When Irish gun entrepreneur Robert McNamara learned of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting, his immediate reaction, like that of most people, was one of horror, shock and sadness. But there was something else, too.
"I was literally pulling my hair out," McNamara said. "I thought, we have a technology that could have helped prevent that massacre."
That technology places a radio chip in a gun handle and a corresponding chip on a ring or bracelet or even implanted in an authorized shooter's hand, McNamara said. If the two chips are not within an inch or two of each other, the trigger will not unlock.
The concept, which McNamara's company, TriggerSmart, patented this spring, is a fresh take on a smart gun technology that has been studied and promoted for two decades but has been stubbornly stuck at the prototype phase.
McNamara is not alone in thinking that the technology, which is envisioned primarily to help prevent the hundreds of accidental shootings and thousands of gun suicides in the United States each year, might have made a difference in the December 14 Sandy Hook slayings.
Adam Lanza, 20, shot dead 20 children and six staff members at the school in Newtown, Connecticut, before killing himself. He also killed his mother.
"If the reports were accurate and they were mom's guns, and had she not given him access to whatever personalized the guns, then her son doesn't have access to these guns. He isn't able to operate them," said Jon Vernick, co-director of the John Hopkins Center for Gun Policy. "That's the essence of what a personalized gun is about."
In 1992, a group of students at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland carried out an assignment to rig a gun to fire only when held by its rightful owner. It cost them little more than $2,000.
In the two decades since, the U.S. government has spent millions of dollars on grants for research institutions and gun makers to perfect a personalized gun ― mostly on biometric methods such as fingerprint and grip recognition.
New Jersey passed a law in 2002 mandating that once such a gun becomes commercially available, all guns sold in the state must incorporate the technology within three years.
While champions of personalized guns have long insisted that the technology is within reach, no such gun has made it to the mainstream U.S. market.
One product that is available now is a pair of after-market magnetized add-ons that prevents certain guns from firing unless the shooter is wearing a magnetic ring.
The New Jersey Institute of Technology has spent millions of dollars in federal and state grants to achieve what Senior Vice President of Research and Development Donald H. Sebastian says is a working prototype of a grip-recognizing gun with a success rate of 99 percent or better.
"There is no interest from gun manufacturers in commercializing it," Sebastian said. "There has not been for more than a decade."
But gun advocates and some in law enforcement officials say the institute's success rate is not good enough.
"One failure one time on the range and I would have no interest in ever carrying that gun again," said Mitch Barker, executive director of Washington state's Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. He said guns occasionally jam or misfire for other reasons, but officers are trained to handle such malfunctions.
By contrast, the radio frequency identification technology proposed by McNamara, implanted in everything from key cards to house pets, is essentially instantaneous and virtually fail-safe, according to RFID Journal founding editor Mark Roberti.
"These systems are very reliable," said Roberti, adding his car has never failed to start as a result of a fault in chips now standard in car keys.
An important question for TriggerSmart, Roberti says, is how quickly the trigger lock disengages after the shooter has been verified, determining how fast a gun can be fired in a life-or-death situation.
Jonathan Lowy, director of the Legal Action Project of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, says the simplest way to get personalized guns to the market would be to place firearms under the purview of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which handles safety-related oversight of everything from cribs to power tools.
"Law-abiding, responsible gun owners who choose to have a gun to protect their families would rather have a gun that was safer," Lowy said.
Officials from gun makers Smith & Wesson and Colt could not be reached by phone and did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.
Gun Owners of America spokesman Erich Pratt said it opposed any effort to mandate the use of personalized guns. Doing so, he said, would impose the use of a technology that is not assured.
"I've got 12 kids. I don't want them getting into guns when they're not supposed to," Pratt said. "But I don't want in a moment of crisis to have a question that my gun might not work to protect my family."
Some gun control advocates, such as Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center based ion Washington, say smart guns are a sideshow that distracts from the more pressing issue of limiting the firepower of guns that can be legally sold.
Pointing to data from the University of Chicago's General Social Survey, Sugarmann says that while 54 percent of American households owned a gun in 1977, only 32.3 percent did in 2010.
If smart guns were viable, he says, gun makers would welcome the opportunity to expand their shrinking customer base.
McNamara said he has spoken with some U.S. gun makers, which he did not name, about licensing his technology. He said they were reluctant to be the first to move ahead with personalized guns.
"The attitude is, ‘We understand this technology is coming down the track and we'll deal with it when we have to,'" he said. "They're concerned about the liability aspect. When you put it in one gun you'll have to put it in every gun."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Mohammad Zargham)