Would anyone shopping for a new car buy one that wasn’t equipped with seat belts? Live in a house without smoke detectors? Use a chain saw without a safety brake? It goes without saying that consumers expect products to be safe. But when it comes to one of the most deadly objects — a gun, which killed more than 30,000 Americans in 2013 — people are hard-pressed to find one with state-of-the-art safety features.
That’s not because the technology isn’t readily available. Back in 2000, agreed to manufacture handguns with a built-in lock, but boycotts curbed sales. More recently, in and , stores stocking the leading smart gun in production were met with vicious backlash online, protests and death threats. Some question the reliability of smart guns, and others believe that they threaten the Second Amendment. But , a policy expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says unequivocally, “Smart guns are going to save lives. They’re not going to save all lives,” he continues, “but why wouldn’t we want to make guns as safe a consumer product as possible?”
Many Americans share his sentiment. In 2014, through the , Silicon Valley luminaries like Ron Conway pledged $1 million toward research and development of smart gun technologies, and last month, signaled his support. Which devices are the most promising? NationSwell interviewed five leading inventors about their prototypes.
TriggerSmart by Robert McNamara
Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology keeps guns from firing when they’re in the wrong hands. TriggerSmart’s small wireless transmitter (disguised inside a ring) “talks” with a circuit board in the firearm’s handle. When they’re within less than two inches of each other, the gun unjams. (The technology works nearly identically to keys that remotely unlock car doors.) And unlike fingerprint recognition, the signal communicates through material, like a glove.
Robert McNamara, founder of the Florida-based company manufacturing the technology, started investigating how to build a smart gun after wondering why he could remotely lock and disable his iPhone, but not his gun. He approaches the issue of gun violence with a foreigner’s eye. Uncomfortable with the regularity of shootings of America, this level of gun violence “doesn’t happen every day in Ireland,” McNamara points out, speaking with the thick brogue of his homeland. “We never hear of a child shooting themselves or their mother, or a police officer being overpowered.” Recognizing that U.S. politics around smart guns are “a bit of a hot potato,” McNamara hopes to capitalize in an industry avoided by many. Previously working in construction and property development, he now spends his days courting big investors with the hopes of soon bringing TriggerSmart into final states of testing.
Dual:Lock by Timothy Oh
Dual:Lock is a throwback to traditional safety measures, but with a contemporary twist. In essence, the device is simply a high-tech, wall-mounted gun safe. Rather than punching in numbers or spinning a dial, the safe opens with a fingerprint scan. Dual:Lock’s stainless steel core looks like a knife block; its carbide retaining pin locks the weapon in place.
With relatives in law enforcement, creator Timothy Oh says that he was raised with an ingrained sense of the devastation gun violence can cause, as well as the importance of firearm safety. The native of Orange County, Calif., and current student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., built his first smart gun in high school. After uploading his idea to an online forum and receiving extremely negative feedback, he started listening to consumers’ desires and conducted 500 interviews with military, law enforcement and civilian gun owners. Many told him that they keep their guns loaded and unsecure in case there’s an emergency. “Immediate access and security are two values that are conflicting right now in the current market,” Oh explains. For these gun owners, Dual:Lock provides faster access than traditional closed-door safes (the device opens within 0.8 seconds). A prototype will be tested at the Los Angeles Police Department gun ranges this fall, and eight gun stores in the Albany, N.Y. region, have signed letters of sale intent.
gUNarmed by Chloe Green
Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, Oikos University, Sandy Hook Elementary School, Umpqua Community College. Fifteen-year-old high school student Chloe Green says she’s read too many news reports about, “children being killed and the families being torn apart by gun violence.” Green comes from a family of gun owners, but thought she could bypass the political divide and enhance “safe, responsible gun ownership” with technology.
Her early-stage device, gUNarmed, will use satellites to track a gun’s location and automatically jam the magazine when inside schools and government buildings. (The owner can program additional excluded areas.) When a firearm is detected in a prohibited space, a motor on the magazine prevents bullets from entering the chamber and could send an alert to local law enforcement. Currently, Green has mapped out the electronics in a breadboard prototype, but she doesn’t know when she will advance to the next stages since her young age makes it difficult to network professionally. Still, she doesn’t plan to let that derail her. “I’ve always been interested in the process of making, tinkering and inventing things,” she says, hoping to save American lives from firearm deaths while also getting other young women involved in STEM.
EverLokt by John William Stein
Pennsylvania resident John William Stein believes that smart guns will only sell if they are attractive to gun owners. The one-time biotech inventor for pharmaceutical companies knew little about firearms, but he was moved into action by the Sandy Hook massacre. (A few weeks after the shooting, dozens of kids walked onstage at his church to sing Christmas carols, and he could only think of the other children who had been lost.) The 75-year-old’s first device was a safety round hooked up with a motion-sensor that pinged parents by cell phone if shaken (a sign that a child or an intruder had found their gun). But that device seemed too simplistic to motivate firearms enthusiasts.
So recently, Stein decided to take advantage of today’s increasingly compact processors and cameras and installed a miniature lens into the head of the bullet. Using its ability to detect distances, this smart bullet would not fire if a person is less than three feet away or if a child is looking down the barrel. At the same time, however, the bullet would release if aimed across a room in the direction of a home invader. Still in the early stages of development, Stein’s bullet could also film the incident for law enforcement, and a second camera in the back could snap a picture upon discharge to show who fired the gun.
Ægen Technologies by Kai Kloepfer
Boulder, Colo., teen Kai Kloepfer describes the 2012 Aurora movie theater mass shooting, where 12 people died at a sold-out midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” as feeling like his September 11. The loss of life was close — he had visited the Century 16 theater with his friends — so the self-taught electronics nut who participates annually in the local science fair focused his next project on something socially relevant: creating a smart gun. His first attempt involved iris recognition. But that idea foundered when he realized the sensor would be incompatible with sunglasses, thick eyeglasses or shooting in the dark. The next logical alternative? Fingerprint recognition.
Going on four years later, Kloepfer’s biometric sensor is located on a gun’s grip. It captures an image of a person’s fingerprint and checks it against a database of authorized users. If the system finds a match, the gun unlocks. As soon as the owner releases it, the device relocks — a vital feature if the firearm is used in self-defense or is stolen. “The whole goal is to remove human error from the equation as much as possible,” Kloepfer, now 19, says. Kloepfer’s current 3-D printed plastic model unlocks within a span of 1.5 seconds, but he aims to reduce it to just half a second. Just weeks away from his first live sample, Kloepfer is already a long way ahead of most high school science fair projects.