I Went to a Smart Gun Symposium and There Were No Guns Allowed

Industry players met in Seattle this week to talk about why no one has sold a smart gun in America.

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Jan 30 2015, 7:00pm

This screencap from the Sentinl site shows the ease of use and American-home friendliness of their product.

I walked into the Seattle International Gun Symposium expecting some type of gun science fair, accompanied with a pitch on why I needed a smart gun immediately. Not quite: firearms were not even permitted in the venue.

The gathering, co-sponsored by the the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) and Washington Ceasefire, a nonprofit decided to reducing gun violence, was described as "the first event of its kind to bring together smart gun manufacturers, technology leaders, gun lovers, and law enforcement in an effort to explore the future of this technology."

Ceasefire president Ralph Fascitelli, set the scene, noting that the 9,000 deaths per year occur involving a gun fired by someone other than the gun owner. That's where smart guns come in.

Before one can understand the legal and PR noise around smart guns, it's important to understand what a smart gun is.

The term "smart gun" is trademarked by the company Mossberg

According to the WTIA, the term "smart gun" is trademarked by the company Mossberg. In 1999, Mossberg created a prototype smart gun, which involved a shotgun and a ring that that user would wear. This prototype never hit the market, possibly because gun owners are not known to accessorize.

Despite the trademark, a "smart gun" today typically refers to any firearm that requires some type of authentication that only allows the user to fire the gun. As we've mentioned, once, twice, and thrice before, the technology already exists. But the market has yet to take off due to a resistance in the gun owner community that sees it as a second-amendment infringement and unreliable technology.

Three smart gun-related technology companies were represented in the press conference. Each company represented a different approach to the smart gun market.

Integration: Allied Biometrix, fronted by CEO Alan Boinus, is "a California startup that Boinus describes as "a gun company as well as tech company" that is licensing the commercial rights to firearms user-authentication technology developed at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). Allied Biometrix would license the technology necessary to integrate user authentication into new gun models. Boinus appreciates that this market must be approached with caution, stating he would rather be "last to market and get it right" as a first-mover "can't afford a 404 error code."

Retrofit: TriggerSmart was co-founded by Robert McNamara, who flew in from Ireland. His solution calls for the use of RFID chips to create "childproof guns." By placing an RFID reader in the handle of an existing gun, and pairing with a ring with an RFID chip (similar in concept to the original smart gun), the gun will not fire unless the ring is in close proximity to the handle. McNamara notes if "TriggerSmart could partner with a gun manufacturer, I could go to market in a year."

The technology is described on the TriggerSmart website: RFID childproof guns work in real-time, are reliable, low cost, require low power and the technology will easily fit inside the handle of a gun. The second part of the system is the ability to create safe zones in certain areas such as schools where smart guns coming into the area will be disabled remotely.

This last sentence may provide fodder for gun-rights advocates. One can imagine them saying the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a dumb gun, is a good guy with a dumb gun. McNamara makes a sensible claim for gun safety, appealing to gun enthusiasts. "We all like our sports, shooting might not be your sport. I like horse racing, jockeys wear helmets."

Accessory: Sentinl, represented by by founder Omer Kiyani, shows perhaps the most realistic step into the smart gun market. He is also the only person at the press conference who has been shot, or at least discloses this information. Kiyani calmly mentions he was shot in the mouth as a child before going into his background: an engineer and IT specialist who is now a parent and gun owner trying to curb gun violence. Sentinl, based out of Detroit, Michigan, sells IDENTILOCK, a fingerprint-based gun lock that prevents access to the trigger without the owner unlocking it. Kiyani is quick to note that smart gun locks exist, but they are large and cumbersome.

Kiyani also identifies a barrier that I hadn't yet heard: "Any [venture capital investors] look for a success story in the past, and there is none for gun safety." Kiyani noted that with proper funding, his product could be sold (directly to consumers) by end of 2015.

