Is America ready to enter the age of the smart gun?

Just days after President Barack Obama, wiping tears from his eyes, made an impassioned plea for America to help stem the tide of gun violence, organizers of one of the largest electronics shows on the planet wouldn’t let Omer Kiyani bring a gun onto the exhibition floor.

Kiyani didn’t need the gun to be loaded. He wasn’t even asking to bring a real gun; a replica would have sufficed. But the organizers of the Consumer Electronics Show, the annual celebration of gadgetry in Las Vegas, weren’t having it.

Founder of Sentinl, Kiyani had been developing a gun safety gadget called Identilock for three years. It was a coincidence that his firm became the first smart-gun startup to exhibit at CES right after Obama tasked a trio of federal agencies—the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and the Justice Department—to “conduct or sponsor research into gun safety technology that would reduce the frequency of accidental discharge or unauthorized use of firearms.”

“I’m also a survivor of a gunshot, so I understand what it is to go through the trauma and handicap.”

Kiyani sighed. Not letting him bring his product, a fingerprint-reading biometric trigger lock that can attach to a variety of firearms and render them inoperable for everyone but a predetermined set of users, was, he told the Daily Dot, “kind of like not letting Google bring its autonomous car to demonstrate autonomous driving.”

Kiyani’s innovation, which officially went on sale this week, arrives at an auspicious moment in the long, tortured history of smart guns. It’s a moment when, after decades of false starts, missed opportunities, and a shocking number of threats made against the people attempting to bring smart guns to market, new technology could actually make guns safer.

Tragedy in numbers

“I’m a gun owner, and I have young kids. That was a main driver,” Kiyani said of developing Identilock. “I’m also a survivor of a gunshot, so I understand what it is to go through the trauma and handicap. I feel I have … an obligation to take forward my idea.”

Kiyani declined to go into the details of having been shot in the face, but he told CNN in an interview last year that it happened when he was a teenager, and that he still struggles with the trauma.

Developed with a grant from the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, a Silicon Valley gun-safety organization founded by the politically influential Republican billionaire venture capitalist Ron Conway, Identilock isn’t technically a smart gun, nor does it alter the mechanism of any firearm. Instead, it’s a device that clamps onto a gun’s trigger area to prevent unauthorized firing. It has a button capable of scanning fingerprints, just like newer versions of the iPhone. When the lock comes into contact with a fingerprint it recognizes, the entire device literally falls off.

Sentinl’s initial focus is producing devices that can fit handguns, but versions that can be affixed to shotguns and rifles are in the works. The goal is have Identilock devices that can fit on to virtually every firearm on the market.

“The way it works is that user can set up three different profiles [for each locking device]. Up to three prints could be programmed under each profile,” Kiyani said. “For example, you and your spouse are under one profile. You kid is under a second profile. The reason we did that was that teen suicide is a huge issue. If you see that you child is going through some stress, you can remove him temporarily without modifying or changing your or your wife’s access.”

Suicide prevention, especially among youth, is one of the primary goals of smart-gun advocates. An analysis conducted by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Heath found that, when it comes to suicide attempts, the likelihood of fatality is strongly dependent on method the victim employs. Only 2 percent of people who try to take their own lives with poison or an intentional overdose are successful. With cutting or piercing, the number is a mere 1 percent. Falls and suffocation have significantly higher mortality rates—31 and 69 percent respectively. Firearms, however, were fatal in 85 percent of the cases studied.

The researchers noted that suicide is typically an extremely impulsive act. One in four respondents of a study of survivors of suicide attempts said the amount of time that lapsed between when they first decided to kill themselves and the actual act was less than five minutes. Nine out of 10 waited less than a day.

“Gun ownership, I believe, is about vigilance and responsibility.”

There are myriad ways for parents to secure guns without the need for high-tech gizmos—a locked gun cabinet with an inaccessible key, for example—but smart-gun technology, especially when it’s built right into the weapon itself, may be among the strongest options.

Ted Alcorn—research director at Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group co-founded by billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg—said smart-gun technology “gives the victim a second chance…[when suicide] is genuinely a cry for help.” 

“Suicide is an incredibly impulsive act,” Alcorn told the Daily Dot. “It often is something people undertake in a period of crisis, and getting through that period can save their life. If they have access to a gun, they usually don’t get the chance to get through it.”

Smart guns can also be effective in preventing accidental shootings involving children. Alcorn notes that, according to a tally kept by Everytown, there were at least 267 incidents in the U.S. last year where a child’s access to a firearm resulted in injury or death. While that number is relatively small in a country where, in 2012, over 100,000 people were killed or injured by guns, properly securing firearms could have prevented much of this harm, argues Alcorn.

