‘We need the iPhone of guns’: Will smart guns transform the gun industry?

Not long ago, smart guns — personalized weapons that only fired for authorized users — were seen only in the movies. Today, after millions of dollars and more than 10 years of research, there are finally smart guns for the public. But there are only two viable systems that you or I could purchase now. The Washington Post's Mike Rosenwald talks about the reason and the future of the technology. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

One of California’s largest firearm stores recently added a peculiar new gun to its shelves. It requires an accessory: a black waterproof watch.

The watch’s primary purpose is not to provide accurate time, though it does. The watch makes the gun think. Electronic chips inside the gun and the watch communicate with each other. If the watch is within close reach of the gun, a light on the grip turns green. Fire away. No watch means no green light. The gun becomes a paperweight.

A dream of gun-control advocates for decades, the Armatix iP1 is the country’s first smart gun. Its introduction is seen as a landmark in efforts to reduce gun violence, suicides and accidental shootings. Proponents compare smart guns to automobile air bags — a transformative add-on that gun owners will demand. But gun rights advocates are already balking, wondering what happens if the technology fails just as an intruder breaks in.

James Mitchell, the “extremely pro-gun” owner of the Oak Tree Gun Club, north of Los Angeles, isn’t one of the skeptics. His club’s firearms shop is the only outlet in the country selling the iP1. “It could revolutionize the gun industry,” Mitchell declared.

The implications of the iP1’s introduction are potentially enormous, both politically and economically. (And culturally — the gun that reads James Bond’s palm print in “Skyfall ” is no longer a futuristic plot twist.)


Firearms manufacturers use digital technology to make guns safer.

Lawmakers around the country have been intrigued by the possibilities. New Jersey passed a hotly contested law in 2002 requiring that only smart guns be sold in the state within three years of a smart gun being sold anywhere in the country. A similar measure made it through the California Senate last year, and at the federal level, Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.) also has introduced a mandate.

Although National Rifle Association officials did not respond to requests for comment about smart-gun technology, the group fiercely opposes “government mandates that require the use of expensive, unreliable features, such as grips that would read your fingerprints before the gun will fire,” according to the Web site of its lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action. “And NRA recognizes that the ‘smart guns’ issue clearly has the potential to mesh with the anti-gunner’s agenda, opening the door to a ban on all guns that do not possess the government-required technology.”

Even so, smart guns are potentially more palatable than other technological mandates, such as placing GPS tracking chips in guns, a controversial concept floated this session in the Maryland General Assembly.

The arrival of smart-gun technology comes amid a flurry of interest in the concept from investors who think the country — after the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and the brutal legislative battles that followed — is ready for new, innovative gun-control ideas. Last month, Ron Conway , a Silicon Valley titan and early investor in Google and Facebook, launched a $1 million X Prize-like contest for smart-gun technology.

“We need the iPhone of guns,” Conway said, noting how the new iPhone 5s can be unlocked quickly with a fingerprint. “The entrepreneur who does this right could be the Mark Zuckerberg of guns. Then the venture capitalists like me will dive in, give them capital, and we will build a multibillion-dollar gun company that makes safe, smart guns.”

A variety of approaches are in development. Armatix, the German company behind the iP1, uses RFID chips, which can be found on anti-theft tags attached to expensive clothing. Trigger­Smart, an Irish company, also uses RFID chips, though with a ring instead of a watch. The company also has technology that would render guns inoperable if they approached electronic markers — for instance, near a school.

The New Jersey Institute of Technology is using sensors to recognize users’ grips and grasping behaviors. Kodiak Arms, a Utah company, is taking ­pre-orders for its Intelligun, which is unlocked with fingerprints. Other companies are using voice recognition. Yardarm, a California start-up, uses a smartphone app to notify gun owners of a weapon’s movement. Users can even remotely disable their weapons.


The Armatix Smart System consists of a pistol and a watch that controls gun access and use. The gun will only fire if it is within range of this watch. (Armatix)

Smart guns, advocates say, will have huge appeal to buyers. “If you have two cars, and one has an air bag and one doesn’t, are you going to buy the one without the air bag?” said Belinda Padilla, president of Armatix’s U.S. operation. “It’s your choice, but why would you do that?”

Return of a historical relic

Personalizing or modifying handguns for safety is actually an old idea. In 1886, after D.B. Wesson, a co-founder of Smith & Wesson, heard about a child injured with a gun, the company introduced a revolver with a special lever that made the gun operational. The product became nothing more than a historical relic.

