Mass shootings in the U.S. in 2015 topped 300, resulting in 475 deaths and more than 1,800 injuries. Amid those grim numbers, the gun control debate has become one of this political season's most bitter, partisan issues. But for now, both gun control advocates and Second Amendment die-hards appear to have found some common ground, however shaky, on one aspect of the issue: the role technology can play in making firearms safer.
To be sure, gun control advocates and the gun lobby remain at odds over the best way to introduce so-called smart guns to the market. The latter group sees mandates as a nonstarter while some gun safety proponents back laws and regulations, such as a controversial bill on the books in New Jersey, that might hasten adoption. But what many on both sides have in common is a belief that advanced features, like biometrically secured trigger locks, can reduce accidental gun deaths, suicides and mass murder.
U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled an executive action (PDF) last week that, among other things, compels some federal agencies to help shape the future of smart gun technology. Obama called on the Department of Justice to “issue a report on the availability and most effective use of gun safety technologies and challenge the private sector to develop innovative technologies.”
Now, as smart gun equipment makers await word on exactly what the executive action means, many are hoping publicity surrounding Obama’s plan will serve as an introduction to smart gun technology for millions of Americans nervous about gun safety.
Two broadly defined technologies are under development, and they both rely on increasingly sophisticated biometric systems. The most popular form is fingerprint recognition, which requires gun owners to press their finger somewhere on the weapon (often the grip) to fire. Other brands use radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips that force gun owners to wear a special watch, bracelet or ring if they want the weapon to fire.
Both technologies aim to prevent young children, criminals and anyone else not authorized to use a weapon from discharging it, either on purpose or by accident.
“People are what make firearms safe, meaning they need to realize they're buying a deadly weapon and that they need to treat it as such,” said W.Y. Gentry, president of Kodiak Arms, a Utah company taking pre-orders for the Intelligun. Instead of a smart gun, Intelligun offers a $399 grip attachment for some popular handgun models. With an Intelligun attached, the weapon will only shoot if one of 20 approved fingerprints presses a sensor on the pistol's grip.
Gentry was one smart gun product maker who sat down with then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in April 2013, months after gunman Adam Lanza killed 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Holder was summoning gun manufacturers from throughout the U.S. in an attempt to determine how to prevent guns from winding up in the hands of young people. Lanza, who had been diagnosed with multiple mental disorders, used weapons owned by his mother to carry out the massacre in December 2012 before turning a gun on himself.
While both gunmakers and gun control advocates agree smart guns can increase safety, they are not all on the same page in terms of how best to promote adoption. The most significant divide: whether smart gun technology should be mandatory or gradually gain acceptance through market forces. Gentry’s conversation with Holder ended when the gunmaker warned the attorney general, “If you try to create a mandate for my smart gun technology I will burn it down."
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they contacted us again, but that would depend on the direct order they were given on how to proceed,” Gentry said.
That both sides are open to new ideas is significant to smart gun technology makers. The biometric technology is so new that most manufacturers are still either in early production stages or have products that are not yet publicly available.
“The fact that the president is asking the question of the entire country, ‘Why can’t we do this?’ brings it up to the national level, and he’s asking the right question,” said Tom Lynch, CEO of Safe Gun Technology, which is developing a fingerprint sensor for the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. “Less than a quarter of gunowners are aware of smart gun technology. The devil’s in the details but if his executive action leads to additional research and development then it’s a great thing.”
The appeal is simple: safety. Even the most responsible gun owners, who may leave an unloaded weapon in a locked safe or out of the reach of children, sometimes need to bring their weapon down from the top shelf. Smart gun technology can be another layer of prevention against accidents, like what can occur when a gun owner needs to store a weapon in their car or when a depressed teenager knows the code to the family gun safe.
But not all gun rights groups are comfortable with the technology, at least in its current stage of development. There’s skepticism about whether smart technology will work as advertised. It often takes products a half second to 3 seconds to recognize a fingerprint and authorize the weapon to fire, precious time in the event of an emergency.
“The real question is: When you wake up in the middle of the night and a drug addict is standing over your bed with a gun, do you want to have to put on a watch or make sure you're holding your gun in a certain way before it’s activated?” asked Michael Hammond, legal adviser to Gun Owners of America. “If that kind of recognition takes two or three or four seconds, then you’re probably dead.”