Smartgun state of affairs

The CEO of the WTIA, Michael Schutzler, likened smart gun technology to "a rearview camera or airbag," in the way they are enhancements made to the original product to make it safer. Perhaps, in the future, we will look upon a gun that lacks user authentication technology as "antique" and maybe even "illegal," he said. If smart gun technology is as effective as advertised, then there's an opportunity cost by not going to market that can be measured not only in dollars, but in lives.

In 2002, New Jersey passed a law called the Childproof Handgun Law, a measure so progressive that it disrupted the status quo before a product was even on the market. The law outlaws the sale of any handgun in New Jersey unless it is made with smart gun technology and "can only be fired by an authorized or recognized user." This law has a trigger clause: it will take effect three years after a smart gun can be purchased for retail purposes anywhere in the United States, which hasn't happened yet.

When it comes to implementing smart gun technology, a common refrain is to "let the market decide." Since no smart guns have managed to make it to market, this hasn't been tested yet. If we could only demonstrate the real market demand for these products, the industry would move forward, Alan Bionus, CEO of Allied Biometrix, said at the conference.

"It is not about hostile gun people and the gun industry," Bionus said. "These are business people, they just don't want to see unreliable products on the market."

I reached out to Rick Patterson, Managing Director of the Sporting Arms and and Ammunition Manufacturers' Institute, Inc. (SAAMI) for another perspective. SAAMI, as Patterson describes, was created in 1926 at the request of the US government to create safety, reliability, and interchangeability standards for firearms and ammunition.

Patterson emphasizes that "the SAAMI organization is neither in favor of, nor opposed to, user recognition technology." But they do have several concerns with the user recognition technology that go beyond whether or not the technology is mature enough for implementation.

Safety and reliability are the biggest barriers to adoption, Patterson said. "A safe product is one that, when the user follows the prescribed sequence of actions, does exactly what it's supposed to do—reliably, consistently, and predictably," he told me. In other words, when you press the trigger, it fires—and doesn't crash while it's attempting to verify your fingerprint.

Smart gun technology must be immune to the following factors submitted on a firearm: environmental exposures (extreme cold, for example), solvents (used to clean the gun), and most importantly, he noted, power supply.

"Firearms equipped with user recognition technology promise a product that will always go 'bang' when it's supposed to, and never go 'bang' when it's not," he said. "However, when the battery fails, the system must either default to a locked mode, or default to a firing mode… To that end, any mandate to require consumers to purchase a product that doesn't always do what it's supposed to is the antithesis of product safety [and] reliability."

Smart guns can either become an option in the marketplace, or if other states follow in New Jersey's footsteps, a mandated requirement. And depending on who you ask, the largest barrier to entry may be legislation, the market's aversion to the technology, or the technology itself.

Encouraging to smart gun proponents, people are becoming more receptive to the idea of owning a smart gun. The research presented at the symposium by research firm Penn Schoen Berland shows 40 percent of gun owners would swap their current gun for a smart gun, but only a third of gun owners thinking all guns sold should incorporate the technology.

"What happens if we put computer chips in all these guns and Obama pushes a button and all these guns go down?"

If anyone is going to be truly successful in this market, it appears they still need to answer the question from critics: "What happens if we put computer chips in all these guns and Obama pushes a button and all these guns go down?"

The symposium highlighted some of the technologies behind smart guns. While it was meant to be a platform for a neutral debate of smart guns, it seemed to lean on the side of proponents. And when the event is co-sponsored by a tech association and a gun violence reduction organization, that makes sense.

The obstacles were clearly highlighted: a need to gain trust in the dealers, to carry the guns, and customers, to buy them. Then there need to be improvements on the actual technology itself. Before you can disrupt an industry with your product, you need to have a product that is superior, whether that's perceived or real. When that product is a (perceived) feature-limiting pistol, and that industry is the gun industry, that is going to take time. Sentinl founder Omer Kiyani appreciated the current scenario but insisted that he "keep progressing."

"If I'm successful, I'll save lives. Not many startups can say that."