Guns Will Soon Be as Smart as Our Phones

How Technology Might Change The Gun Debate

Fingerprint-access gun  Photo credit: Smart Tech Challenges Foundation
Reading Time: 9 minutes

It is not easy to bridge the gap between staunch supporters of the Second Amendment and the people who do not want to just stand by as guns are destroying ten of thousands of lives. The divide is just too big. But what if there were a way for technology to bring both sides closer together?

Surely Steve Jobs never imagined the “iGun,” but today’s technology may make the gun as personal as your phone — and therefore much safer.

While the gun debate often has the earmarks of a time early in American history, it may be that technology is the one thing that can fundamentally change the debate.

Today hundreds of inventors, out of the mainstream and away from traditional gun manufacturers, are working on methods to use biometric markers as gun locks. Someday soon guns may use facial recognition technology and even contain cameras, just as in our phones.  For law enforcement, or even the government trying to locate a particular gun, internal GPS technology and RFID chips may make them as easy to track as our smartphones and fitbits.

Will this make us safer? What role will government and law enforcement play in the development of this technology? In this week’s podcast, WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman talks with Margot Hirsch, the President of the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, which is providing the seed money for many of these endeavors.

It’s not clear when or if these technologies will be adopted. What is clear is that the very possibility of them may profoundly change how we view guns in America.

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Full Text Transcript:

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio Whowhatwhy, I’m Jeff Schechtman.

If there is any topic today that is both controversial and primitive in its discussions, it’s the subject of guns. Whether it’s talk about militia, or our founders, or talking hunting in an urban culture. The conversation seems to be from another place and another time. On the other hand, in almost every realm today, technology and creative destruction is altering how we live, work and do business. So why not guns? In short, can technology change the fundamentals of the debate; about the use and safety of guns. Exploring this and moving this conversation forward has been the work of the Smart Technology Challenge Foundation. I’m joined today by its president, Margot Hirsch. Margot, welcome to Radio Whowhatwhy.

Margot Hirsch: Jeff, thanks so much for having me.

Jeff Schechtman: It’s great to have you here. First of all, tell us a little bit about what the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation is all about.

Margot Hirsch: The Smart Tech Challenges Foundation was founded after Sandy Hook to address gun violence through innovation and technology. We took a look at that very tragic moment, and we surveyed the firearm landscape and found that up to that point, there has been minimal, if any new innovation in firearm safety. So in January of 2014, we launched a one-million-dollar challenge to attract innovators who are developing gun safety technology. We weren’t sure how many people we would actually get to apply; we were hopeful that we might have thirty at best, and we got 200 applications from over 30 countries around the world of people who proposed a variety of solutions that could address firearm safety. From there, we had an independent judging panel, narrowed those 200 applications down to 15, and we dispersed the funds for them to develop their different solutions. Today, we’ve got those innovators who were working on things from a gun safe to trigger locks to retrofit kits for existing guns, and then actual smart guns themselves.

Jeff Schechtman: And was this done essentially in a vacuum by the foundation and it’s efforts, or were there attempts to bring in either government, law enforcement or the gun manufacturers, etc.

Margot Hirsch: In all honesty, I’d like to think it wasn’t in a vacuum, but when we looked at what was happening in the whole gun violence phase, we felt that the legislative approach was gridlocked, and nothing was happening. And you could argue that’s still the case today. We felt that technology could play a real role here like we do in many other aspects of our lives, and this was a great way to apply technology solutions to a very critical social problem that we have in this country and bypass the political system. So, I wouldn’t call it a vacuum, it was just a way to try to make progress in a very politicized, difficult area.

Jeff Schechtman: And when you think this through, would you think about the ways in which progress can be made, given the legislative roadblocks, given some of the public policy roadblocks at every level. Talk a little bit about the ways in which you think that progress can happen, and where, how and on what level.

Margot Hirsch: Well, I think, we view it that this needs to be driven by the consumer, by the free market. We want to make these technologies available to gun owners so they have a choice to go out and purchase a firearm that can make their families safer. These technologies are not really meant to prevent mass killings, although we’re seeing those more frequently and they’re incredibly horrific. These smart gun technologies are about keeping guns out of the wrong hands; they’re about personalizing a gun to a specific user so that your child or someone who tries to grab your gun away from you, cannot use it. And we feel that that is pretty much going to happen through the private market versus government intervention or even the gun manufacturers because the gun manufacturers are reticent to get into the smart gun game, and so we feel that this is going to be driven again by the private sector.

