The shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Tex., has ramped up the debate around gun violence to its usual partisan levels, setting Democrats and Republicans on familiar sides of the gun legislation divide.
So argues a group of entrepreneurs, who say that the tech has finally advanced far enough — and that the threat has reached sufficiently high levels — to make smart-gun tech a no-brainer.
“We feel the time is right for smart guns. There’s a market for it, and there’s a great need for it,” said Gareth Glaser, co-founder of LodeStar Works, a Pennsylvania-based gun manufacturer that uses fingerprints or a phone app to grant access to a 9-millimeter handgun it has been developing.
But it is unclear whether the smart-gun efforts can get past gun groups, which in the past have mobilized quickly in opposition to them. And the technology is not yet proven — smart-gun proponents have historically offered more promises than proofs.
The need appears strong. Many high-profile mass shootings involve legally owned firearms. But scores of other people have died at the hands of someone who did not have the right to fire the weapon. The shooter in the Oxford High School shooting in Michigan last November was 15 and using a gun bought by his father. Unintentional shootings by children resulted in more than 100 deaths in both 2020 and 2021.
Smart-gun technology, also known as “personalized guns,” could also prevent fatalities in the case of stolen guns in prison and other settings, advocates say. And teen suicide often involves a gun belonging to an adult that has been found by an underage person in the home. Overall, there were 24,292 gun-related suicides in 2020, more even than the 19,384 murders, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The bottom line is that the gun industry should be innovating to make their products safer, not more deadly,” said Nick Suplina, senior vice president of law and policy at the gun-control group Everytown for Gun Safety.
Smart-gun technology uses biometric data such as fingerprints — and radio-frequency identification (RFID) transmitted by ring or wristband — to unlock a gun for its legal owner. After years of engineering delays and political resistance, smart guns now appear at least to be nearing the market.
LodeStar, under the radar until this year, now expects to have a product for sale sometime next year, probably early in the year, Glaser said. The Colorado company Biofire has also been generating headlines recently, announcing earlier this month that it has raised $17 million in seed funding from unidentified investors who it said had backed Google and Airbnb. Its flagship product is also a 9mm fingerprint-enabled handgun.
And a Kansas company, SmartGunz, has been developing a similar product that runs on RFID. The company was co-founded by Tom Holland, a Democratic state senator, and began offering presales to law enforcement last year. It will ship in July, Holland said, with consumer sales happening probably in August or September.
“Our mission is to save lives. I can’t tell you how many times I pick up the paper where I live in northeast Kansas and see a little kid shooting himself or another child because an adult left a loaded handgun,” Holland said. He added that he “totally supports Second Amendment rights” and that this is “just an option — we don’t intend it for everybody.”
Firearms are becoming a bigger cause of death for young Americans. In the past 20 years, the number of firearms-related deaths for people younger than 25 has gone from 7 for every 100,000 people to 10, according to research from the CDC and the New England Journal of Medicine. In 2017, firearms became the leading cause of death for young people, surpassing even motor vehicle accidents.
“The statistics are shocking,” said Kai Kloepfer, founder of Biofire. A teenager at the time of the mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater a decade ago, Kloepfer dropped out of MIT several years ago to focus full time on the company. “And we don’t believe this has to be the case.”
Advocates argue that personally identifying technology is already accepted by most people for far less violent tools, from a thumbprint to unlock a phone to an RFID system for a keyless car start. Glaser said he believes LodeStar could prevent “a majority of school shootings, since they are most often committed by underage teenagers with a gun found in the home.”
Still, smart-gun tech has not yet been proven in real-world circumstances. A gun’s heat and pressure can complicate biometric readings, and signals sent to a separate PIN-based app or ring are susceptible to potential interference and hacking. At its heart is a slippery engineering challenge — how to make unlocking as seamless as possible to its authorized user but as difficult as possible for everyone else.
To prevent killings on a meaningful scale, smart guns would also need to reach high levels of market penetration. Costs remain high (the SmartGunz product, for instance, is listed between $1,800 and $2,000).
And not all gun-control groups are on board; some worry about unintended consequences. “Expanding the market to include smart guns will only mean more guns in homes,” said Daniel Webster, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, citing research the group has conducted. “More guns in homes means a lot more deaths."
But the tallest hurdle may be political. More than 20 years ago, gun-manufacturing giant Smith & Wesson said it agreed with a list of government regulations laid out by the Clinton administration, including the pursuit of smart-gun tech. It soon faced a National Rifle Association-led boycott that sent sales plummeting and nearly destroyed the company.
Dru Stevenson, a professor of law at South Texas College of Law Houston who has studied the issue, says that he believes smart guns can save “tens of thousands of lives.” But it needs to be embraced by politicians — pressuring law enforcement to switch — before consumer adoption is likely. An Obama administration push in 2016 for smart guns among federal law enforcement did not yield much fruit.
The plan Joe Biden included in his campaign platform was to “put America on the path to ensuring that 100% of firearms sold in America are smart guns,” noting that “right now the NRA and gun manufacturers are bullying firearms dealers who try to sell these guns.”
Gun blogs have often been critical of the technology — likely, Stevenson says, out of a bigger fear of mandates if the tech catches on.
The NRA, which published a similar post when LodeStar made its announcement this winter, officially says it could be open to the idea if mandates were not involved. “The NRA doesn’t oppose the development of ‘smart’ guns, nor the ability of Americans to voluntarily acquire them,” the group’s lobbying arm previously said in a statement. “However, NRA opposes any law prohibiting Americans from acquiring or possessing firearms that don’t possess ‘smart’ gun technology.”
An NRA spokeswoman did not reply to a request for comment for this report.
Eight years ago, a Maryland gun retailer that wanted to sell a German smart gun even faced death threats from some gun advocates, forcing it to drop the plan.
A New Jersey smart-gun law passed in 2002 — it mandated gun retailers in the state carry only smart guns beginning three years after they first became commercially available — also faced intense pressure from the NRA. In 2019, the law was revised to simply require that gun retailers carry at least one such approved smart gun 60 days after it is put on the market.
The state continues to push on smart-gun adoption. Last year, Gov. Phil Murphy (D), named seven experts from various disciplines to the new Personalized Handgun Authorization Commission to explore the issue.
Glaser and Kloepfer say that while they are open to government-enhanced incentives for buying a smart gun (similar, for example, to electric vehicles), they, like Holland, do not support mandates. They both say they hope to remain politically neutral on the question of gun laws. The growth of smart guns, they say, should happen organically.
“We want people to buy smart guns because it's a better firearm,” Kloepfer said.
But some individual gun-rights supporters remain unsold. Lawyer and gun rights advocate David Kopel said that he thinks smart guns are “still far too unreliable for self-defense. But the few consumers who want one should have the choice.” (He said he believes mandates would be “a huge Second Amendment violation.”)
Smart-gun entrepreneurs say they are baffled by any good-faith objections to their product.
“I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to use any available technology here,” Glaser said. “You use technology to keep you safe every time you pull out of your driveway. Does anyone say that’s not a good idea and it would be better if we all went back to 1970?”