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`SMART GUNS' MAY ONE DAY SAVE LIVES

A criminal grabs a gun away from a police officer, points it and pulls the trigger.

Nothing happens.That's because it's a "smart gun" - one that can be fired only by someone with the code.

That code could be a ring worn by the officer or a remote control that sends a signal to a receiver in the gun's grip. It could even be a fingerprint.

Sgt. Bill Conroy, firearms training supervisor for the police department in Kansas City, Mo., says his No. 1 concern for such a gun is that it "works every time and does what it's supposed to do - eliminate the threat" of the weapon being used against the officer.

And that's what scientists at Sandia National Laboratories are trying to achieve.

The lab, a Department of Energy installation here best known for nuclear weapons research, received a $620,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice to develop a weapon that can be fired under all kinds of conditions - but only by people it recognizes.

The project manager, Sandia electrical engineer Douglas Weiss, likens a smart gun to a lock and key.

"A key is something unique you have, I don't," he says. "You apply the concept to firearms, only authorized persons - the person with the key - can use the . . . gun."

Although Sandia's project is aimed at saving police officers' lives, it also could keep children who get hold of guns from accidentally shooting themselves or someone else, Weiss says.

And, he says, perhaps technology could someday discourage criminals from stealing guns by making it too difficult for them to find a way to make the weapons work.

Although the idea for a smart gun has been around for years, Sandia's involvement began 21/2 years ago when Department of Energy security officials began taking a fresh look at security ideas, including weapons that could be fired only by certain people.

Word got to the National Institute of Justice, which could see the possible benefits for law enforcement. The institute funds research for the Department of Justice.

About 16 percent of all officers killed in the United States in the line of duty over the past 15 years were shot with their own guns or those of their partners, Weiss says. Those statistics, he says, don't include officers who were wounded or who might have been shot had they not successfully fought off an attempt to take their weapon.

Sandia began the project a year ago by asking police, from chiefs to officers on the street, what they require in a weapon.

Conroy's Kansas City department was among those surveyed.

He says it's important that the weapon still work if it's been knocked around or that if he had to grab his partner's gun, it would fire for him.