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Can White House, tech startups overcome gun lobby resistance to 'smart guns'?

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Despite fierce resistance from groups such as the National Rifle Association – and safety and privacy concerns about the technology – many gun owners appear open to technology the Obama administration and many tech entrepreneurs say will reduce firearm deaths. 

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    An Armatix employee holds a smart gun manufactured by the company. The gun is implanted with an electronic chip that allows it to be fired only if the shooter is wearing a watch that communicates with it through a radio signal.
    Michael Dalder/Reuters
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As an engineer who has worked to ensure the safety of power plants and improve the performance of automotive airbags, Omer Kiyani has been drawn to jobs where he can help save lives.

So after the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in December 2012 sparked a nationwide debate over gun control and safety, Mr. Kiyani knew his engineering skills could make a difference. 

A lifelong gun owner and member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), Kiyani felt that additional gun control wasn't the answer to curbing firearm violence but that technology could help saving lives.  

After Sandy Hook, he said, "I felt that was one time when, as an NRA member, I was painted with the same brush as every gun owner, as a bad person. I felt like I needed to do something."

Since then, Kiyani has joined a new generation of researchers and entrepreneurs who are developing so-called "smart gun" technology that aims to prevent the use of weapons by unauthorized users.

While some are hailing smart guns and similar technology as part of the solution to gun violence, others complain the technology is a backdoor to further gun control. Furthermore, many critics and researchers have demonstrated defects in smart gun technology that raise concerns over reliability and security.

The Obama administration added fuel to the smart gun debate last week. A joint report released by the Justice Department, Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security details the administration's efforts to jumpstart smart gun research and to create a market for the weapons among law enforcement.

According to a summary of the report, the government will complete a set of guidelines by October that set minimum standards that smart guns will need to meet in order to be adopted by law enforcement. It will also lay the groundwork for a smart gun pilot program.

That's welcome news to Kiyani and other smart gun developers. After leaving his job as an engineer working on airbags, he founded a company called Sentinl to develop a biometric lock that fits over the trigger of a handgun. 

The Identilock, as it’s called, prevents anyone besides the user from firing the weapon, Kiyani said, keeping it safe from thieves or curious children. Even with Identilock, he said, gun owners should be able to unlock the weapon and use it within a second. He hopes the product will be in stores within the year.

Turbulent history 

Smart gun technology has been around for decades but has struggled to gain adoption among gun owners or police departments. Authorized firearm dealers in the US currently do not sell individualized weapons that only the owners can fire.

In 1996, the Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories published the results of a two-year study with the Justice Department on the feasibility of using smart gun technology to prevent "take-away" killings in which a law enforcement officer is shot with their own weapon.

"It may take a generation of smart gun systems to come and go before a smart gun is not only common but is favored over a nonsmart gun," the report concluded, prophetically. "To accomplish this goal a great deal of time and resources will have to be expended to optimize the technologies for the smart gun application."

Over the next decade, the Justice Department poured $12.6 million dollars into smart gun research at major American gun manufacturers. Federal grants also went to the New Jersey Institute of Technology and some smaller manufacturers.

But the industry resisted the technology and some gun advocates feared smart guns were an excuse to restrict ownership. So, they decided to boycott companies pursuing smart guns.

"There’s a fear that any introduction of electronics makes a weapon trackable and therefore potentially available for confiscation," said Donald Sebastian, senior vice president for research and development at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

A New Jersey law passed in 2002 threw down the gauntlet. It mandated that New Jersey gun dealers could sell only smart guns three years after registered gun dealers sold the first smart weapons. It was just what critics feared – the technology had become a backdoor to restricting gun ownership.

"The NRA does not oppose smart-gun technology," said Lars Dalseide, a spokesperson for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action. "The NRA opposes the mandated use of smart-gun technology."

Once the New Jersey law passed, smart guns became anathema.

When the firearms company Armatix introduced a smart gun in 2014, gun stores pulled the weapon from its shelves and many stores that did carry it were threatened with violence unless they stopped selling the weapons. 

"There are many viable technologies that can make a contribution to improve gun safety, and the obstacles to getting them to market are political,” said Mr. Sebastian at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Types of smart guns

There are two broad categories of smart guns, according to Sebastian. The first are weapons that can only be fired when they’re near a special ring, wristband, or watch worn by the user. Most of these weapons use radio frequency identification, or RFID.

Proximity guns came to prominence in the 1990s, Sebastian said, after the Sandia Labs report on the large number of law enforcement officers killed with their own weapons. The idea was to create a weapon only the officer could fire. Concerns about the reliability of smart guns, along with improvements in police training and gun safety holsters, made the weapons much less urgent for law enforcement.

While proximity weapons could still prove useful in the military and law enforcement, they don’t meet the needs of many private gun owners, Sebastian said. That’s because many home users want smart guns for keeping weapon out of the hands of children, criminals, or even unstable family members. The ring or wristband that activates the weapon is likely to wind up in a drawer or on a nightstand, according to Sebastian.

