DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—Jonathan Mossberg is among a small number of pioneers looking to build a safer gun. But unlike many others, he was in the gun business when he started down that path.
His family is renowned for its premier line of shotguns treasured by law enforcement, hunters and the military. Mossberg already has spent more than a decade working to develop—and someday bring to the market—a firearm that the wrong person cannot fire. It is intended to work without fail in the hands of its owner in a life-or-death situation.
“We’re gun people, so we know when you pick up a gun you want to shoot it,” Mossberg said. “You don’t want to swipe your finger. You don’t want to talk to it. In an emergency situation, you want to pick it up and use it.”
Mossberg’s iGun Technology Corp., based in Daytona Beach, Florida, relies on a simple piece of jewelry—a ring—that “talks” to a circuit board embedded in a firearm to let it know the user is authorized. The ring must be within centimeters of the gun for the gun to fire.
The road to a safer gun has been long. Initial efforts encountered a public wary of the technology, but that has eased as iPhones, tablets and other smart devices have become common.
Mossberg isn’t the only one attempting to bring a bit of James Bond to firearms.
Others are exploring biometrics, like an iPhone lock that opens with your fingerprint. Some rely on radio-frequency identification, or RFID, technology, proximity sensors similar to the system Mossberg’s company uses. Some use watches to send a signal to the firearm.
They’ve had varying degrees of success, but none has been broadly marketed so far.
On Friday, Obama announced new steps to curb gun violence, including by identifying the requirements “smart guns” would have to meet for law enforcement agencies to buy and use them.
“As long as we’ve got the technology to prevent a criminal from stealing and using your smartphone, then we should be able to prevent the wrong person from pulling a trigger on a gun,” Obama said on Friday.
The departments of Justice and Homeland Security said in a report Friday that they expect to complete the work of identifying the smart-gun requirements by October.
“The technologies are a reality now,” said Stephen Teret, a professor of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who studies gun violence and gun policies. “There are obstacles still in getting those technologies into guns and getting guns into the civilian marketplace.”
Among them is cost. Modernizing gun manufacturing would mean higher prices for smart weapons.
Then there’s politics. The industry is concerned that success with the technology would encourage the government to mandate it.
And the powerful gun lobby raises red flags about reliability. What happens if the firearm isn’t syncing with the radio signal or the fingerprint isn’t recognized? In a crisis, seconds are precious.
“If you need it to protect yourself and it doesn’t work, that’s a bad outcome,” said Larry Keane, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents manufacturers. “Reliability is everything … If your iPhone doesn’t work, you’re inconvenienced. You’re not dead.”
Mossberg’s interest in smart-gun technology stemmed from a rise in police being killed with their own service weapons in the 1990s. Law enforcement didn’t embrace the idea, preferring to use holsters that made it more difficult for a suspect to disarm an officer.
He switched gears and began developing a firearm for civilians, only to find resistance there, too. Many people in the focus groups he conducted around the country told him they wanted nothing to do with a gun that contained a circuit board.
But as personalized technology won greater acceptance—and after mass shootings in Columbine, Colorado; Newtown, Connecticut, and other places seized public attention—opposition faded.
Mossberg said the shotgun his company is developing has been tested more than 3,000 times with no failures. The next challenge: shrinking the circuit board so it fits into a handgun.
From New to Old, Some of the Gun Safety Features Over Time
Daytona Beach, Florida-based iGun Technology Corp. has been developing a “smart gun,” a firearm that uses a ring with a chip in it to send a signal to a circuit board embedded in the firearm so that only an authorized user can fire the gun.
But this isn’t the only technology that exists or is being developed.
A look at other efforts to build a “smart gun” and earlier efforts at making firearms safer:
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)
Armatix GmbH of Unterfoehring, Germany, has developed a handgun that uses a watch that sends signals to the handgun. The iP1 is a .22-caliber pistol that carries a 10-round magazine. The accompanying watch must be within 10 inches of the handgun for it to fire.
At least two gun dealers in the United States made it available to customers in 2014—one in California, another in Maryland. Both ceased soon after amid an outcry among gun-rights advocates. One concern is a New Jersey law that mandates that within three years of a smart gun being commercially available, only those types of guns could be bought and sold in the state.
The cost also is considerably more than a standard handgun, which can generally run around $450. Instead, the iP1 costs more than $1,300 and the buyer also has to purchase the watch separately for an additional several hundred dollars.
Among those exploring the use of biometrics—similar to what is used to unlock some iPhones—is a teenager from Colorado. Kai Kloepfer received a grant from the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation to develop the technology, which would fire the handgun only when it recognized a finger placed on the grip.
Kloepfer was partly inspired by the shooting at a theater in Aurora, Colorado, in July 2012, which is about an hour from his home in Boulder. He has since founded Aegen Technologies, a startup company devoted to developing firearms using biometrics and other smart-gun technologies.
He will be attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall after taking a year off after high school to spend more time developing his technology.
What Other Safety Mechanisms Exist?
Efforts to make guns safer with technology are not new.
Many firearms include “trigger guards,” the casing that loops under the trigger, and a “safety” switch that, when engaged, prevents the gun from firing, for example.
In the 1880s, Smith & Wesson made a revolver it called “child-proof.” It had what is known as a grip safety that must be squeezed at the same time the trigger is pulled for the gun to discharge. The company stopped making firearms with that feature in the 1940s.
Other companies still use a grip safety, including the iGun Technology shotgun that also includes a programmable ring that sends a signal to the firearm to discharge. Springfield Armory produces a line of handguns with a grip safety, including the XD Compact model. It was involved in an accidental shooting in March. Authorities said a 4-year-old boy in Florida was in the back seat when he shot his mother, who was driving, with the .45-caliber handgun.
What the Gun Lobby Says
The gun lobby is wary of the smart-gun technologies and questions their reliability.
In a crisis, the gun owner needs to have confidence that it’s a reliable weapon of defense—that it works and works instantaneously.
“There’s no way to practice for the batteries going dead or just when it doesn’t recognize your print,” said Erich Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America. “You don’t want to be messing with buttons. … The bad guy in your home isn’t going to have to boot up his weapon.”
While the gun lobby has reservations about the reliability of the technology, it contends it is not opposed to people looking to develop a smart gun. It is concerned that if a smart gun were successfully brought to market, it would propel the government to then mandate that all firearms have that technology.
“We, the industry, are not opposed to R&D and development of this technology. We’re only opposed to mandates,” said Larry Keane, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents manufacturers. “Not everybody wants or needs that feature.”