There’s also a fear among some groups that smart guns are the federal government’s latest plot against the Second Amendment. Gun control opponents cite New Jersey’s Childproof Handgun Law as proof smart guns will help politicians legislate what kind of weapons are available. The 2002 law, still on the books, mandates once “personalized handguns are available for retail purposes” anywhere in the country, gun dealers in New Jersey have 30 months to stop selling handguns that are not equipped with smart technology.
New Jersey legislators Monday passed a watered-down version of the law that would allow gun stores to continue selling conventional weapons as long as they also stock smart guns. Gov. Chris Christie, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, may veto the bill.
Multiple gun control advocacy groups say any notion they’re lobbying for mandatory technology is pure speculation. The real victory in Obama’s executive action, they say, is the Department of Defense now will invest in research to make gun tech safer and more affordable.
“The term ‘smart gun technology’ is so broad and can mean so many things that my immediate answer is no, we’re not going to call for this to be mandatory,” said Ladd Everitt, director of communications at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “But this executive action is wonderful news because the Defense Department’s research arm is godly. Now, if the Department of Defense says we’ve got some working smart gun models, there’s no way the NRA takes that on.”
Leah Gunn Barrett, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, suggested manufacturers should use smart gun technology to stir interest among would-be firearms owners who have delayed purchases over safety concerns. "Would we support mandatory smart gun technology if it was more than a hypothetical? Sure, I guess, but until then I think we should at least let them exist alongside existing gun technology and let the market decide," Barrett said. “The NRA should really look at it as a marketing opportunity and they’re being incredibly stupid if they’re not already.”
Gun control advocates have also pushed for microstamping, an identification method that enables police to trace spent bullet casings back to the gun from which they were shot. Evidence-gathering depends on microscopic markings engraved on a gun’s firing pin and the cartridge. A California law requires microstamping technology to be used on all new semiautomatic weapons sold in the state, and similar legislation is being considered in New York, Massachusetts and a number of other states.
Stopping Teen Suicide
Nearly 2,000 people were killed in accidental shootings in 2015, and 59 others were killed in the first 10 days of 2016, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Meanwhile, suicide was the leading cause of gun deaths last year, making up roughly 60 percent of all fatalities. Of all teenagers who commit suicide with a gun, 82 percent use a weapon belonging to a family member, a recent report from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence found.
“Our entire goal is to prevent tampering from kids,” said Omer Kiyani, a member of the National Rifle Association and the inventor of the Indetilock, a fingerprint lock that attaches to a weapon’s trigger. The Identilock works with up to nine fingerprints, and includes a feature that allows the primary gun owner to restrict a single user’s access for a given amount of time.
Kiyanai, who said most of his support comes from gun owners, said gun shop proprietors are often reluctant to put the Identilock on their shelves because of the notion that biometrics don’t work. The resistance also stems from market constraints like price (smart gun attachments often cost hundreds of dollars, in addition to the initial cost of a weapon) and concerns about the technology.
But so far there's little resistance from the National Rifle Association and National Shooting Sports Foundation. Both organizations said they have no problem with smart gun technology so long as it doesn’t become mandatory under the law.
“Most of the people I know are more worried about technology being hacked and the battery life,” said NRA spokesman Lars Dalseide. “There are a variety of different issues gun owners will have to consider on smart guns but we have no issue with them being brought to the marketplace. It will be up to gunowners to decide.”
Gun Owners of America floated the idea that biometric technology would make existing weapons vulnerable to hackers. “Particularly when you have a wristwatch to use a firearm, it’s probable that some smart technician somewhere would have the ability to activate that firearm at the wrong time,” Hammond said.
It is possible to hack biometrics services. Apple’s Touch ID, the fingerprint system used on millions of iPhones, was duped by a hacker who combined years of experience, piles of academic research and at least 30 hours of work. That would only be the beginning for someone trying to hack a gun fingerprint reader, said Roman Yampolskiy, director of the cybersecurity laboratory at the University of Louisville and a biometric safety researcher.
“This is a very good idea when it comes to gun safety,” Yampolskiy said. “Your options range from cutting off someone’s finger to creating some kind of 3D model of their fingerprint and using it on their weapon. Any way you do it, the time and effort required is much more than just going out to find a different gun.”