Smart guns could prevent harm when in the hands of adults as well. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1.4 million firearms were stolen between 2005 and 2010—that’s over 230,000 each year. If every one of those weapons could only be unlocked with a fingerprint or a special ring or bracelet that had be worn by the user, none could be used in crimes or sold on the black market.

These benefits seem self-evident. But smart weapons are hardly a panacea. Critics of the push toward smart weapons make a number of very persuasive claims as to why the technology should be approached with a healthy skepticism.

The case against smart guns

In a 2014 article, Forbes contributor Joseph Steinberg outlined a number of the potential issues with smart guns. Like all electronic devices, smart guns require electricity to function. If a gun owner lets the battery run down while it sits in a drawer for months or years, the weapon could be effectively useless to defend against a home invasion. And technical problems with gadgetry can be difficult to fix, especially in fast-moving, stressful situations. 

“Trained users can often unjam a semi-automatic in a matter of seconds,” Steinberg writes, “but even experts cannot normally hard-reboot a malfunctioning piece of electronics that fast … [F]ingerprint readers and other forms of biometric analyzers are prone to error when people sweat profusely, shake, or are bloodied.”

Kiyani waved off many of those concerns. “Gun ownership, I believe, is about vigilance and responsibility,” he said. “If you don’t clean your gun after firing hundreds of rounds, it won’t fire. You need to regularly clean it. That takes a responsibility. That takes vigilance. If you take that same kind of vigilance, and every time you clean your gun, you charged the device, you should not have any problems.”

He adds that Identilock also comes with a mechanical backup—a standard, old-fashioned key—that can unlock the device if the biometric scanner breaks or is improperly configured.

In years past, proponents of smart-gun technology have said the only thing standing in their way is the NRA, though the gun-rights organization says on its website that it has “never has opposed new technological developments in firearms.”

National Rifle Association spokesman Lars Dalseide reiterated to the Daily Dot many of the same concerns laid out by Steinberg, but he insisted the nation’s preeminent Second Amendment advocacy group isn’t inherently hostile to smart guns. 

“Our stance when it comes to smart guns is that we’re all for letting the marketplace decide one way or another whether they want to adopt it,” he said. “If somebody has a good product out there, they’re going to start making some waves, and people are going to get interested, and the market will eventually accept and adopt it. The only problem we’ve ever had with anything related to smart guns is when they’ve been mandating use of it one way or the other.”

For smart-gun advocates, the chance that technology could curb gun violence, gun thefts, and injuries from guns seems like a no-brainer. For many gun owners, however, smart guns spark a fear that “dumb” guns could soon become illegal—a concern that carries precedent.

This fear is hard to overstate; just ask all of the people who have attempted to sell the next-generation firearms.

The dangerous politics of smart guns

In 1996, Stephen Teret, founder of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy and Research, led an effort to draft model legislation for how state legislatures could usher the country into the smart gun era. The following year, lawmakers in New Jersey used Teret’s work to craft the Childproof Handgun Act, which went on the books the following year.

The bill was supposed to pave the way for smart guns to become the dominant form of firearm in the country. Instead, it’s widely credited as a one of the main impediments blocking progress on smart gun technology for nearly the past two decades.

“They were subject to severe threats to their personal safety, which is kind of unthinkable in a nation of laws.”

The legislation mandated that as soon as a smart gun went on the market in the United States, as certified by New Jersey’s attorney general, the clock would start ticking on all gun sellers in the state. Three years from that moment, New Jersey firearms dealers would be prohibited from selling any guns lacking some form of high-tech personalization.

Gun rights advocates were not enthused. They resented the mandate, and the rule poisoned the well for the entire concept of smart guns. “We don’t want the government forcing this down on consumers,” Robert Farago, the publisher of the Truth About Guns blog, told Bloomberg Business in May. “[Smart guns aren’t] about saving lives. … It’s about controlling gun owners to disarm them. People who want to disarm gun owners want to create a safer society … but the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

As a result, attempts to sell smart guns in the U.S. have provoked an instant and visceral backlash from pro-gun activists worried the sale will trigger the New Jersey mandate.

In 2014, a pair of American firearms dealers announced they intended to begin selling the iP1, a smart pistol manufactured by Germany-based Armatix. Andy Raymond, the co-owner of one of those retailers, told 60 Minutes he was deluged with angry phone calls and emails within minutes.

