Canada and the World

GUN SMARTS

Canadian companies have the technology that can help curb weapon-related violence, and the United States wants it. The innovations may also help the White House bypass the thorny American debate over gun control.

Andrew Phillips April 17 2000
Canada and the World

GUN SMARTS

Canadian companies have the technology that can help curb weapon-related violence, and the United States wants it. The innovations may also help the White House bypass the thorny American debate over gun control.

Andrew Phillips April 17 2000
Magnified 10 times on a computer screen in the basement of a nondescript Montreal office building, the image of a .45-calibre bullet casing resembles nothing so much as the surface of a remote planet. There are dents that look like craters, bumps that resemble hills, lines that could be canals. Robert Walsh runs a practiced finger over the screen. “Every bullet, every casing, has unique markings,” he says. “What you’re looking for is the similarities.

Walsh is president of Forensic Technology Inc., the pioneer in computerized systems that allow investigators to link spent bullets and casings left at a crime scene to the gun from which they were fired. Each gun leaves special marks on ammunition—a pattern experts call its “ballistic fingerprint”— that can be used to solve crimes that once stumped police. Forensic Technology has been selling the system to law enforcement agencies in 14 countries and 26 American states for the past seven years. And now, with the debate on how to control gun violence once again heating up in the United States, the company is set to take a great leap forward.

The White House has embraced Walsh’s technology and wants to spend an additional $43.7 million on it as part of a package of measures to fight gun crime. And two states— New York and Maryland—include it in new gun-control proposals introduced in March.

Those steps are the biggest boost so far for a Montreal firm that leads the world in taking the science of ballistics into the digital age. Police forces from Oregon to Israel depend on Walsh’s system but it is little-known in Canada, where it is installed only in Quebec’s provincial police laboratory in east-end Montreal. Walsh calls his company’s low profile at home “a bit embarrassing,” but the explanation is simple. Canada’s level of gun violence is so low that law enforcement agencies have trouble getting the funds to buy his equipment—known as IBIS, for Integrated Ballistics Identification System. “It’s a bit weird,” says Mike McLean, product manager for IBIS, as he shows off the system in the company’s basement workshop. “We don’t have the gun crime, but we’re the leaders in the technology to fight it.”

At the same time, other technologies are emerging that may chart a way for Americans to curtheir epidemic of gun violence despite the bitter standoff between gun-control advocates and the powerful U.S. gun lobby. Instead of chewing over tired arguments about Americans’ right tob bear arms under the Second Amendment to their Constitution, governments and firearms manufacturers are moving ahead with ways to make guns less liable to fall into the wrong hands—and less likely to hurt someone if they do.

The latest hope is so-called smart-gun technology: weapons that can be fired only by their owners. In a landmark deal reached in mid-March between the White House and Smith & Wesson Corp., the biggest U.S. handgun maker, the company pledged to begin selling a personalized gun within three years. That system, too, has a Canadian connection. Mytec Technologies Inc. of Toronto is supplying Smith & Wesson with a scanning device that will “unlock” a weapon by recognizing its owners fingerprint. “It can be fired only by the person whose fingerprint is registered as the owner,” explains Frank Chen, Mytecs executive vice-president.

Those measures are controversial: to some gun-control advocates, developing “smart guns” is a frankly dumb idea designed to perpetuate products that remain inherently dangerous. Others see them as a promising way forward at a time when Congress is deadlocked on the issue, unable to agree on even modest new gun-control measures despite a horrifying series of deadly shootings at schools and offices over the past 18 months. The rhetoric, though, is still hot—and getting hotter. In a presidential election year, Democrats see gun control as a winning issue, especially among women voters whom polls show have been particularly outraged by the seemingly unstoppable violence. The anniversary of the worst incident—the murder of 13 people at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., last April 20—is around the corner. And on May 14, Mother’s Day, women plan to rally against gun violence in Washington and 20 other cities in what is being billed as the “Million Mom March.”

There is passion on the other side, as well. The National Rifle Association, the unbending defender of Americans’ right to bear arms, has increased its membership from 2.8 to 3.2 million as gun owners organize against more controls. NRA president Charlton Heston, the onetime actor, has denounced the campaign to curb guns as a “culture war” being waged against “God-fearing, law-abiding, Caucasian, middle-class, Protestant, admittedly heterosexual, gun-owning” Americans. And its executive vice-president, Wayne LaPierre, cranked up the rhetoric again in March, accusing President Bill Clinton of failing to enforce hundreds of existing gun laws while calling for more. Clinton, LaPierre charged, “is willing to accept a certain level of killing to further his political agenda.”

With that kind of language still dominating the debate, it’s no wonder the search is on for ways to rein in gun violence— which resulted in more than 32,000 deaths across the United States in 1997, a rate 15 times greater than all other industrialized countries combined. The IBIS system developed in Montreal is one of those ways. Walsh, a 37-year-old engineer, became interested in ballistics in the early 1990s. His company, Walsh Automation Inc., specialized in “machine vision” technology used for quality control in manufacturing, including such arcane applications as counting the number of chocolate chips in mass-produced cookies. A ballistics expert suggested that expertise could be used to speed up the painstaking process of comparing bullets and shell casings found at crime scenes. By matching a spent bullet to one test-fired from a weapon, investigators have long been able to link a criminal to his crime— but it was a slow procedure that relied on a firearms examiner looking for similarities under a special microscope.

