Seventeen-year-old Kai Kloepfer wants to sell you a gun.
Dressed in a navy suit, his hair more neatly combed than is normal for a boy his age, Kloepfer was speaking to me just before taking the stage at a TEDx event, where he was set to showcase his newest idea: a gun that can only be fired by its owner or a select few with permission to operate it.
The idea, which appeared to the high schooler in a dream, was born out of equal parts necessity and tragic inspiration. Kloepfer needed a science fair project, and about an hour’s drive away in Aurora, Colo., James Holmes had just murdered 12 people and injured scores more inside a movie theater.
Seven months and over 1,000 hours later, the budding engineer had created a model for a biometric firearm that requires an authorized user’s fingerprint to discharge. Kloepfer knew the design wouldn’t have stopped the Aurora massacre, but he thought it might prevent the kind of accidental shootings and suicides that cause more damage and get less media attention.
The current prototype is just plastic. Kloepfer plans to move the technology to an actual gun with a recently awarded $50,000 grant, the first in a number of prizes from a pool of $1 million being awarded by the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, Silicon Valley’s answer to the gun violence epidemic. Angel investor Ron Conway (with stakes in Facebook and Google, among other companies) started the group in response to the December 2012 mass shooting deaths of 20 elementary school students and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The main goal, as director Jim Pitkow explained to me, is to stimulate firearms safety technology “by engaging directly with innovators and incentivizing their progress.”
“We’re looking for the ideas that haven’t been thought of yet,” Pitkow said at a Fast Company event.
If America still doesn’t have a widely available smart gun—the nickname for a firearm that is useless in the wrong hands, able to recognize its shooter by PIN number, a radio frequency emitted by an owner-worn device, or some biometric marker like an electronically recognized grip or a fingerprint—it’s not for lack of trying. For as long as we’ve had guns, they’ve fallen into the wrong hands (those of children, or mass murderers), and the people that make and shoot firearms have worked on improvements to make them safer. Now, decades of research have finally culminated in the first generation of reliable smart guns—including Koepfel’s prototype and the Armatix, a handgun that uses radio frequency to identify its owner.
But would-be manufacturers of smart guns and safety proponents face a new hurdle: No gun shop will sell the things, thanks to intense harassment from the National Rifle Association and its devotees.
Yet an obscure state law, and a firearm maker that has been quietly selling its smart gun on the side, may soon force the hand of smart-gun opponents, a move that could have far-reaching implications for public safety, the firearm industry and individual gun owners.
According to the company historian, the legend goes that Daniel B. Wesson, of gun maker Smith and Wesson, was inspired to design his Safety Hammerless model after a child had been injured with one of his firearms. In 1887 the company patented the revolver, which could only be fired if the shooter pressed a lever at the back while simultaneously pulling the trigger—a movement too difficult for children to perform. Many handguns—though not Smith & Wesson’s—have a similar feature today.
By the 1970s, the Fox Carbine semi-automatic was touting such safety features in its manual (PDF), guaranteeing “accidental and unauthorized firing is prevented by a patented, built-in combination lock safety as well as a thumb and grip safety.”
Trigger locks, safes, and other security devices have hit the market since then. But we’ve yet to get a smart gun, despite attempts by several gun makers, and a widely held opinion that such firearms would be the ultimate answer to gun violence.
A 2003 study of firearm safety devices found that personalized guns could have prevented more than a third of unintentional firearm deaths in Maryland and Wisconsin.
According to the CDC, there were over 17,000 nonfatal injuries in 2012 and roughly 600 deaths from accidental shootings in 2011, the most recent years for which data is available. A review by The New York Times last year showed the CDC numbers likely capture just half of the actual accidental child deaths by firearms due to misclassification by states.
A recent report by ex-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group, Everytown For Gun Safety, found at least 100 children had been killed in unintentional shootings in 2013. These included: 7-year-old Karl Hills in Tennessee—a “sweet boy who loved schools”—who shot and killed himself with a pistol his grandmother kept in the house for protection from an ex-husband; 4-year-old Trinity Ross, shot in the head and killed by her 6-year-old brother, who found his father’s revolver under a jacket lying on a chair; and Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Easter’s 3-year-old son, who shot and killed himself with a loaded weapon that had been left on top of a dresser.
