BioFire gun with target

Will smart guns hit their target this time?

Image credit: BioFire, Dreamstime

Personalised guns have been a failure in the US, but with updated tech and new political will, there is hope. What is the chance of smart gun success after two decades of trial and error?

The 2019 action movie ‘Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw’ had bad guys armed with biometric-locked guns ambushing the good guys, but the protagonists hacked and disabled the villains’ smart guns – a textbook happy-ending. Hollywood and the US gun lobby likes to make fun of smart guns, says Dru Stevenson, a scholar who has studied every angle of the latest generation of personalised guns.

Over the past 20 years, fearmongering towards personalised guns has barely changed. And, as yet, smart guns have never been on-sale in America.

Hacking smart guns, like in the film, isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. In 2017, the Armatix IP1, a personalised gun model, was hacked with equipment costing less than $20. Death threats and violent intimidation by gun owners against dealers made commercialisation impossible, and RFID guns struggle to shake off the stigma of unreliability.

Armatix fell into bankruptcy; Donald Trump was elected as US President and did little to progress the cause. It seemed the smart gun battle was lost again, like the late 1990s when arms manufacturer Smith & Wesson almost broke its neck in the business. Today, there is renewed hope.

Pressure on gun safety reached critical heights as gun deaths spiralled. In the US, you’re more likely to die of a gunshot wound than in a road traffic accident. Personalised gun supporters say it’s a panacea for saving lives. It’s not new, but better statistical reporting makes it easier to judge benefits. Between 70 and 90 per cent of the guns used in youth suicides, unintentional shootings among children, and school shootings perpetrated by shooters under the age of 18, are arms acquired from home, relatives or friends. Personalisation can bar access.

Politically, there is new hope, too. Joe Biden, the official 2020 presidential candidate for the Democrats, pitched his smart-gun policy last year, and 2020 could change the course of a two-decade struggle. “If the Democrats take control of the government in 2021, yes, we may see an increase in financial support for smart guns,” says David Hemenway, professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. It would pick up where President Barack Obama left off. Obama supported research, saying gun manufacturers need urgent support to make them safer and to bring smart guns to market.

Margot Hirsch, president of the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation (STCF), an organisation that helps personalised gun start-ups, says a new President could put R&D funding behind smart gun development. “This administration has not. It could be a game changer.”

A bill introduced in New Jersey last year allows smart guns to be sold alongside traditional firearms. It supersedes a bill from the 1990s which dictated that, three years after the sale of a smart gun anywhere in the US, traditional guns could no longer be sold in New Jersey. At the time, this was dire news to the gun lobby, which saw it as a direct threat and blocked progress. Many hope this latest legal compromise helps win over the opposition.

There are early signs of the opposition warming to smart guns. Gareth Glaser, CEO of smart-gun manufacturer LodeStar Firearms, attended the 2020 NRA (National Rifle Association) Shot Show in Las Vegas and noticed a change. NRA members communicated more cordially and asked questions about his product: “My feeling is we are being permitted to test the market.”

According to posts by the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, the gun lobby remains critical towards smart guns and Biden. Yet some technical criticism has eased up due to improvements and workarounds in smart-gun technology.

Gun rights activists and the NRA are not blind to legislative pressure elsewhere. Canada banned assault-style weapons following the worst mass-shooting in its history in May of this year, while New Zealand barred most semi-automatic weapons after the 2019 Christchurch massacre.

Showing a patent and US firearms deaths

Image credit: Patent office, CDC

Gun rights advocates fear the government will take away their guns. There are compromises, now. Some manufacturers are using add-on technology, which works with traditional firearms, rather than introducing entirely new products. For example, a smart grip with fingerprint recognition that can be mounted onto a traditional pistol. “It’s less threatening that the government confiscates guns without personal authorisation features,” says Stevenson.

Add-ons are also cheaper. A standard 9mm handgun costs around $500, while the equivalent smart-gun sells at $799. The Armatix IP1 was criticised for being too expensive at $1,399; its watch, authorising the shooter, sold for a further $399.

Smart safes are a cheaper option. VARA, a biometric firearm start-up, develops safes for traditional guns. Its Reach Holster Safe, available for most versions of the Glock handgun, retails at $300.

VARA is just one start-up to win support from STCF, whose president Hirsch says life is hard for these start-ups, but breakthrough is imminent: “It’s completely feasible to see success between now and 2025.”

She believes the biggest challenge is not the NRA but the US gun lobby, which is raising money from investors. STCF helped initially in seed-funding, but it too lacks financial support. The start-ups are left with merely advisory support.