Jeff Schechtman: And is this going to happen with respect to add-ons, to existing guns, or is this something that’s being thought about with respect to entirely new guns manufactured by new companies?

Margot Hirsch: Both. You’ve got 300 million, plus or minus guns out there today. Ideally, you want to find solutions that address some of those guns out there because they’re not going anywhere. So we have some solutions that have the ability to retrofit an existing firearm like an AR-15 by putting a biometric lock on it so that no one but the authorized user can use it. In addition to those, then you have the 10 million new guns that come into the market every year, and that’s where the smart gun technology that’s being developed would impact those numbers.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the concern that to the extent that more and more guns come with this smart gun technology, or it’s mandated at some point along the way, that it creates a potential black market in old fashioned kinds of guns.

Margot Hirsch: We don’t believe it will create a black market. First of all, mandating at this point, we do not believe is the way to go. This is technology that’s not even ready for market, there’s only been one gun out there, the Armatrix iP1 that’s been introduced into the market and it’s not even there right now that we can see. So to mandate technology that haven’t finished their development is premature, so the idea is that this is another option when you’re someone who’s in the market to purchase a gun, that you can choose this type of technology over a traditional gun.

Jeff Schechtman: How has law enforcement responded to this?

Margot Hirsch: Well we’ve talked to cities like San Francisco, I can’t give a blanket answer for all law enforcement, but we’ve spoken to some law enforcement agencies and the feedback that we have gotten has been very positive. They are open for testing and piloting the smart guns, and initially we see these guns being used by a subset of law enforcement – undercover officers who don’t wear standard holsters and are susceptible to gun grab, off duty officers who take their guns home and have children in the house, and then there’s air marshals and university officers. So any type of law enforcement officer who could potentially have their gun taken away are the most interested because obviously if a gun gets taken away and used, it could be devastating.

Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that you’ve been talking about is something that’s often referred to this user authentication technology. There’s also another area that technology is looking at – this idea of electronic recovery technology. What is that all about?

Margot Hirsch: Electronic recovery technology is technology that’s essentially used in your phone. When you need to find your phone, it has technology that sends out a signal to tell you where your phone is. However, this type of technology, at least in the guns that are being designed by our innovators, is not going to be automatically put into the firearm. That would be an add-on, and not a given because as we hear from the people who oppose these technologies, they’re very concerned that the government will come take their guns. But that’s only, if you look at the technology being used right now in the smart guns that are being developed by Armatrix and RFID, that capability is not inherent in those technologies – you would have to add it on. It’s obviously going to be up to the individual manufacturer, but that is not something that smart guns will automatically have in them.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the state of the research right now. How much money is being spent now? How much more needs to be spent to move this effort forward?

Margot Hirsch: There hasn’t been a lot of money put towards smart gun development. I think in the last 15 or 20 years the number is under 20 million dollars, which is minimal. And the DOJ had been the primary source of those funds. In recent years, it’s basically been the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, and we’ve only had a million dollars, which doesn’t even begin to be enough to advance these technologies. So we are hoping that we will see increased funds available from the federal government, or even at the local level, but realistically, I think funds will come from the private sector. And today, we’re looking for investors who are interested in investing in these technologies to step forward and invest in our different innovators to help drive the technologies forward and closer to market.

Jeff Schechtman: To your knowledge, are any of the traditional gun manufacturers, the Smith & Wessons of the world, are any of them working on this kind of technology or any variations of it.

Margot Hirsch: Not that we know of. They might have self-R&D in the works, but I am not aware of them. I have reached out to them and have not received any word back, any response. I do know the federal government, the White House, has been trying to have conversations with the gun manufacturers and when you look at the executive action, this is basically aimed towards the gun manufacturers getting involved, weighing in and being part of this smart gun initiative.

Jeff Schechtman: Is there concern that if in fact there is some further research and development on this and some progress is made in the private sector and that there is some public policy pressure for it, that the major manufacturers will usurp any action taken in that regard?

Margot Hirsch: At the end of the day, our aim is to get smart guns to market, and whether it’s through the gun manufacturers or our individual innovators, at the end of the day it’s a win for all of us no matter how they get there.

Jeff Schechtman: Do you see a time frame for all of this at this point?

