For the latest on smart guns, check out our newest feature, “Will smart guns ever be for sale?”
By Jared Shelly
The logic behind “smart guns” is simple — use technology to ensure that guns can only be fired by their owners. The potential results are powerful: A toddler can’t accidentally shoot a friend or family member. A teen can’t use the household gun to take their own life. Even stolen firearms can’t be used to commit crimes.
But the nascent technology comes with plenty of questions. Will they unlock quick enough for life-or-death situations? Will gun owners actually buy them? Can they be hacked?
OK, so how does it work?
There are two main types of smart guns: biometric firearms and radio-frequency identification (RFID) guns. Biometric guns are typically unlocked with a fingerprint. Biofire, a .40 caliber gun that reads the shooter’s middle print, can open a gun in 0.5 seconds.
“You pick it up, and it works,” said founder Kai Kloepfer, who expects the gun to be available for purchase in 12-18 months.
The Intelligun ($399 online), a handgun accessory that currently works only with a model 1911 pistol, claims similar immediacy. According to the product’s demo video, the fingerprint sensor authorizes its owner faster than they can set sites on a target and relocks the moment the user unhands the pistol. The Intelligun site also says its technology can store and authenticate the prints of up to 20 users, if necessary.
On the RFID side, German company Armatix has released the iP1 pistol, a .22 caliber gun with a 10-round magazine. The owner can only fire the gun when it’s within 10 inches of an Armatix watch connected by short-wave radio signals. The gun costs $1,399 plus $399 for the watch. But a hacker proved the tech needs more refinement. He was able to extend the range of its radio signal to 10 feet; jam its radio signals so that the owner can’t fire it, and even disable the gun’s locking mechanism with magnets. Very scary indeed.
The Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, an organization dedicated to the development of gun safety technology, has issued grants to a number of other solutions. Among them is the iGun, which fires when an RFID-enabled ring is within 1 centimeter of the gun’s sensor, and gUNarmed, which uses location tracking technology to prevent usage in public places like parks, shopping malls or schools. “Expect to pay a premium price for this advanced technology,” iGun’s website warns.
The Upside: Reducing Suicides and Accidents
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of smart firearms is that children can’t access them. Many gun owners lock up all their guns, except one. That gun is often loaded and unlocked for quick-and-easy access. In fact, there are 4.6 million loaded and unlocked guns in American homes today.
“Smart guns enable you to have a gun out of the safe and loaded — but secure. With biometric trigger locks or smart guns, you can have it on the kitchen counter or bedside table, and your kid could not access it,” said Margot Hirsch, President of The Smart Tech Challenges Foundation.
Smart guns also have the potential to reduce suicides — particularly the 2,600 youth suicides that occur in the United States every year. Of youths who took their own lives with firearms, 82% obtained the gun from their home. Although a determined person will find a way to take their own life, suicide is often an impulsive act — and not having access to a family gun could be the difference between life and death.
With such potential, smart guns have become a hot topic in the wake of mass shootings. As the gun debate rages on with people on polar opposite sides, smart guns feel like a logical compromise to many. In fact, President Barack Obama said in 2016: “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?”
Still, don’t expect smart guns to be the end-all solution to mass shootings. Of the 143 guns possessed by the killers, more than three quarters were obtained legally. In 11 of the 101 mass shootings since 1982, the killers used weapons that they did not own, resulting in 89 deaths. Most often, they took the gun from a family member. One of the most tragic examples was Sandy Hook, where the shooter used his mother’s guns to murder 26 people, including 20 elementary school students.
It all hinges on… New Jersey?
In coming out for smart guns, it seems that gun control proponents have shot themselves in the foot. In 2002, New Jersey, led by Democratic Governor Jim McGreevey, passed The Childproof Handgun Law, requiring that all New Jersey gun shops carry only smart guns once they’re made available.
That mandate caught the attention of the NRA, which says it “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.’ ”
While smart guns certainly seem like a safer option in open carry states, the NRA says that “no viable guns equipped with such technology exist” and that any law mandating smart guns could lead to handguns embedded with “a device that would allow guns to be disabled remotely.”
Ralph Fascitelli, the owner of smart gun manufacturer Lode Star Firearms, thinks that an amendment of that law under a new New Jersey Governor in the Spring could turn the tide. Democrat Phil Murphy has backed a bill to require gun shop owners to merely stock one smart gun option. “The removal should open the door to new investment in smart guns, especially the proven reliable RFID version that involves a “digital handshake” between a small chip worn by the user and another electric chip in the handgun itself,” Fascitelli wrote in the Orange County Register.
If that’s true, it could open doors for Lode Star and its competitors. iGun founder Jonathan Mossberg told Forbes that he is struggling to get the $5 million he needs to begin manufacturing his product. “Silicon Valley, let’s admit it, is mostly anti-gun. Anything that has to do with firearms they don’t want to touch,” he said.
Once on the market, smart guns will have to prove their reliability. While President Barack Obama tried to get law enforcement organizations to trial the tech during his administration, they remain skeptical. “We don’t want unproven technology to be tried out on law enforcement officers, who are most likely to be in the line of fire when they need their weapons to work. This is fine if the concept works, but we don’t want people going helter-skelter to embrace the latest shiny object,” James O. Pasco Jr., executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, told the New York Times.
Anyone trying to unlock their iPhone with a sweaty fingertip knows how unreliable the technology can be. But Kloepfer from Biofire said that the fingerprint scanner on his biometric gun is “better than what’s on your iPhone. He even said he could “use it getting out of the shower.” But that doesn’t mean it’ll work in a rainstorm or outdoors if you’re wearing a glove. And that’s okay because it wasn’t invented for that purpose anyway. The gun is specifically designed to be used in the home for self-defense. Even the most experienced users can make mistakes.
“We’re all human,” said Kloepfer. “This is a tool to help people eliminate mistakes. I’ve never talked to a firearm owner that wanted their child to find their gun.”