“We got about 2,000 phone calls and maybe about the same [number of] emails … just in one day,” Raymond recalled, listing a bevy of threats to kill him and destroy his business. “It was insane. I mean, one person threatened to burn down the shop; another person threatened that I would be raped.”

Raymond spent that night inside his storefront in Maryland, guarding it against any threats. A video he recorded of himself during the ordeal, bottle of whiskey by his side, went viral. At first, Raymond was unrepentant. “How can the NRA or people want to prohibit a gun when we’re supposed to be pro-gun?” he asked in the video. “We’re supposed to say that any gun is good, in the right person’s hands. How can they say that a gun should be prohibited? How hypocritical is that?”

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Raymond eventually backed down. Selling a smart gun wasn’t worth the risk, he decided. The harassment campaign did precisely what it had intended.

Something similar happened the previous year when the Oak Tree Gun Club near Los Angeles tried selling the iP1. Not only did the club give up on selling the smart gun after a public outcry, but a U.S.-based representative of the manufacturer was stalked and harassed after news of the club’s intent to sell the gun went viral. Her personal phone number was posted on a online forum for gun enthusiasts, and someone sent her pictures of the address where she had a post office box.

Effectively denied access to the world’s largest market for firearms, Armatix, which is the world’s leading smart gun manufacturer, declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year.

Kiyani’s product isn’t a smart gun—instead, it adds new technology to traditional firearms—so he says he hasn’t experienced any of the harassment that has affected others trying to enter the market.

“I don’t have a smart gun, so I haven’t really faced that kind of resistance,” Kiyani said. “My focus is gun safety, nothing else.”

No major U.S. firearms manufacturer has attempted to produce smart guns since Smith & Wesson, working with the Clinton administration in the 1990s, made a concerted push in the area. The gun lobby united in a boycott against the company for appearing to capitulate to the agenda of gun control advocates. The boycott hit Smith & Wesson’s bottom line, and the company soon abandoned the project.

“You get a real indication of why the market isn’t working efficiently,” said Alcorn. “There were actors that wanted to sell a smart gun. There were dealers that repeatedly attempted to sell a smart gun. There is only way to describe the reason they didn’t, which is coercion. They were subject to severe threats to their personal safety, which is kind of unthinkable in a nation of laws. … Why invest in research and technology if you’re not going to be able to get it to a buyer?”

Late last year, New Jersey finally moved to eliminate the roadblocks its lawmakers had inadvertently put along the road to smart guns. A bill passed by the state senate in December replaced the long-standing smart-gun mandate with one considerably more flexible. A smart gun going on sale anywhere in the country still triggers a three-year countdown; however, instead of saying that retailers can only sell smart guns, the new rules requires they sell at least one.

“They were subject to severe threats to their personal safety, which is kind of unthinkable in a nation of laws.”

The goal of the amended rule is to give gun buyers the option of purchasing a smart gun every time they go into a shop. “We’re glad [New Jersey] is scaling it back,” the NRA’s Dalseide said. The NRA still testified against the bill, because it required some kind of specific action on the part of the firearms industry. “If you mandate that people buy this particular gun, that’s when we have a problem with it.”

The bill is still currently working its way through the state legislature.

While there have been some other scattered efforts to mandate smart guns—for example, a bill introduced by Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey (D) would expand rules similar to the old New Jersey system nationwide—none has gained any traction. The NRA’s call to let the market decide seems to be the prevailing argument.

Obama’s recent push to have federal agencies look into smart guns appears to be an effort to put a thumb on the scale of public demand. As Alcorn notes, the federal government buys tens of thousands of firearms every year. If the government indicates it wants a lot of those guns to be smart, it would undoubtedly spur manufacturers into action.

There’s a chance the country has turned a corner on smart guns. Even without the federal government, the public’s demand for smart guns is significant. A poll conducted last year by the communications firm Penn Schoen Berland found that not only did just over two-thirds of Americans believe gun dealers should be able to sell smart guns, but 40 percent of current gun owners would consider swapping their firearms for smart guns. For younger gun owners, those between the ages of 18 and 44, that number rises to over half.

For entrepreneurs like Kiyani, this is a reason to hope.

Illustration by Max Fleishman

Aaron Sankin

Aaron Sankin

Aaron Sankin is a former Senior Staff Writer at the Daily Dot who covered the intersection of politics, technology, online privacy, Twitter bots, and the role of dank memes in popular culture. He lives in Seattle, Washington. He joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2016.