by Jared Shelly
What ever happened to smart guns?
Equipped with technology allowing them to be fired only by their owners, smart guns (also known as personalized firearms) could prevent accidental shootings, youth suicides, and crimes perpetrated with stolen guns. Some are unlocked with fingerprints or biometrics, while others use Bluetooth or RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology.
The capability has been around more than 20 years in one form or another — but none are currently for sale.
Why? Venture capitalists don’t seem interested in investing in firearms and smart gun makers need upwards of $10 million to launch. Meanwhile, gun owners, i.e. potential buyers of smart guns, are wary because they think it will lead to widespread restrictions on traditional guns.
Despite the industry’s struggles, certain players are cautiously optimistic that the technology will eventually break through. A longstanding New Jersey law hampering their ability to get to market has been repealed. Meanwhile, presidential candidate Joe Biden is a strong advocate for personalized firearms. Still, any smart gun maker is in for a tough road ahead.
The law that shot down smart guns
The Childproof Handgun Law passed in New Jersey in 2002 stood in the industry’s way for years. It required that all New Jersey gun shops carry only smart guns once they’re made available. If the legislation hoped to create a market for smart guns, it had the opposite effect — convincing gun owners that personalized firearms is indeed a slippery slope toward mandates that all guns be equipped with personalized technology. The law was repealed in 2019: it now simply requires that gun shops sell smart guns if they become available. Despite the repeal, the reputational damage has been done, as gun owners see personalized firearms as a pathway to stricter regulations.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is a smart gun advocate as well. His gun safety plan calls for putting America on a path to ensuring that 100% of the firearms sold are smart guns. If the New Jersey law is any indication, Biden could be putting personalized firearms at risk rather than propelling the industry forward.
“Having personalized firearms lumped with gun control agendas alienated future customers — the gun-owning community,” said Gareth Glaser, president and CEO of LodeStar Firearms, who is hoping to take politics out of the smart gun debate. His company is developing a 9-millimeter gun with multiple unlocking mechanisms like a pressure-sensitive pin pad in the grip, or Bluetooth unlocking system connected to a cell phone.
A hard sell for venture capitalists
The problem for LodeStar and other personalized firearm manufacturers is a lack of venture capital dollars. Development takes a combination of research and development, prototyping, and manufacturing — and lots of money.
“It’s been a real challenge to raise investment in this category and we’re not alone,” said Glaser. “It’s new and unproven. It’s not unlike the electric car, which took years to develop.”
Margot Hirsch, president of The Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, which has funded smart gun ventures in the past, said “you’re looking at approximately tens of millions of dollars to get a smart gun to market.” Plus, there must be an enticing end-game for an investor. “Venture capitalists are typically looking for companies that are going to have over a billion-dollar market cap. That can make it challenging for a smart gun company to raise venture capital dollars.”
Jonathan Mossberg, president and CEO of iGun Technology Corp., said he needs $10 – 20 million to get his personalized firearm on the market. He claims to have a fully functional smart shotgun that can shoot 3,000 rounds reliably. It uses a magnetic spectrum ring system that unlocks the gun with low frequency radio waves. It requires no batteries and works instantly, he says. Mossberg hoped to get investment to miniaturize the technology to create a handgun. But in the absence of funding, the project is frozen.
“It’s on the shelf now. We were actively trying to raise funds and they just weren’t there,” said Mossberg.
Silicon Valley investors don’t want to be associated with firearms, Mossberg said. Meanwhile, gun industry investors are wary because they think smart guns will lead to stricter gun regulations.
“Let the market decide. I don’t want any particular technology forced on anybody. Fingerprint tech might work for somebody, a magnetic spectrum ring system might be good for other people. No tech is fine for someone else,” said Mossberg.
Despite the problems, there’s optimism in the industry. Glaser is hopeful that the gun-owning community is finally ready to embrace personalized firearms. He’s held formal and informal meetings with gun industry executives, surveyed potential customers and said he even got a warm response at a recent NRA Shot Show conference. Glaser thinks personalized firearms appeal to younger gun owners, likely parents with small children, hoping to prevent accidental shootings or youth suicides.
Hirsch argues that smart guns also appeal to early adopters of tech, like consumers who need the latest iPhone or the newest drone.
“Many gun enthusiasts are technology geeks who like to buy the latest gadgets to trick out their firearms,” said Hirsch. “Those are the people who will be interested in initially trying these technologies — perhaps not as a primary firearm for personal protection but just to try out the latest-and-greatest technology. A lot of these people have multiple guns and will want one with advanced safety features.”
Jared Shelly is a freelance writer who writes about business and emerging technology. The opinions and positions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinions and positions held by Patriot One Technologies and inclusion of persons, companies, or methods herein should not be interpreted as an endorsement.