There was a time when cars did not have seat belts. Then it was discovered they could prevent death, so new cars had to have them installed by law. And when people didn't want to put them on, lawmakers made it mandatory. Now it's estimated seatbelts save 13,000 lives every year in the United States.
If there were some seat belt equivalent for firearms, perhaps it would be smart gun technology, which allows only authorized users to unlock and fire them. There are two main ways to personalize guns for this: with biometric readers, such as a fingerprint scanner, or token-based technology, including a watch or device that unlocks the firearm by sending a magnetic identifier or radio frequency when close to it, such as the Armatix iP1, which nearly became the first smart gun sold in the U.S. last year.
One retailer in California who tried selling it decided to stop after facing an angry response from gun enthusiasts (and later denied ever trying to sell it). Soon after, a Maryland gun shop faced the same fury. After an onslaught of protest and death threats, the guns were taken off the shelves there, too.
Despite the opposition and a lack of interest among gun manufacturers, some startups are aiming to bring viable smart guns to the market. One of the standouts is Safe Gun Technology Inc., or SGTi, which is refining a prototype that could be ready for sale by early 2016. A recipient of a grant from the Smart Tech for Firearms Challenge, the Georgia-based firm, founded in 2011, has designed a fingerprint scanner that gets installed on a gun as an accessory, or "retrofit kit."
With about one in three Americans owning guns, according to a recent study, and more than 300 million guns in the country, it does seem wise to focus on upgrading guns already in circulation rather than just building them from scratch, which can be pricey. The Armatix iP1, for instance, costs $1,800, while SGTi's retrofit kit will go for $260 plus $60 for installation, performed by a gunsmith.
"We realized the only way that gun owners are going to get onboard with this is if it's a fully integrated, embedded solution," says Thomas Lynch, SGTi's CEO. Lynch, a gun owner, NRA member and former Army infantry officer, strongly believes that this technology has the potential to reduce gun violence. "The question is," he says, "is what we're building reliable enough?"
That's one concern among some gun owners, who have given SGTi feedback, along with how quickly a gun with the retrofit kit can get activated, which Lynch says will take a half second to authenticate and unlock. The technology has come a long way since a decade ago. The current prototype, designed for the AR-15 rifle, fails to block an unauthorized user from firing one in 100,000 times in testing, while the rate of not recognizing an authorized user is one in 1,000. Once your muscle memory kicks in after using it a few times, says Lynch, it becomes automatic. "I've used it enough that now I trust it and don't think about whether or not it's going to read my fingerprint," he says.
Lynch envisions the retrofit kit filling a niche in the home defense market, where unsecured guns can lead to accidental shootings among children, and suicides with teenagers and young adults — not to mention cases of theft, which the ATF reported to be at 190,000 in 2012. And despite the skepticism among gun enthusiasts, a survey from two years ago by the National Shooting Sports Foundation found that 14 percent of gun owners said they would consider purchasing a smart gun, which amounts to millions of people. "There's a huge market there," Lynch says. "I'll take that and live with it for a few years. As the technology gets better and becomes more reliable, there's a point where the masses get onboard." A poll conducted earlier this year found that 40 percent of gun owners would consider replacing their gun(s) with a smart gun (with more than 50 percent of those among 18 to 44-year-olds).
But simply getting smart gun technology to market is one of the biggest hurdles for a startup like SGTi, which is currently running an Indiegogo campaign to fund the next round of development. The plan, if the money comes in, is to complete the kit for the AR-15, and then move on to models for shotguns and the most common home defense handguns. Another obstacle comes from the politics around the technology itself.
One reason for the opposition is a 2002 New Jersey law that mandates that selling handguns without personalized technology would become illegal three years after the sale of the first smart gun in the country. The author of the law recently said that she and her colleagues would be willing to undo it if the NRA agreed to stop fighting it. But last month, two senators proposed the Handgun Trigger Safety Act, which would require that, in 10 years, any handgun sold have smart technology installed and would ban production of handguns that lack it within five years. The bill would also provide money for product development and reimburse manufacturers for the expense of retrofitting guns.
Though such mandates could be a boon to a company like SGTi, Lynch opposes them on principle and from a business perspective. "I'm 100 percent against mandates," he says, which he feels don't take into account various applications of guns and safety measures already in place. "Gun owners are already using a 'seat belt' when they lock up their guns in a safe," he says, "making a mandate for all guns overkill." A more effective approach in the long run, he adds, would be to let the market take the lead.
"The first step is to prove that gun owners want it," he says. "You have to get the market to do that." And once it's up and running, he explains, gun retailers could get onboard due to the demand for the product, which they would offer as an accessory in the same way a bicycle shop has helmets and lights for safety.
Even some reluctant gun owners might come around at that point, especially if they see that smart gun technology didn't turn out to be gun control in disguise. In fact, it's much like any other hi-tech innovation that has enhanced how we interact with products — from telephones to cigarettes to cars. Why not guns?