Even with these tragedies, the smart gun faces surprisingly strong opposition by Second Amendment supporters who question the technology, and reject what they see as gun control dressed up as gun safety.
“People entrust firearms with their lives,” Kloepfer told me while explaining his biometric gun. “My entire goal with the grant money is reliability, and that’s an engineering challenge. But we can make it work.”
Not everyone is convinced.
“You’re ambushed, you’re bloodied, you’re dirty, your adrenaline is racing. Every single one of those factors will change how the sensor will read,” a commentator on one firearms forum wrote. “What happens if it is a cold day and you are wearing gloves when you are suddenly confronted? What happens when you get slashed before you get your hand on the weapon, and there is now blood all over your hand? What if you get a shit grip on your weapon?”
“If something is critical to human safety, the old ways are indeed the best,” William Levinson wrote in the conservative American Thinker, echoing the opinion of shooters who worry about the reliability of electronics, battery life, and the ability for outsiders to hack into and disable their weapons—this last one a particular point of contention for the most extreme activists who fear that the government may use the technology as a way to “turn off” their guns.
Still the biggest issue, and the most contentious point in the smart-gun debate, has to do with an almost forgotten smart-gun law in New Jersey, one that has been so ignored that gun control group The Brady Campaign (PDF) is suing for its enforcement.
Two days before Christmas in 2002, and after five long years of debate, then-Gov. James McGreevey signed New Jersey’s Childproof Handgun Bill, requiring that all handguns sold in the state must be “smart” guns within three years after the technology becomes available and is deemed safe by the state attorney general.
The bill was strange, in that it regulated a product that hadn’t yet been created. But lawmakers were confident. The bill’s primary sponsor, State Senator Joseph A. Palaia, a Republican, said at the time, “I really can’t believe that it would take more than a couple of years to make a smart-gun prototype. It’s a matter of putting their minds to it.”
And though many bright minds, in both the private and public, business and academic sectors, went to work on developing the technology, a dozen years later the debate over the New Jersey law seems just as bitter as ever, and the smart gun as elusive.
The law came back into focus after almost a decade in hibernation when two different firearm dealers attempted to sell the Armatix iP1 .22-calibre handgun, which uses a radio frequency identification (RFID) wristwatch to recognize an owner.
Both the Oak Tree Gun Club in southern California and Maryland’s Engage Armament backed away from their decision to sell the German-made “first smart gun in America” after swift and severe backlash. Andy Raymond, owner of the Rockville, Md., shop, said he was flooded with hundreds of threatening phone calls, emails, and comments on his Facebook page. In a now-famous YouTube video announcing his decision to back away from the Armatix iP1, Raymond, flanked by an assault rifle, a bottle of booze and a pack of Marlboros from which he pulls, says, “How can the NRA, or people, want to prohibit a gun when we’re supposed to be pro-gun? We’re supposed to say that any gun is good in the right person’s hands. How can they say that a gun should be prohibited?”
Raymond still thinks people should be allowed to purchase an Armatix, just not mandated to.
“I agree with the thing on principle. If someone wants to buy a smart gun, that is fine. That is their right. When the law legislates it, that it’s a sin. That is god-awful,” he said in the video, which he has since removed from YouTube. “To the people of New Jersey, my apologies, you’ve got nothing to worry about from me.”
Raymond’s message made national news and brought new attention to the old New Jersey law. State Senator Loretta Weinberg, who co-sponsored the New Jersey legislation, appeared on MSNBC with an offer to repeal the law. Weinberg sounded disappointed when we discussed the reality of the law that she had “taken a lot of grief” to get passed. Though it had been meant to spur innovation, she said, “it became obvious that the law was actually working in reverse.”
Weinberg just wants one thing: The National Rifle Association’s assurance that it won’t stand in the way of the smart gun. The NRA wouldn’t return my requests for comment on this story and has also refused to reply to Weinberg’s request.
When asked what the NRA had to do with the most recent rejection of Armatix, Senator Weinberg shot back, “I asked them publicly on TV and then directed a letter to them. Their silence speaks for itself.”
