytime soon. Gun shop owners in California and Maryland, who initially had agreed to sell the nation’s first “smart gun,” both backed down after a flurry of protests and death threats.

It’s not so much the technology itself that has the NRA up in arms as the underlying fear that the IP1 will pave the way toward greater gun legislation, such as a New Jersey law now mandating that within three years of the country’s first sale of a “smart gun,” all guns sold in the state must conform to the same technological safety features.

I finally was able to meet with Padilla and test out the IP1 myself at an independently owned indoor range, where at least one person we met there became vocally irate at the mere mention of the gun. Personally, it was my kind of gun. It’s light, sleek, smooth and (at least for me) easy to fire—that is, once I wore the watch that had been personalized to designate me as the authorized user. Padilla demonstrated with an unloaded IP1 how even if I were to be overpowered and disarmed by an assailant, he would not be able to use the gun against me.

Sure, like any tech-reliant gadget, there’s a number of things that could go wrong with the IP1, thereby preventing me from being able to defend myself if and when the need arose:  dead batteries; miscommunication between the watch and gun; someone who steals the whole system and also manages to obtain the unique passcode designating me as the “authorized user”; a remote hack into the device. But it would truly have to be a perfect storm of mishaps for anyone to use my personalized smart gun against me.

It does seem to offer at least one more safeguard against accidental firings by children. For now, the debate rages on. But one thing is for certain—in the firearms industry, technology is and will continue to outpace any consensus about guns.


Watch “TechKnow” Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT.


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