When the March for Our Lives hits the streets of Washington, D.C., this Saturday March 24, there will have been at least 48 mass shootings in the 83 days since the beginning of 2018, according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive. That’s more than one every other day, and it includes three school shootings every two weeks—numbers that should be unacceptable to every American, not just those on the streets this weekend.
While the marchers hope that activism will make an impact on everything from legislation to sales policies to election results, there are also a handful of entrepreneurs around the country—some of them barely older than the high school students who inspired the march—who are working on technological solutions to the problem of unnecessary gun violence.
“Our generation is going to be the one that has to deal with a lot of big social problems, and I think gun violence is one of them,” says Kai Kloepfer, who turned 21 on March 22. “It’s going to require a lot of different solutions. Technology is going to be one of them, sensible legislation is another, better awareness, better infrastructure, and reporting policies. But fundamentally, it’s going to be our generation’s responsibility.”
Kloepfer has been taking that responsibility seriously since he was 15, when he developed his first prototype of a biometrically secured “smart gun” that could be fired only by its owner. That project won first prize in engineering at Intel’s international science and engineering fair, and has since grown into a company, Biofire Technologies, that is now working to bring the technology to American gun owners.
While it’s no blanket cure, it’s just the kind of thing that could have a meaningful impact. “The impact that personalized gun safety technologies will have will be primarily around youth suicides, accidental shootings, and disrupting the market for stolen guns,” says Margot Hirsch, a former technology sales executive who is now president of the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation. Started in 2014 with funding from angel investor Ron Conway, among others, the foundation provides grants and mentorship to entrepreneurs (including Kloepfer) working on gun safety tech.
The problems are enormous. With at least 300 million guns in the United States, about 250,000 of them are stolen each year, and about 80% of those are never recovered, Hirsch says. About 2,600 people under the age of 24 commit suicide using a gun each year, according to Hirsch. And in something like 72% of cases, those young people use a family member’s gun. Preventing access to those weapons through fingerprint locks or other means could make a huge difference.
If you look closely at the numbers, the issue of guns and suicide takes on an alarming light. Firearms are the most common method of suicide overall, accounting for just under half the more than 44,0000 suicides each year in the U.S., in part because they’re also the most effective method, succeeding in more than 80% of attempts. But most people make only one attempt to kill themselves; if it doesn’t work, they generally don’t try again. That means that pushing them toward less effective methods on that first attempt—by, for instance, making firearms less accessible to anyone but their owner—can actually save lives. Statistically, it turns out it’s not the idea of committing suicide that determines whether someone will die, it’s the accessibility and effectiveness of the method they choose. Guns, it turns out, really do kill people.
Solving For Speed and Safety
Kloepfer’s prototype is helping Biofire meet the many technical challenges such a product presents (see below), but the weapon itself is still over a year away from going into production, he says. The goal is for the smart gun to unlock in less than half a second, without requiring a special grip. Just pick up the gun and it works—if you’re the owner, or someone the owner has authorized.
That kind of speed is key to the smart gun market. The challenge is not so much to keep the wrong people out, as it is to let the right ones in—but fast. It is the combination of security and accessibility that many gun owners seek, and that is the biggest challenge for those working on smart guns and related technologies.
If you own a gun for home security, you want to be able to access it as fast as possible. But the price of easily accessible guns today is an unfortunate number of accidental deaths and injuries, often to children, as each week’s headlines seem to show.
“Safety is not impossible,” says Detroit-based automotive engineer Omer Kiyani, founder and CEO of Sentinl, Inc., which makes the Identilock biometric trigger lock. “Every gun in America is sold with a lock. But I cannot use that if I have a firearm for home protection, because it takes too long to gain access and be able to use it.”
Sentinl’s fingerprint-driven trigger lock, the Identilock, can give a gun-owner access to their weapon in less than a second, Kiyani says. And one great advantage of the Identilock, compared to most advanced gun safety technologies, is that it’s currently available at retail.
Kiyani’s product is carried at brick-and-mortar sporting goods retailers Cabela’s and Brownells, and online at Optics Planet and even Amazon. A recent distribution deal will soon see the device in stores in a dozen states, Kiyani says, and demand from retailers is strong, both for the handgun models Identilock currently supports (including the 1911-A1 style, and many Glock, Sig Sauer, and Smith & Wesson pistols), and those it does not yet.
But while retailers seem to like the product, Kiyani laments that he isn’t able to get his message in front of more customers. “Awareness generation is probably our biggest challenge,” he says. “The normal methods of generating awareness are not accessible to us.”