Smart-gun investors are scarce, too. The profile is narrow (typically being those aged 30-40) and often they aren’t gun owners, Hirsch says. Liberal Silicon Valley investors fall through the cracks because they are sceptical towards ventures that can kill. It’s hard to find investors who believe smart guns can cut gun fatalities and can afford limited returns of hardware ventures; venture capitalists get better return-on-investment in non-hardware products. “To get a smart firearm from start to finish costs at least $10m,” Hirsch says; that’s much more than a software company requires. They look for opportunities with a potential market cap of more than $1bn, and smart-gun ventures struggle to offer that.

LodeStar has influential and experienced gun industry executives on its side. Yet, even here, expansion is stalled until more money can be raised. Investors must be convinced it can lower gun deaths. Stevenson says that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s organisation is among the largest sources of funding of gun-control measures. Yet there is still hesitation.

LodeStar’s Glaser met with Bloomberg’s foundation several times: “[It’s] very frustrating. Very frustrating. They just gave another $40m to $50m to continue with their lobbying efforts to change laws and to get more gun control measures enacted in all 50 states.” He wrote back saying ‘What a waste of time and money’. “It’s doing nothing to challenge the actual [gun death] statistics,” he adds.

Smart-gun investment is risky. A boom and bust cycle between war and peace time historically links growth and demise to defence contracts. Gun companies are highly dependent on those – when US government prepares for war, that’s where companies expand. When wars end, contracts expire and that’s when the military dumps surplus supply of firearms on the private market. It’s why established gun companies need private gun enthusiasts in times of peace, “and why they’ve so carefully, for the past 30 or 40 years, developed a fanatical consumer market,” Stevenson explains.

How well smart gun tech firms can weather demand will depend on military and law-enforcement services. The military likes personalised guns as it prevents them ending up in the hands of the enemy. As more military bases are abandoned, it’s feasible there is interest, Stevenson believes. If the Democrats make it into office, the odds are good for the military to buy in. The commander-in-chief of the US military will have sufficient power to motivate adoption via a side-arm officers carry.

The federal government gives a lot of funding to state and city police departments, and it is key for the smart-gun industry to create funding incentives here since they have, so far, struggled to get their foot in the door of law-enforcement services. In 2016, smart-gun manufacturer start-up Biofire Technologies approached the NYPD with its fingerprint-authenticated Glock .22. It fell through after critics questioned whether officers could still shoot if they were wearing gloves. But tech evolved and workarounds were found, one being grip-sensor technology; dynamic grip-recognition, like that developed by the New Jersey Institute of Technology, improves upon fingerprint and RFID shortcomings: “The issue of gloves shouldn’t matter any more,” Stevenson says.

Despite this, police departments will remain difficult partners. The reasons are historical. Two decades ago, Stevenson says, the NRA started lobbing police to have them on their side, making them extremely conservative to change. Smart guns are no exception. Also, for the police, money talks. They are short in funding, and support of federal grant money to reward adoption can go a long way. Stevenson draws parallels to initial hesitancy by officers to wear bodycams, where funding nudged adoption.

LodeStar doesn’t want law-enforcement services as its first customer. Glaser explains: “They need to be 100 per cent convinced [personalised] guns operate like a regular firearm. When you develop a new smart gun, do you really want them to be your first customers?” With two board members who previously served in law-enforcement agencies, LodeStar is well positioned. Glaser met with the NYPD and the US Bureau of Corrections, yet timing isn’t ripe. Large law-enforcement agencies only tend to replace their firearms once every 10 years; Glaser remains patient.

It’s been established that smart guns can save lives, yet researchers and business still disagree. Calculations by LodeStar, with a biased commercial view, claim they can save 10,000 lives a year, reducing deaths by 25 per cent.

E&T produced its own calculations. Guns are most effective for suicide: nine out of ten attempts are fatal, while non-firearm suicide attempts are only 8.5 per cent successful. In 2018, there were 24,432 registered firearms suicides, 1,296 of which were children and young adults aged between 10 and 19 years old. Researchers found that 48 per cent of US gun-owners own four or more guns so, while this age bracket may still find traditional guns lying around, if these households had just one smart gun, locked securely away, this may cut preventable suicides by half.

Realistically, smart guns could only prevent a minor share of adult suicides. Research says there is a 42 per cent general public interest in childproof guns. Non-gun owners are more eager, with 60 per cent saying they would want one, while only 35 per cent of multiple-gun owners agree. Based on the 42 per cent average, relevant suicides shrink to 9,660.