Walsh formed a new company, Forensic Technology, to develop a computer program able to compare bullets and casings much faster. His IBIS system uses a digital camera to repeatedly scan the unique markings etched into a bullet by the impact of a guns firing pin, ejector and barrel grooves. It translates those images into a mathematical algorithm—its one-of-a-kind “ballistic fingerprint”—and stores them in its database. While a human examiner could spend months comparing a bullet from a crime scene to scores of possible matches, IBIS can do it in less than an hour. “It pulls the needle out of the haystack,” says Walsh.

“Smart guns” are not a new idea: proposals have been around for years

The system was a hit among law enforcement agencies, even at $874,000 per unit. But making sure it was widely adopted was a political as well as a technical challenge. IBIS was embraced by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a branch of the treasury department, but the much larger Federal Bureau of Investigation, an arm of the justice department, adopted another, incompatible system called Drugfire. The two agencies, long-standing rivals in many areas, engaged in a bitter squabble over which system would prevail (both, in fact, ran programs under which municipal law enforcement agencies could procure their systems). The fact that IBIS was produced in Montreal did not help; FBI agents were known to grumble about why Washington should follow “this Canadian system.”

Still, police forces across the United States and around the world began using IBIS to solve crimes that had stymied them. Several cities in South Africa, plagued by gun crime in the 1990s, bought the system, as did forces as far afield as Russia, Venezuela and Hong Kong. In New Orleans, where violent crime soared during a drug epidemic in the mid1990s, Sgt. Michael Rice, who oversees the police forces ballistics section, says the system was used last year to link 19 defendants to 26 shooting cases. IBIS proved its worth, he says,

as soon as the New Orleans force bought it with a grant from the ATF in 1996, by helping solve the shooting death of a 12year-old boy. “Its one of the only government programs I’ve seen that actually does what it’s supposed to do,” says Rice. “It really works.”

IBIS had another high-profile success in 1997, when ATF examiners were able to identify weapons used to massacre 260 people in Croatia in 1991. Their evidence was used to convict one of the killers before the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague. But feuding between the ATF and FBI hampered wider adoption of the system. In December, 1998, Walsh even hired a former Republican congressman from Iowa, Jim Lightfoot, to negotiate the tricky shoals of official Washington. “If it wasn’t for the persistence of Bob Walsh, it would never have gone through,” Lightfoot says now. The payoff came three months ago, when Clinton announced that he wants to spend an additional $43.7 million to start creating a single database of ammunition “fingerprints,” ditching the FBI-approved technology in favor of IBIS.

The eventual goal, administration officials say, is that gun makers would record information from each weapon they make after it is test-fired at the factory. That would be fed into a growing data bank that police forces could use to trace bullets back to the guns from which they were fired, employing a new program under development at Forensic Technology’s west-end Montreal headquarters called VSN (for Virtual Serial Number). IBIS and VSN will be combined into one unified program, which Walsh diplomatically says “will take the best from both systems.” But it represented a big victory for his company, which plans to expand from 70 to 100 employees by year’s end and open a new office in Florida. Aside from helping investigators solve more crimes, the expanded database may make it easier to pinpoint which dealers are supplying a disproportionately large number of weapons to criminals—and then crack down on them. Frank Sauer, a senior FBI official working to implement the new system, puts it like this: “The United States has this tumor called gun violence, and this is one way to get away from the gun-control versus gun-rights debate and cut off the blood supply.”

Other new solutions are also intended to skirt the politically radioactive gun-control issue. “Smart guns” are not a new idea: proposals have been around for years. But the Clinton administration has earmarked another $14.6 million in grants to gun manufacturers to develop the weapons, which could be fired only by their owners. The idea is to reduce certain kinds of gun deaths—such as those caused by children getting hold of their parents’ guns, teens bent on suicide and criminals turning weapons against their owners. With some 192 million old-style firearms already owned by Americans, even supporters acknowledge the benefits will be gradual. But, says Stephen Teret, director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, “we’ve got to start— and we should start now because we have such an unacceptable level of deaths from guns.”

Proposals for smart or personalized firearms come in a host of flavors: companies have suggested using transponders worn on the wrist, magnetic rings and electromagnetic locks to make sure only owners can fire their weapons. But the leading proposal now is one that Smith & Wesson, a venerable company that sells a quarter of all U.S. handguns, agreed to develop as part of its deal with the White House. It promised to market a handgun within three years that would include a device, developed by Toronto’s Mytec, that is able to read the owner’s fingerprint and unlock the gun. Smith & Wesson also agreed to sell all its guns equipped with locks, and to impose safety conditions on dealers that sell its products. In return, half of the 29 U.S. cities and counties that are suing the gun industry for allegedly failing to keep their products out of the hands of criminals agreed to drop the company from their court actions.

The idea is unpopular with both sides of the debate. Smith & Wesson signed the deal to avoid the cost and distraction of lengthy lawsuits, but the NRA and other gun makers immediately denounced it for selling out to the Clinton administration. Some gun dealers even vowed to boycott the company’s products. And many gun-control advocates see “smart guns” as a contradiction in terms, a way to convince people who now fear firearms that they can allow a supposedly safe weapon into their homes. “All the technology in the world can’t address the inherent danger of handguns,” says Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center in Washington. But for now, technology offers ways for Americans to cut through their frozen debate over deadly weapons. www.macleans.ca for links