Over the years, the idea of making guns smart waxed and waned, until a serious effort began in the early 1990s. Stephen Teret, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University, commissioned undergraduate engineering students to build what turned out to be a crude smart gun activated by a ring. Later in the decade, the federal government researched smart guns to protect police officers whose weapons were taken in struggles.

In 2000, after Colt quietly worked on smart-gun technology, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) tried and failed to pass legislation mandating smart guns in the state. His effort was lauded by President Bill Clinton, whose administration struck a deal with Smith & Wesson to research the technology. But the backlash by gun owners and the NRA against the company was brutal, and Smith & Wesson’s business tanked.

The debate then over whether the technology was ready and reliable, and whether it would actually make a difference, has turned into the current burst of interest. But some of the sharpest criticism comes from an unlikely corner — the Violence Policy Center, a staunch advocate of reducing gun violence.

Policy Center officials argue that the new technology is unlikely to stem gun homicides, which often occur between people who know each other, and that personalization will have no effect on the more than 300 million guns in circulation. The organization also questions whether the technology would deter the nearly 350,000 incidents of firearm theft per year, though some of the proposed technologies are add-ons that can be installed on existing guns.

And perhaps most important, the Violence Policy Center worries that smart guns will increase the number of firearm owners, because marketing that touts safety could sway those previously opposed to guns to make their first purchase.

“We are very skeptical of what this technology can accomplish,” said Josh Sugarmann, the organization’s executive director. “You’re really affecting a very small portion of the gun-buying public.”

Proponents of smart guns dispute the criticism. They point to studies that hint at potentially significant reductions in gun deaths, particularly high-profile ones among children. In 2010, children under 18 accounted for 98 of the 606 unintentional or accidental firearm deaths in the United States. A smart gun, proponents say, could prevent those deaths.

As for school shootings, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study in 2003 analyzing firearms used by students in 323 school-related shootings found that 37 percent of the guns came from the shooter’s home and 23 percent from a friend or relative. A smart gun could prevent those deaths, too, advocates say.

“These guns are not going to rescue us from the 32,000 gun deaths a year,” Teret said, “but they are going to materially reduce gun deaths in the United States.”

Will they sell?

The question is: How many people will buy smart guns?

There are dueling statistics on the issue. Teret and other smart-gun proponents point to a 1997 survey showing that 71 percent of Americans — and 59 percent of gun owners — favored personalization of all new handguns. Gun rights advocates, including the National Shooting Sports Foundation, cite a survey the group commissioned last year showing that only 14 percent of Americans would consider buying a smart gun.

Statistics, of course, can be interpreted many ways, and at least one smart-gun entrepreneur saw the 14 percent as a positive sign. “I thought that was actually a huge number,” said Robert McNamara, co-founder of Trigger­Smart, the Irish company using RFID chips. “There is no doubt that a lot of people would buy these guns if they are available.”

The cost is high. Amatrix’s iP1, a .22-caliber pistol, is priced at $1,399 — plus $399 for the watch. A .40-caliber Glock handgun can be had for about $600.

The chief concern for potential buyers is reliability, with 44 percent of those polled by the National Shooting Sports Foundation saying the technology would not be reliable at all. A commenter in an online Glock forum explained the concern this way: “They can’t even make a cellphone that works reliably when you need it, and some dumbass thinks he can make a reliable techno-gadget gun that is supposed to safeguard you in dire circumstances?”

Twenty minutes later someone responded: “You bet your life.”

Teret and others point to now-commonplace safety enhancements that Americans were skeptical about at first: air bags and smoke detectors. “They thought the air bag would kill them,” said Teret, who did early work on air-bag technology. “They thought it would shove them out the back window, that it would explode. It takes awhile to dispel these mythologies.”

Some gun rights champions are in surprising agreement with gun-control advocates on the technology’s future.

“We think the market should decide,” said Lawrence G. Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

Conway, out in Silicon Valley, said: “You let the free enterprise system take over. Just like everyone opted into the iPhone and abandoned the flip phone and BlackBerry, consumers will vote with their feet. We want gun owners to feel like they are dinosaurs if they aren’t using smart guns.”

Michael Rosenwald is a reporter on the Post?s local enterprise team. He writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture.
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