According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which collects statistics related to the mortality rates of United State Citizens, 33,636 Americans were killed by a firearm in 2013, just slightly less than the number of U.S. citizens killed in a motor vehicle accident that year. More than 20,000 of those deaths were intentionally self-inflicted by a firearm, 505 were caused by an accidental discharge and another 11,000 were attributable to intentional assaults by a person possessing a firearm. The Washington Post has reported data from 2007 which indicates that there are 88.8 guns in America for every 100 citizens; in second place is Yemen, with 54.8 guns per 100 civilians.
Advocates for gun safety in America have, regrettably, been able to find many rallying cries for stronger gun controls in recent years: Aurora, Newtown, Charleston and, most recently, Umpqua. In Washington, however, it has proven very difficult to come up with a regulatory solution, which affects what many people see as a basic American right protected by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
A December 2012 article printed by the Harvard Business Review argued that a $100 billion industry could be spurred by the development of a gun safety industry. Instead of regulations, the article argues that technology to prevent against accidental discharges, and other improper uses, could resonate with gun owners in much the same way that safer cars are more highly valued by car owners who have families. This industry, if it does develop, is certainly still in its most nascent stages. A June 2013 National Institute of Justice research report found that only two firearm safety technologies were in a pre-production phase and no gun safety technologies were being commercialized at that time.
Still, development is underway on a generation of gun safety technology that wouldn’t eliminate every homicide but could prevent even one massacre event, which no one could argue is a bad thing. As with just about every other sector of American technological development, there’s been quite a bit of activity coming from Silicon Valley. Tech investors from that region have joined together to form the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, an organization dedicated to funding gun safety innovations. The San Francisco-based foundation awards funding levels ranging from $10,000 to $100,000 to projects in pursuit of safer firearms. The organization’s Smart Tech Fire Challenge is designed to distribute $1 million in funding to 15 innovative firearms safety projects.
One of the foundation’s $50,000 awards went to Kai Kloepfer of Boulder, CO, who was 18 years of age when awarded the research grant. Kloepfer was selected for his fingerprint scanner integrated into a firearm for preventing unauthorized discharges. The scanner can be programmed for an unlimited number of fingerprints, giving an owner the ability to authorize those they trust to use the weapon while turning the gun into a dud in someone else’s hands.
Another gun safety innovation which utilizes fingerprint scans is being pursued by Safe Gun Technology of Columbus, GA. The fingerprint kits that this company is developing can be retrofitted onto firearms to prevent unauthorized use of the gun. The invention is a fingerprint scanner located along a gun’s natural grip line used to determine the physical characteristics of the person holding the gun. One of the marketing techniques employed by Safe Gun Technology is to remind owners that “It’s your gun. We’re keeping it that way.” The technology is also meant to prevent the use of a stolen firearm; the Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that between 2005 and 2010, an average of 232,400 guns were stolen each year.
Some smart gun technologies which feature elements for a higher degree of safety are coming to us from overseas. Gun stores in California have begun to sell a smart gun known as the iP1, developed by Armatix of Munich, Germany. The Armatix iP1 is a 22 LR calibre, 10-round pistol tested and approved by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). It offers a target response system mode that only allows the gun to fire when a user has it trained on a recognized target. The pistol is also paired with the Armatix iW1 Active RFID Watch, a PIN-activated wristwatch that communicates with the gun to arm it for firing. Without the watch, the trigger cannot be pulled.
A similar radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology is incorporated into smart guns developed by TriggerSmart, a company headquartered in County Limerick, Ireland. The TriggerSmart gun utilizes an RFID tag to keep the gun from firing when it is not in the possession of its authorized user. The company itself markets mainly to women who want to own a childproof gun; TriggerSmart notes that women now account for 40 percent of new gun sales. TriggerSmart’s founder, Robert McNamara, is listed as an inventor on U.S. Patent No. 8127482, entitled Safety Systems for Firearms. Issued in March 2012, the patent protects a firearm enabling and disabling electronic system with a base unit having a transmitter and/or a receiver, a safety device with a transmitter and/or receiver configured to exchange and process wireless command signals sent from the base unit and an actuating circuit for a locking mechanism which is operable to prevent a firearm from firing. The innovation is intended to prevent the misuse of a firearm by anyone other than the authorized user wearing an RFID tag that unlocks the gun.
We’ve come across an intriguing gun safety innovation before here on IPWatchdog in our March profile of smartphone innovations. We uncovered a gun safety technology utilizing a smartphone-enabled locking mechanism and logic device that would prevent a firearm from going off in prohibited areas. The underlying trend for most gun safety developers seems to be this use of a remote device in order to establish the authorization of a person to use a handgun.
Academia is also working to provide at least some of the answers being sought by gun safety advocates. One research project at the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s College of Computing Sciences involves large scale data analytics using pattern recognition approaches to design and develop an electronic handgun disabling mechanism. The technology collects biometric data about a user’s grip to facilitate a dynamic grip recognition algorithm to identify a user and prevent unauthorized use or illegal transfers of a firearm.
American firearm producer Colt’s Manufacturing Company of Hartford, CT, has pursued smart tech for gun safety for decades now, going back at least as far to 1996 when it unveiled a smart gun prototype in Washington, DC. However, the 2013 National Institute of Justice report noted that smart gun development for major American firearm producers, including Colt and Smith & Wesson (NASDAQ:SWHC), had stagnated over the past decade due in large part to technological challenges. With a bigger push for technological development from Silicon Valley and small inventors, however, it’s not inconceivable that the commercialization of gun safety technologies for the American consumer market is soon to come.