"It’s like leaving the key in the front door lock and thinking that’s going to provide you with security because you have a lock," he said.

Biometric weapons and devices are able to limit a weapon's use to only identified users. Biometric devices such as Identilock can fit onto an existing weapon; some weapons have been built from the ground up with biometric identification.

A third type of weapon sometimes lumped in with smart guns uses GPS chips, gyroscopes, and other sensors to record the location and position of the gun. Models produced for law enforcement by the famed Italian manufacturer Beretta and by an American company, Yardarm, track a gun’s location and alert a police command center when it’s been fired. Other models designed for the commercial market take this concept a step further, blocking the gun from firing outside of designated areas, like a shooting range, or inside vulnerable buildings like schools and courthouses.

Hacking smart guns

Another example is the precision-guided firearm developed by Tracking Point. These rifles use high-tech sensors to help even novice shooters aim with precision over long ranges, and they only fire when a shot is precisely aligned. They even included a Wi-Fi connection so users can stream their shot to a tablet or phone.

Last year, husband-and-wife security experts Runa Sandvik and Michael Auger hacked Tracking Point’s TP750 sniper rifle through its built-in Wi-Fi connection. In a demonstration for Wired Magazine, they were able to take control of the rifle’s targeting system remotely and aim it at a different target without the shooter knowing.

Most smart guns don’t have the same vulnerability. The majority aren’t networked in a way that would allow a hacker to access them remotely. And while an attacker could spoof an RFID token or a fingerprint, doing so is much more challenging than picking a mechanical gun lock. Still, some smart guns do use network technology like GPS or Wi-Fi — especially location-based smart guns.

Ms. Sandvik – now director of information security at The New York Times – is quick to point out that connecting a device is never risk-free. "If it's on a network, it can be hacked," she told Passcode in an email.

Growing acceptance

The tide may be turning when it comes to smart guns. In January 2013, President Obama made a review of smart gun technology part of his plan to reduce gun violence. By October 2015, the Department of Justice had announced a technology challenge that will award small cash prizes for smart guns developed by the private sector.

Outside the administration, a group of entrepreneurs and investors founded the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation in January 2014 to provide development funding for innovative gun safety technology. The foundation is currently funding 15 projects in various stages of development, according to its president, Margot Hirsch. 

Omer Kiyani’s Identilock is one of the projects Smart Tech Challenges is funding. Others range from a custom-built shotgun that’s activated by an RFID ring worn by the user to a gun magazine that can tell when a weapon is inside a school or government building and disable it. The inventors range from middle-aged to teen.

"They're people who are passionate about their guns, and they're passionate about these technologies and the ability of these technologies to reduce firearm injuries and save lives," Hirsch said.

Public opinion may even be turning a corner, too. Around 40 percent of gun owners say they would trade their current weapon in for a smart gun, according to a poll released last January by Penn Schoen Berland polling. The same poll found that 66 percent of the general public thinks gun dealers should be allowed to carry smart guns. Of those who agreed, 87 percent are gun owners themselves.

But the most promising news for smart gun advocates could be in the New Jersey Legislature. State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D) has introduced new legislation that would alter the state’s existing smart gun law. It would still require gun dealers to carry smart guns, but it would also allow them to carry other, non-smart weapons. The bill passed New Jersey’s senate in January, and it’s currently pending in the general assembly.

Proponents hope the new bill will be a game-changer, stemming opposition to smart guns from 2nd Amendment advocates and opening the door to new safety technologies. But it could be an uphill battle.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed a similar bill last year by failing to take action on it. Then there are the other, less vocal reasons people oppose new gun technology – concerns that it will be unreliable, or open the door to liability suits, or let the government track their weapons.

“I made an offer to the NRA that if they made a public commitment to not stand in the way of research, development, manufacturing, distribution, and sale of any firearm that is limited by technology to the use of only its owner, that I would move to repeal the mandate,” Ms. Weinberg told Passcode in an e-mail. “I have yet to hear back.”

After the Obama administration's report on its smart gun efforts came out last week, the NRA called it part of the president's "obsession with gun control." The group was especially critical of Mr. Obama for using Department of Defense resources to test smart gun prototypes.

"At a time when we are actively fighting terrorists at home and abroad, this administration would rather focus the military's efforts on the president’s gun control agenda," Jennifer Baker, the NRA’s public affairs director, said in a statement.

But gun reform advocates remain committed to seeing smart gun technology advance and eventually gain acceptance among gun owners. 

There were at least 77 unintentional child shootings in the first four months of 2016 alone, said Shannon Watts, founder of the gun reform advocacy group Moms Demand Action.

"These are tragic numbers and advancing smart gun technology has the potential to help reduce them," she said in a statement. "That’s an investment with returns measured in lives saved."

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