A 19-Year-Old Just Built the First Fingerprint-Reading Smart Gun

Interesting article from the Wall Street Journal (Oct 28, 2016) Shootindoors neither endorses or rejects the opinions expressed in this article–we just thought you’d like to know what the possible future of firearms development may look like.


By Geoffrey A. Fowler
Updated Oct. 28, 2016 5:28 p.m. ET

You don’t typically see guns at San Francisco tech confabs. The city itself saw its last gun store close in 2015. But on a sunny February morning, a ballroom at the Palace Hotel is filled with an unusual mix of engineers, veteran police officers, dot-com investors and gunsmiths. Some of them—mostly cops—are visibly packing.

We’re gathered for the 2016 International San Francisco Smart Gun Symposium, billed as a response to President Obama’s January remarks on gun safety. After citing gun accident statistics, Obama asked: “If we can set it up so you can’t unlock your phone unless you’ve got the right fingerprint, why can’t we do the same thing for our guns?” It’s a question Ron Conway, a co-sponsor of the symposium, is eager to answer. Conway is one of tech’s most influential angel investors, known for his early-stage backing of Google, Facebook and Airbnb. In recent years he has become San Francisco’s agitator in chief, fighting limits on short-term rentals, assembling an immigration-reform lobbying group and financing mayor Ed Lee’s campaign. Today’s cause: his Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, which is spending $1.5 million to spur development of firearm safety tech. Conway takes to the podium to announce he has found a solution: the 18-year-old sitting near him, smiling politely but confidently in his well-tailored suit. His name is Kai Kloepfer and he’s from Colorado, a state that’s had more than its share of mass shootings. “He is the Mark Zuckerberg of guns,” Conway tells the room. Kloepfer has spent the past four years designing a handgun with a fingerprint reader built into the grip, and he deferred his acceptance to MIT after winning a grant from the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation in 2014. His startup, Biofire, is just a few months from a live-firing prototype, which, assuming it works, will be the first gun to unlock like an iPhone. “Congratulations,” Conway says to Kloepfer. “You are going to save America. You are going to save lives. The gun companies won’t tell you, but the tech industry will.”

WHAT YOU THINK ABOUT SMART GUNS DEPENDS MOSTLY ON how much faith you place in new technology. Conway’s faith is more or less absolute. As a longtime funder of fast-moving, disruptive startups, he’s frustrated by gun violence and what he sees as the industry’s nonresponse. “They don’t seem motivated to innovate,” he says. “If the gun companies don’t want to do it, we have young innovators who want to do it and are capable.” His foundation has backed 15 firearm-safety tech inventors, including Kloepfer, who stands out for his age.

Conway is quick to point out that he has spotted young tech talent before. “I invested in Napster when Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker were 19 years old,” he says. “I worked with Mark Zuckerberg when he was 19 years old. These great founders have an air about them, and Kai completely reflects that.”

He is correct that the firearms establishment does not share his enthusiasm for smart guns. The National Rifle Association does not officially oppose what it calls “user-authorized technology,” but it would be a stretch to say the group is an advocate. “Failed attempts to develop and market ‘smart guns’ have been going on for years,” says NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen. “NRA does not oppose new technological developments in firearms; however, we are opposed to government mandates that require the use of expensive, unreliable features, such as grips that would read your fingerprints before the gun will fire.”

Larry Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group for gun makers, believes the market should decide the fate of smart guns. But the offerings to date have left him unimpressed. “No one has solved the technology challenges to make the smart gun work as reliably as existing technology,” he says. When your iPhone misreads your fingerprint, it’s a momentary setback. Not so with a handgun, Keane says. “If you’re using it for self-defense and it doesn’t work, you’re not inconvenienced. You’re dead.”

His assessment of smart-gun technology to date is hard to argue with. In 1999, Colt produced a prototype called the Z40, a pistol that could be unlocked and fired only by a user wearing a radio-frequency wristband. But later that year, the gun infamously failed to fire in a demo for the Wall Street Journal, and Colt scrapped the project. Smith & Wesson shut down its smart-gun development after a boycott in 2001. The Armatix iP1, a .22-caliber pistol, came to market in 2014 with a price tag of $1,800, about six times the cost of a comparable “dumb” model. The unlocking process—which involved a wristband and a pin code—took 12 seconds. An NRA publication called the gun “disappointing at best, and alarming at worst.” The model lasted just about a week on shelves after the only two stores willing to stock it received threats.

These false starts have complicated smart-gun politics. In 2002, New Jersey passed the Childproof Handgun Law, which mandated that all handguns sold in the state be smart guns—once the technology was approved by the state’s attorney general. Gun rights activists, fearing new designs would bring the law into effect, threatened boycotts to discourage research by gun manufacturers. Thus a law intended to promote smart guns became a boogeyman holding them back.

The cultural divide between Silicon Valley and the gun industry is understandable; a century of engineering separates a handgun from your smartphone. But technology could offer some much-needed common ground on the issue of gun safety. The Smart Tech Challenges Foundation says that improperly secured guns are responsible for about 20,000 youth suicides, unintentional gun injuries and deaths each year—a number that effective technology could reduce. Smart guns could help good gun owners be better gun owners without legal mandates or restrictions on access to firearms. Like seatbelts, which took decades to gain acceptance and dramatically reduce auto deaths, new safety tech will not be adopted overnight. The political and technological challenges are considerable. But adapting biometric technology for firearms isn’t nearly as challenging as, say, making cars that can pilot themselves through a rainstorm. And big leaps in tech don’t usually come from insiders.

KAI KLOEPFER DIDN’T GROW UP SURROUNDED BY GUNS; the only shooting experience he can recall from his childhood is a few rounds of skeet on a family vacation. Kloepfer grew up building circuit boards and writing software. When he was 11, he made a blimp out of mylar sheets and parts from radio-controlled airplanes—a kind of homemade drone. He was a rising sophomore at Boulder’s Fairview High School when, shortly after midnight on July 20, 2012, James Holmes walked into the Century 16 multiplex in Aurora, Colorado, and shot 82 people, killing 12. Aurora is just 35 miles from Boulder, where Kloepfer still lives with his parents. The massacre made Kloepfer wonder if guns could be made safer. One month later, he did what any precocious 15-year-old engineer would do: He turned his interest into a science project. As he studied mass shootings, he realized that ID tech wouldn’t prevent another Aurora; Holmes, like a majority of mass shooters, had lawfully purchased his arsenal.

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