With accidental shootings on the rise, new smart gun technology has the potential to save lives.
When President Obama unveiled a new set of executive actions aimed at reducing gun violence in January 2016, the proposed efforts focused largely on more stringent background checks — including ensuring that all gun dealers (even those selling over the Internet or at gun shows) — be fully licensed and compliant.
Obama also stressed the need to develop new technologies to make guns safer.
“If we can set it up so you can’t unlock your phone unless you’ve got the right fingerprint, why can’t we do the same thing for our guns?” he asked in a televised address.
“If there’s an app that can help us find a missing tablet, there’s no reason we can’t do it with a stolen gun,” he continued. “If a child can’t open a bottle of aspirin, we should make sure that they can’t pull a trigger on a gun.”
While these devices aren’t currently on the market, new smart gun technology is on the way.
In 2013, the most recent year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has complete data on firearm fatalities, more than 30,000 deaths resulted from gun violence.
Of those deaths, the CDC data shows more than 500 were killed when a weapon discharged accidentally. Another 21,000 were suicides (many of them using a family member’s weapon) and nearly 200 victims were under the age of 14.
Kai Kloepfer thinks new technology could dramatically reduce those numbers.
“Smart guns take human error out of the equation,” said Kloepfer, who was a high school sophomore in Boulder, Colorado, when James Holmes committed the 2012 mass shooting at a movie theater in nearby Aurora. “They have the potential to save lives.”
Inspired to help stem gun violence, Kloepfer, now 18, created a plastic prototype of a gun that fires only when an embedded sensor recognizes an authorized user’s fingerprint on the grip. The sensor can authorize multiple users, which is potentially useful in law enforcement or military settings.
The tech is powered by a small battery that needs recharging every year or so. An indicator light on the gun shows when the power is winding down, making it easy to keep it at the ready.
“Accuracy and reliability are critical,” said Kloepfer, a soon-to-be MIT student whose design won a First Place Grand Award at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in 2013. “The integrated fingerprint sensor is the same kind used by banks and law enforcement. The fingerprints are stored using military-grade encryption.”
Kloepfer isn’t the only one motivated to produce safer, smarter guns. Bill Gentry, CEO of Kodiak Industries, was inspired to create a smart gun after attending a party at the home of a retired Navy Seal.
During the party, a group of kids wandered into the house and returned with a loaded weapon. Though the gun wasn’t fired and nobody was hurt, the averted catastrophe was unforgettable.
Gentry’s Intelligun is an after-market retrofit kit. This means that customers can add a fingerprint-lock component to some existing gun models. It stores electromagnetic maps of fingerprints for up to 20 users and can verify a user within a second. The tech is powered by a battery and includes a power indicator light that signals when it’s time to recharge, once a year or so.
“If a child or a depressed teen gets their hands on a smart gun, they can’t fire it,” he said. “If an assailant grabs it, it’s no longer a gun; it’s a paperweight.”
Others — including the New Jersey Institute of Technology — are working on “dynamic grip recognition” like the tech built into the gun James Bond used in the movie Skyfall. The idea is that by using dozens of tiny sensors in the grip, the smart gun will recognize the unique pressure pattern of the owner’s hand and lock up for anyone else.
Richard Beary, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police recently told the Washington Post there would be “plenty of agencies interested in beta testing [smart gun] technology.”
He said officers – especially undercover cops – fear having their weapons fall into the wrong hands and used against them. According to FBI statistics, from 2004 to 2013, 33 police officers were murdered with their own weapons.
At a recent smart gun symposium in San Francisco, Police Chief Greg Suhr offered his department as a testing ground for manufacturers as soon as the technology is ready for market, likely within the next five years. He said his officers, many of whom are techies, are excited at the prospect.
In short, he said, smart guns are a “no-brainer.”
Line of Fire
They wonder if the sensor will still work if their hand is sweaty of they have a cut on their finger.
Other opposition has come from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other guns-rights activists. Many fear that the development of smart guns jeopardizes their Second Amendment rights. Fueling this argument is a 2002 New Jersey law mandating that all firearms sold in the state must adopt smart gun technology within three years of its availability.
It was this law, in part, that incited gun owners to protest against gun dealers who attempted to sell a German smart gun — the Amartix iP1 — in the U.S. in 2014.
The gun used radio frequency identification (RFID), which required users to wear a linked smartwatch and punch in a PIN code before it would fire.
Sales lagged due in part to the protests and the steep $1,800 price tag, and Armatix filed bankruptcy in 2015.
Meanwhile, the NRA has adjusted its position. According to the NRA Institute for Legislative Action web site, “The NRA doesn’t oppose the development of ‘smart’ guns, nor the ability of Americans to voluntarily acquire them. However, NRA opposes any law prohibiting Americans from acquiring or possessing firearms that don’t possess ‘smart’ gun technology.”
New Jersey lawmakers are reconsidering the state’s controversial law, opening the door for consumers to choose their weapons regardless of available technology.
A recent survey conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that nearly 60 percent of Americans would be willing to purchase a smart gun when buying a new handgun.
This is good news for smart gun developers.
“I’ve never been more optimistic about personalized guns than I am now,” Stephen Teret, founding director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy and Research, told Fortune Magazine last year. Teret has been pushing for safer gun designs for more than three decades.