However there are other caveats, including age: older people – an age group that accounts for a considerable share in gun-related suicides – are often deterred by technology and so are less likely to buy a smart firearm. “Personalised guns, even if popular, may have little impact on elderly suicides, which comprise a huge share of annual gun deaths,” Stevenson says. In 2018, one in five firearm suicides were by people aged 70 or over.

The more guns around in general, the more firearm suicides there are. Suicide victims rarely wish to place blame on other people, so using someone else’s gun in itself may act as a deterrent. E&T assumes that around one-third of adults who commit suicide do so with someone else’s gun. Hereby, the introduction of personalised smart-guns would see major cuts in the number of preventable suicides. Of course, if the person who commits suicide uses their own gun, the potential benefits of a smart gun are limited.

Smart-gun manufacturers hope to contribute to the prevention of homicides, but critics point out “they would do nothing to curtail them when committed by someone using their own gun”. Stolen firearms do, however, pose a significant risk. According to a report from 2000, 14 per cent of firearms-trafficking investigations carried out by the US’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives between July 1996 and December 1998 involved guns stolen from licensed dealers, while 10 per cent were stolen from private residences. E&T calculates smart guns may prevent nearly one-quarter of the 11,640 firearms homicides.

There were 32 unintentional firearm deaths among children aged between 0-9 years old in 2018. Gun owners who buy a smart gun may of course already implement safe gun storage with traditional firearms, which would diminish the impact of a smart gun in this situation.

E&T estimates that overall 6,109 deaths could be prevented under present conditions, 39 per cent lower than LodeStar’s estimation. Biofire’s estimate is even less conservative, claiming smart guns can prevent two-thirds of gun deaths, which would have saved 22,171 lives in 2018.

E&T’s calculation isn’t perfect, but Stevenson reckons it is in the right ballpark. Experts believe more guns, smart or not, can drive up homicide rates. Gun-control advocacy group Violence Policy Center fears smart guns could appeal to non-gun owners, boosting gun circulation, which might offset smart gun benefits.

It is difficult to make reliable estimates because of the lack of research. Some of the most basic questions remain unanswered. RAND, a non-partisan think tank, concludes that most empirical research on gun laws has been inconclusive. Answers are missing to the most pressing questions, such as how often gun owners legitimately use their firearms in self-defence, Stevenson says. Harvard School of Public Health’s Hemenway thinks more research is needed.

Broadening the definition of what passes as a smart gun could boost interest. Today’s models are not just personalised trigger locks, many are more lethal than life-saving – there’s a precision-guided rifle that “rarely misses”; blockchain or ‘glockchain’ automated tracking features; and optical rifle scopes which broadcast videos to smartphones. All of this garners interest among gun enthusiasts.

A popular precision-guided shooting company is TrackingPoint. Its 2016 M1400, a squad-level .338 Lapua bolt-action rifle, hits targets from 1,400 yards (1,280m). The US Army was an early customer and it was retailed in 2018. Critics demand these new technological developments need to be regulated.

Smart guns still struggle with the right style. The “sleek and futuristic-looking” Armatix iP1, one blogger writes, was off-putting. Stevenson says his analysis of new product reviews on gun sites suggests arms steadily grow smaller, lighter and more lethal. The holy grail for gun companies is offering one that is smaller, but with the same power to kill with one shot.

To attract demand among conventional gun-owners, style must be traditional. Stevenson explains: “They want to have one they saw in a Clint Eastwood movie from the ’70s.” Gun culture in the US is nostalgic; smart gun firms might do well to follow the traditional design.

Timing is also essential. The Covid-19 pandemic saw a surge in gun demand due to lockdown and fear of lootings. There were two peaks: one by those who already owned a gun, Hemenway says, but the first was in March, when people hoarded toilet paper, and many first-time gun buyers became interested, Stevenson says. Smart-gun manufacturers must time it right; research says many non-gun owners would buy a safer, personalised model.

It seems inevitable that guns become smarter. STCF’s Hirsch and others see parallels to the seat-belt revolution; it took years, but then it quickly changed. Whether it’s time for smart guns to shine is still uncertain, but it has better odds.

Even if estimates for smart guns’ life-saving capabilities turn out to be lower, it won’t tarnish the motivation of smart-gun entrepreneurs. Hirsch says: “If you talk to these innovators, they’ll tell you, if they can just save one life, they are good.”

Guns will remain controversial, and smart guns won’t change this. Stevenson concludes that market forces mostly drive the technology toward cheaper, more lethal options. Personalised guns will not prevent all gun death, and the ethical battle will continue. “No emerging technologies can address the underlying moral dubiousness... A moral right to kill does not equal a moral obligation. Zero guns would be better than smart guns,” Stevenson says. 

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