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Could smart guns save lives?

Written by corres2

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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.

Yet what if the solution isn’t legislative but technological — by making sure the person had the right to fire that gun? It wouldn’t have prevented Uvalde, where the 18-year-old shooter bought firearms legally.

It could, however, stop a school shooting where an underage person illegally gained access to a weapon or slow the huge wave of suicides that comprise the majority of gun deaths in America — 24,292 in 2020, versus 19,384 murders, according to the CDC — by limiting teens and others’ access to a gun they don’t own.

So argue a group of new entrepreneurs who say that the tech has finally advanced far enough — and the threat 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 9mm handgun it has been developing.

Many high-profile mass shootings involve legally owned firearms. But scores of other people have died at the hands of someone who didn’t 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, after failing to hit that mark in 2019.

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.

But it’s unclear whether the smart-gun efforts can get past gun groups, which in the past have been ambivalent, or worse. And the technology is not yet proved; smart gun proponents have historically offered more promises than proofs.

Smart-gun technology uses biometric data like 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 2022, expects to have a product on the market sometime next year, likely early in the year, Glaser said. The Colorado firm 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 says, with consumer sales happening likely 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 anther child because an adult left a loaded handgun,” Holland said in an interview. He said 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 under 25 has gone from seven for every 100,000 people to 10, according to research from the CDC and New England Journal of Medicine. As of 2017 firearms are now the leading causing of death for young people, surpassing even motor-vehicle accidents.

“The statistics are shocking,” said Kai Kloepfer, founder of Biofire. A teenager during the infamous Aurora, Colo., movie-theater mass shooting 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.”

The argument is 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.”

But smart-gun tech is still unproven 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. And costs remain high — the SmartGunz product, for instance, is listed between $1,800 and $2,000.

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

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. But it soon faced an NRA-led boycott that sent sales plummeting and nearly destroyed the company.

An Obama administration push in 2016 for smart guns among federal law enforcement did not yield much fruit. The Biden administration’s platform is 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.”

A New Jersey smart-gun law passed in 2002 — it mandated gun retailers in the state carry only smart guns beginning three years after the 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 help lead the push on smart-gun adoption. Last year the governor, Phil Murphy (D), named seven experts from various disciplines to a new “Personalized Handgun Authorization Commission” to explore the issue.

Both Glaser and Kloepfer say while they are open to government-enhanced incentives for buying a smart gun (similar to electric vehicles) they 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.

The NRA has indicated 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. However, NRA opposes any law prohibiting Americans from acquiring or possessing firearms that don’t possess ‘smart’ gun technology,” the group’s lobbying arm previously said in a statement.

An NRA spokeswoman did not reply to a request for comment for this story.

Some gun-rights advocates, however, remain unsold on the idea. The prominent attorney and gun-rights advocate David Kopel said in an email 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 added. He said he believes mandates would be “a huge Second Amendment violation.”

Less organized efforts also could inhibit adoption. Eight years ago, a Maryland gun retailer that wanted to sell a German smart gun faced death threats, forcing it to drop the plan.

Smart gun entrepreneurs say they are baffled by such reactions.

“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?”

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