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By Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — German entrepreneur Bernd Dietel had a radical idea about gun safety.

After a 2002 shooting at the Gutenberg-Gymnasium in Erfurt that left 16 people dead, Dietel envisioned guns with coded digital locks, similar to the ones his company installed on buildings.

In eight years, the Armatix iP1 — a pistol that can be fired only if its user is wearing a wireless wristband that broadcasts on a specific frequency — was ready.

But no gun shop in America will sell it.

The Armatix iP1 and other so-called smart guns have become the latest flash point in the long-running battle between gun rights and gun control.

Although the weapons have broad support among gun owners, the staunchest supporters of the Second Amendment say smart guns only make it easier for the government to control the sale and use of lawful firearms.

They fear, among other concerns, that the advent of guns with high-tech safety mechanisms will prompt state governments to mandate their use. New Jersey already has such a law on the books.

Andy Raymond, co-owner of Engage Armament in Rockville, Md., said he had no inkling of the controversy when he announced last year that he would sell the iP1. He didn’t see the harm in offering customers a new gadget.

“I should have known better,” he said. “I would rather be shot by an i-gun than ever get involved with it again.”

Each year in the U.S., 31,000 people die in gun-related incidents and 73,000 more are injured, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Smart technology — using fingerprint recognition, hand biometrics, coded locks or other features to make sure a gun can be fired only by its owner — could be used to prevent many of those casualties.

Had Nancy Lanza owned a smart gun, perhaps she, her son and the 26 people he shot in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., might have lived.

In addition, the technology could save some of the 650 Americans each year between the ages of 10 and 19 who, according to published estimates, use relatives’ guns to take their own lives.

Criminologists say they believe many of the nation’s roughly 11,000 annual gun-related homicides are committed with stolen weapons. At least 18 police officers whose weapons were used against them have been killed in the line of duty since 2007.

Colt’s Manufacturing Co., one of the nation’s oldest gun makers, built a prototype smart gun in the late 1990s that could be fired only if the user wore a ring emitting a specific radio frequency. The project prompted sporadic boycotts of Colt by gun rights enthusiasts and was scuttled.

In 2000, rival Smith & Wesson promised to make all of its new guns available with high-tech safety features. The initiative, sparked by a request from the Clinton administration, was dropped after gun rights activists boycotted the company, nearly driving it out of business.

Detached from the politics of gun control in the United States, Dietel poured his fortune into building the iP1.

“The only reason we’re here today is because our founder has his own money — no one could fire him,” said Belinda Padilla, chief executive of Beverly Hills-based Armatix USA Inc.

Dietel drew on the expertise of his other company, SimonsVoss Technologies, when he launched Armatix. And he poached engineer Ernst Mauch from Germany’s leading arms manufacturer to design the gun.

The .22-caliber iP1 fires only when it is within 15 inches of a synchronized wristband. A light on the butt of the weapon glows green when activated or red when it is too far from the wristband.

The $1,800 iP1 hit the U.S. market last year, landing in a political storm that had been brewing for more than a decade.

It began in 2002, when a New Jersey state senator sponsored a law to spur development of safer weapons and boost the fortunes of researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

The law required that 30 months after a viable smart weapon came to market, all new guns sold in the state had to be equipped with mechanisms to limit unauthorized use.

At the time, engineers at the university predicted their invention _ a sensor that could identify a person’s unique pattern of grasping a pistol — was years, if not decades, away from production.

The law helped attract research funding but largely faded from public consciousness because there were no working smart guns.

Until the Armatix iP1 arrived.

Raymond, the Maryland gun shop owner, jumped at the chance to sell the weapon. He thought it might appeal to customers who already owned guns, as well as to younger ones drawn to consumer electronics.

But before long, Raymond — who calls himself “a huge Second Amendment guy” — was the focus of threats to burn down his store and kill his bulldog, Brutus.

Enraged gun owners also lashed out against the Oak Tree Gun Club in Newhall, Calif., where the iP1 had been demonstrated and displayed in the pro shop.

Both businesses backed away from the gun. Armatix now distributes the weapon on its website, declining to say how many it has sold.

The gun industry and gun rights activists are wary of smart weapons.

“There are serious questions about the reliability of this technology,” said Mike Bazinet, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. “That’s the main reason that firearms manufacturers do not feel this technology is ready to bring to the marketplace.”

Those concerns were underscored in a report by Sandia National Laboratories in 1996 — and reaffirmed in 2001 — that law enforcement officers could not depend on personalized gun technology to fire when necessary. Since police departments tend to drive the civilian gun market, it was a damning assessment.

But in 2013, the Justice Department released a far more optimistic appraisal of smart gun technology, finding at least three firearms to be on the cusp of commercial use.

After the Sandy Hook massacre, surveys showed that gun users as well as those who had never owned a firearm were hungry for solutions to lessen the harm such weapons could inflict, said Dr. Garen Wintemute, an emergency physician and gun-violence researcher at UC Davis.

A nationally representative survey commissioned by organizers of the Seattle Smart Gun Symposium in January found that two-thirds of Americans believe dealers should offer guns fitted with technology that makes them more secure. In addition, 4 in 10 gun owners — and 54 percent of those between 18 and 44 — said they would “consider swapping” the guns currently in their homes for “new, safer smart guns when they come on the market.”

“Safety does sell,” Wintemute said.

Public health experts say the iP1 could shift the demographics of gun ownership in the United States by attracting people who have been too afraid to own firearms.

Ron Conway agrees. The San Francisco billionaire — who was an early investor in Google, PayPal and Facebook — started the Smart Tech for Firearms Challenge a year after the Newtown shootings, offering grants of $10,000 to $100,000 to develop safe, high-tech firearms.

One of his 15 grantees, Tom Lynch of Safe Gun Technology Inc. in Columbus, Ga., is putting the finishing touches on a fingerprint recognition device for the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle — an assault weapon that gun control activists repeatedly have sought to ban.

Gun owners, he said, want to be able to choose when to activate safe technology, when to turn it off and whom to designate as an authorized user. They want immediate and reliable access to their gun, with no extra steps.

In the face of political stalemate, even ardent backers of gun control legislation are pinning their hopes on smart technology.

“The Second Amendment is part of the landscape,” said Ralph Fascitelli, president of Washington CeaseFire in Seattle. “Technology is the most appealing way out of this conundrum.”

Steve Teret, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University who has tracked the evolution of smart weapons for more than three decades, said it was only a matter of time before they were readily available.

“I see more people involved and more interest,” he said. “We’re getting quite close to having personalized guns be a reality in the United States.”

In the meantime, Armatix announced last month that it had entered Chapter 11-style restructuring proceedings in Germany. Advocates for safer firearms are closely tracking the company’s fortunes.

Photo: The Armatix iP1 requires authentication from the iW1 — Intelligent Watch — and will activate the gun only for the user. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/TNS)


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Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

The reason the centrist recommendations won’t satisfy civil rights advocates is that many of the most troubling developments since the 2020 election would likely remain.

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