Margot Hirsch: A lot of the timing will depend on capital. These innovators need additional capital to finish the prototype development, the testing required and getting them to market. Most likely, it’ll be in 2 to 5 years, hopefully sooner and in our opinion, not fast enough.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about ideas you’ve heard, some of the cutting-edge research, things that may not even exist in prototype form, but ideas that you’re hearing about ways to even go beyond some of the technologies that we’ve talked about today.

Margot Hirsch: As you know, the two predominant forms that we’re seeing right now are fingerprint biometric scanners and RFID. Besides RFID and biometric technology, we aren’t seeing too many out of the box technologies, but one thing I have heard of is using facial recognition software. As we know, cameras have been shrunk down to a very tiny size that could actually fit into a gun. So you could authenticate based on facial recognition, which overcomes the problem of having a fingerprint read if it was dirty or wet. But other than that, I haven’t seen or heard anything beyond what we’ve been looking at in the areas of different types of radio frequency and the biometric technology. To be honest with you, it’s interesting. I’m sure there’s something that will be developed and will come forward at some point, but right now, it’s pretty straight forward – breaking down between the biometric and the RFID technologies.

Jeff Schechtman: And is it your sense, finally, that the research on this, that the work that the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation and your organization is doing, and that other private sector groups are doing, that this work is going to actively continue at this point?

Margot Hirsch: Yes. We have planned to continue the work we’re doing and we are hoping others will get involved as we continue to make progress. The good news is this year there was a Johns Hopkins study that showed that almost 60% of the Americans surveyed would purchase a smart gun if it was available, and 43% of gun owners said they would purchase one. That is leaps and bounds of where we were when we started almost three years ago, and I think that will continue as people become more educated on the potential that these technologies hold to reduce injuries and save lives.

Jeff Schechtman: Margot Hirsch, she’s the president of the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation – Margot, I thank you so much for spending time with us today.

Margot Hirsch: Thank you, Jeff.

Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio Whowhatwhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio Whowhatwhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

If you like this podcast, please feel free to share it and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Margo Hirsch and logo (Smart Tech Challenges Foundation / YouTube) and fingerprint-access gun (Smart Tech Challenges Foundation)

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5 responses to “Guns Will Soon Be as Smart as Our Phones”

  1. Joseph M says:

    Are you kidding me? Stupid crap like a fingerprint sensor. Neither my Samsung nor my Apple phone fingerprint sensors work even 75% of the time. I am constantly having to wipe the sensor off in order for it to read. What the **** am I going to do when I have a madman with a knife or gun coming after me? “Hey man, hold up, my fingerprint sensor isn’t letting me use the tool I keep with me to defend myself” People in favor of “smartgun” technology are fools if they think it is going to make anyone “safer”.

  2. MrLiberty says:

    Guarantee that any and all of these technologies will be required eventually to have a “back door” that will allow the government not only IN, but enable them to disarm anyone they wish. Nono of this has ever been about safety and security – except the safety and the security of those that run Uncle Sam’s slave plantation.

  3. Blank Reg says:

    You can’t force us to buy/retrofit these intrusions on our 2nd Amendment rights. And that’s what these things are – “infringements”. What part of “shall not be infringed” don’t these idiots understand? There are already 400M guns in the wild in the good old USA. Good luck converting them all.

  4. $23944354 says:

    The dealer that wanted to offer the Armatrix stopped after receiving death threats.

    Any electrical means of disabling the gun could fail, rendering it inoperable in an emergency. Anything with wireless programming could be hacked. Who is responsible for programming these units and what happens upon transfer to another owner? Do they keep track of shots fired and the date/time?
    Most high profile shootings involve legally owned firearms.

    Unless the mechanical linkage between the trigger and the sear is replaced with a 100% electronic one, it would be relatively easy to override most if not all designs, meaning someone could still figure out how to enable the gun if they had time, this is a certainty for retrofitted guns.

    The number of firearm tragedies that would be averted with smart guns would seem to be relatively few, though admittedly still worth pursuing. You can’t fix stupid, which is the overwhelming factor behind most negligent discharges.

    Perhaps this could significantly reduce the number of firearm suicides in teenage populations, and a relatively small number of shootings involving small children.

    Worth pursuing but I am skeptical of any real impact and whether the technology would be embraced by the firearm/prospective firearm-owning public…ever.

    • Birdy Escobar says:

      No two fingerprints are alike, plus you cannot hack the new systems, due to the fact they’re wired and not online. The systems are set up to show errors if there are hacking attempts.

    • Jeff Clyburn says:

      I’d say you can fix stupid. It just takes a lot of will power and a generation or two of time.