Weinberg also said the NRA has a long history of obstructing any progress on the smart gun. She said the researchers first tasked with developing a personalized firearm at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) couldn’t find a manufacturer early on because of fear of the NRA. Donald Sebastian, senior vice president for research and development at NJIT, tells a similar story of general intimidation by the NRA and the more fringe Gun Owners of America. For 15 years, the team at NJIT has been working on a handgun that uses electronic sensors to recognize its owner’s grip. Still, Sebastian can’t say when a version might actually come to market. “I could easily say it could be 20 years,” he said. “Not because the technology won’t be there, but because it could take that long to melt down the market-side resistance. I don’t know how to solve that problem.”
Good law or no, Weinberg said she won’t try to get rid of the New Jersey mandate without some assurances that the NRA, an organization known for obstinacy when faced with the threat of compromise, won’t interfere in the future.
“I know there is no organization that can be responsible for each and every one of its members, but they could provide the leadership that says, ‘Hey, let’s get this bill repealed,’” she said. “And I can’t imagine why anybody would be against the development of this technology if we aren’t mandating it. If you could bring a gun into the home and know your child can’t use it, or if somebody steals it, they couldn’t use it, or if you’re a law enforcement officer somebody can’t use your own weapon against you: Wouldn’t you prefer that? It just seems logical.”
The NRA’s position is that it doesn’t oppose personalized firearms, only mandates. Still, their media and lobbying arms have consistently ridiculed smart guns, calling them “dumb” and just a “euphemism for ‘gun prohibition.’”
“Even if it were not for the New Jersey law, the National Rifle Foundation and the National Shooting Sports Foundation would find some reason to complain about personalized guns coming to the market,” Stephen Teret, professor of health policy at Johns Hopkins University, told The Daily Beast. Teret, who wrote the model for the New Jersey law, testified to the legislature during its debate, and was a judge for the Smart Tech Challenges competition, says opposition may be guided more by money than principle. He is exploring the possibility that businesses who might suffer if a smart gun goes to market could be intimidating innovators and dealers in violation of anti-trust laws.
“For these companies, the current situation is a gold mine,” Teret said. “They’ve sold many, many guns for which they’ve had to do no research or retooling of equipment that made the same kind of gun more than a century ago. These companies don’t want to see their apple cart upset by a new gun in the market that would be very popular because it provides better safety and means they would have to invest money where they haven’t in the past.”
The National Shooting Sports Foundation [NSSF], the trade association for gun manufacturers in the U.S., is adamant that its members are not colluding to restrict trade.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” NSSF vice president and general counsel Lawrence Keane told me.
Keane did acknowledge a financial interest in the challenge to smart guns, but again stated the mandate, not the firearm itself, was the target.
It makes little sense, he said, for gun manufacturers to spend money on technology, the success of which would render the rest of their product line obsolete, at least in New Jersey. But more than that, he said market research from firearm manufacturers and an NSSF poll show there’s no consumer demand for the product. Indeed, the first working personalized firearm, a shotgun equipped with RFID reader and matching ring, was shelved in 1998 because market research showed no one wanted it.
Still, though the majority of people are unfamiliar with and skeptical of smart guns, NSSF’s own polling actually indicates the existence of a small market. Fourteen percent of respondents said they would buy a smart firearm—perhaps the exact untapped market of safety-concerned parents that both Andy Raymond in Maryland and teen inventor Kai Kloepfer talk about reaching.
German gun maker Armatix has made a gun for just that market, and despite reports to the contrary, representatives say they’ve already sold the iP1 personalized firearm in the U.S.
“People have been saying that we haven’t sold any guns and that’s a lie,” Belinda Padilla, president of Armatix USA, told The Daily Beast.
Though Padilla won’t disclose the number sold or the buyers, she said there has been a real shift in opinion since the Maryland dealer reversed his decision to sell. She said the company, which holds a Federal Firearms License, has received and filled multiple orders for the iP1 personalized.
“Our guns are definitely for sale,” Padilla said, “and if anybody is interested they can continue to send us emails until we launch our new website.”
Though it can’t be found in any brick-and-mortar shop, Armatix USA’s smart gun seems to be available. Whether the individual sales of Armatix will trigger the maligned New Jersey smart-gun mandate remains to be seen, but when asked about such a scenario, Stephen Teret, the Johns Hopkins’ researcher who authored the bill New Jersey’s law is modeled on, simply said, “Yes.”