Kiyani is referring to the trouble he’s had getting his ads accepted on platforms like Google and Facebook, because they often contain images of firearms. “How do you display a firearm safety device without a firearm?” he muses. He has also had trouble listing his products in Facebook’s Marketplace because they’re firearm-related. “Everywhere blocks anything related to guns,” Kiyani says, frustrated. “But we’re trying to save lives here.”
Another young entrepreneur working on new gun safety technology is Timmy Oh, who is 22. Oh’s company, Vara, is creating a biometric “opensafe” with a form factor similar to a holster, that would allow gun owners to keep their weapons within reach, without having to worry about a child or stranger gaining access. Vara is close to raising the necessary financing to bring its product to market, Oh says, and is already in talks with distributors and retail channels ahead of a launch later this year.
“Our main product focus is bringing down that barrier of getting access to your gun, and doing that in a way that’s very intuitive, that’s easy and appealing to the gun owner, so it blends into their natural lifestyle,” Oh says. “We want to bring the convenience of safety into homes, so that everyone will be using safe measures to protect their handguns.”
Filling A Need, And A Desire
One thing that’s notable about entrepreneurs like Oh, Kiyani, Kloepfer, and others is that they’re creating their products outside the traditional gun industry—which, in a way, is surprising. After all, if you already have a piece of a $17 billion industry, wouldn’t you want to maintain your position by staking out some territory on the cutting edge yourself, rather than letting a kid beat you to it?
In fact, big gun companies started to do just that a few years back. Prompted by President Barack Obama, Smith & Wesson was set to develop smart gun technology and other gun safety innovations back in 2000. But a sharp reaction from the National Rifle Association sparked a slump in sales. Smith & Wesson laid off 15% of its workforce, and brought out a total of zero smart guns or other innovative gun safety products. (The NRA did not immediately respond to a request for comments for this article.)
More recently, the Parkland school shooting, in which 17 high school students died, prompted new calls for action on the part of gunmakers. But American Outdoor Brands, Smith & Wesson’s parent company—which made the AR-15 used in the Parkland shooting—has been outspoken in its refusal to alter their course.
What’s strange about that is that Americans largely support safer guns. While a 2013 survey by a gun industry association found that only 14% of gun owners were “likely” or “very likely” to purchase a gun that would fire only for its owner, a broader 2016 survey by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that nearly 60% of Americans and something like 40% of gun owners were interested in personalized smartguns.
One firearm-industry name exploring new gun safety technology is Mossberg. The O.F. Mossberg company, nearly 100 years old, is still run by the Mossberg family, and produces many of the most popular shotguns in the country. What they do not produce, however, is the iGun, a smart shotgun that is unlocked via a proximity sensor paired to a ring worn by the gun’s owner. That weapon is made by iGun Technology Corp., which is run by Jonathan Mossberg. Once a V.P. of acquisitions and manufacturing in his family’s company, Mossberg left in 2000 to pursue other businesses and develop his own smart gun.
“We were the first to build a fully functioning smart gun, and we did that about 18 years ago,” Mossberg says. “The technology is the same as it was back then, so we’re just looking at financing to shrink that technology from a circuit board the size of a playing card to something the size of a thumbnail and put it in a handgun.”
Smaller, Smarter, Faster
Fitting fast sensors and the other “smart” technology into a handgun is no easy task. “The inside of a handgun is pretty tight,” says Kai Kloepfer, who is currently a sophomore at MIT. “We have to physically integrate our technology into the handgun. So that means attaching circuit boards and incorporating batteries. There has to be physical space made. And we need to mechanically disable the firearm, so there are a few aspects of the fire control mechanism we are modifying to allow us to interface with them. It’s very much a fight over every cubic millimeter.”
To satisfy many gun owners, fingerprint-recognition technology needs to work with fingers that are wet or dirty as well—which, at this point, it does. “Newer scanners are far more advanced and reliable than what you see in a smartphone,” says Margot Hirsch. But that’s only part of the picture.
“Once we have this electrical signal that says this person should be able to use this gun, how do we actually physically unlock the firearm and do it in a reliable way, and a way that takes small amounts of space and small amounts of power?” Kloepfer says. “Normally, when you’re optimizing something like this, you pick one variable to optimize. What’s difficult is that we need to have actuators that are fast and reliable and low-power and small. There’s nothing that we can sacrifice.”
Even if Kloepfer and other gun safety entrepreneurs get it right, their innovations represent only a first small step. “We’re at the very beginning,” Hirsch says.
Mark Wallace has written for the New York Times Magazine, Wired, Salon, and many others. He lives in San Francisco.