Smart weapons technology could save lives, companies say

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The shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, escalated the gun violence debate to its usual partisan levels, putting Democrats and Republicans on the familiar side of the gun law divide.

What if the solution was not legislative but technological – by ensuring that the person had the right to shoot this weapon? That wouldn’t have stopped Uvalde, where the 18-year-old shooter legally purchased guns. It could, however, prevent a shooting at a school where a minor illegally gained access to a weapon. And by limiting teens’ access to guns, it could slow a huge wave of suicides.

So argues a group of entrepreneurs who say that technology has finally advanced enough – and the threat has reached high enough levels – to make smart weapons technology a no-brainer.

“We believe the time is right for smart weapons. There’s a market for it, and there’s a great need for it,” said Gareth Glaser, co-founder of LodeStar Works, a US-based weapons manufacturer. Pennsylvania that uses fingerprints or a phone app to provide access to a 9-millimeter handgun he has developed.

But it’s unclear whether the smart weapons efforts can outrun the gun groups, which in the past have quickly mobilized against them. And the technology is still untested – proponents of smart weapons have historically offered more promise than evidence.

The need appears strong. Many high-profile mass shootings involve legally owned firearms. But dozens of other people died at the hands of someone who had no right to fire the weapon. The shooter in the Oxford High School shooting in Michigan last November was 15 years old and using a gun bought by his father. Unintentional shootings by children claimed more than 100 lives in 2020 and 2021.

Smart weapons technology, also known as “customized weapons,” could also prevent deaths in weapons stolen from prisons and other settings, advocates say. And teenage suicide often involves a firearm belonging to an adult that was found by an underage person at 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 innovate to make its 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 bracelet – to unlock a firearm for its legal owner. After years of technical delays and political resistance, smart weapons now seem to be at least getting closer to market.

LodeStar, under the radar until this year, now expects to have a product for sale next year, likely early in the year, Glaser said. Colorado-based company Biofire also made headlines recently, announcing earlier this month that it had raised $17 million in seed funding from unidentified investors it said had backed Google and Airbnb. . Its flagship is also a 9mm fingerprint handgun.

And a Kansas company, SmartGunz, has developed a similar product that works 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 likely taking place in August or September.

“Our mission is to save lives. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked up the newspaper where I live in northeast Kansas and seen a little kid shoot himself in the head or shoot another kid because an adult left a loaded handgun,” Holland said. He added that he “fully supports Second Amendment rights” and that it’s “just an option – we don’t want that on everyone.”

Guns are becoming a leading cause of death among young Americans. Over the past 20 years, the number of gun-related deaths among people under 25 has fallen from 7 per 100,000 people to 10, according to a study by the CDC and the New England Journal of Medicine. In 2017, firearms became the leading cause of injury-related death among young people, surpassing even traffic accidents.

“The statistics are shocking,” said Kai Kloepfer, founder of Biofire. A teenager at the time of the mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado a decade ago, Kloepfer dropped out of MIT several years ago to pursue the business full-time. “And we don’t think that should be the case.”

Proponents argue that personal identification technology is already accepted by most people for far less violent tools, from a fingerprint to unlock a phone to an RFID system for keyless car starting. Glaser said he thinks LodeStar could prevent “the majority of school shootings because they’re most often committed by underage teenagers with a gun found in their home.”

A Morning Consult poll in March found that 43% of adults would be interested in using a smart gun, a number just below the 46% who said they would use a traditional firearm.

Yet smart weapon technology has yet to be proven in real world circumstances. Heat and pressure from a firearm can complicate biometric readings, and signals sent to a separate PIN-based app or ring are susceptible to potential interference and hacking. At its core is a slippery engineering challenge – how to make unlocking as seamless as possible for its authorized user but as difficult as possible for everyone else.

To prevent killings on a significant scale, smart weapons would also need to achieve high levels of market penetration. Costs remain high (the SmartGunz product, for example, is priced 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 conducted by the group. “More guns in homes means a lot more deaths.”

But perhaps the biggest hurdle is political. More than 20 years ago, gun-making giant Smith & Wesson said it agreed with a list of government regulations set by the Clinton administration, including the pursuit of technology smart weapons. He soon faced a boycott led by the National Rifle Association which caused sales to plummet and nearly destroy the business.

Dru Stevenson, a law professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston who has researched the issue, says he thinks smart weapons can save “tens of thousands of lives.” But it needs to be embraced by politicians – pressuring law enforcement to change – before consumer adoption is likely. A 2016 Obama administration push for smart weapons among federal law enforcement did not yield much fruit.

The plan that Joe Biden included in his campaign platform was to “put America on a path to ensuring that 100% of guns sold in America are smart guns,” noting that “on time Currently, the NRA and gun manufacturers intimidate gun dealers who try to sell these guns.

Gun blogs have often criticized the technology — likely, Stevenson says, out of fear of warrants if the technology spreads.

The NRA, which published a similar article when LodeStar made its announcement this winter, officially states that it might be open to the idea if warrants weren’t involved. “The NRA does not oppose the development of ‘smart’ weapons, or the ability of Americans to voluntarily acquire them,” the group’s lobbying arm previously said in a statement. “However, the NRA opposes any law prohibiting Americans from acquiring or possessing firearms that do not have ‘smart’ firearm technology.”

A spokeswoman for the NRA did not respond to a request for comment on the report.

Eight years ago, a Maryland gun retailer that wanted to sell a German smart weapon even faced death threats from some gun advocates, forcing it to scrap the plan.

A New Jersey smart weapons law passed in 2002 – it required gun retailers in the state to only carry smart weapons starting three years after they were first sold – also came under intense pressure from from the NRA. In 2019, the law was revised to simply require gun retailers to carry at least one such approved smart weapon 60 days after it hits the market.

The state continues to push for the adoption of smart weapons. Last year, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) appointed seven experts from various disciplines to the new Custom Handgun Licensing Commission to explore the issue.

Glaser and Kloepfer say that while they are open to government-enhanced incentives for purchasing a smart weapon (similar to, say, electric vehicles), they, like Holland, do not support mandates. They both say they hope to remain politically neutral on the issue of gun laws. The growth of smart weapons, they say, should happen organically.

“We want people to buy smart guns because it’s a better gun,” Kloepfer said.

But some individual gun rights supporters remain unsold. Lawyer and gun rights advocate David Kopel said he believes smart guns are “still too unreliable for self-defense. But the few consumers who want it should have a choice. (He said he thought the warrants would be “a huge violation of the Second Amendment.”)

Smart entrepreneurs say they are baffled by any bona fide objection to their product.

“I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to use the technology available here,” Glaser said. “You use technology to keep you safe every time you step out of your driveway. Is someone saying that it’s not a good idea and that it would be better if we all went back to 1970? »

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