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The technology is here. So-called "smart guns" are being programmed to recognize a gun owner’s identity and lock up if the weapon ends up in the wrong hands. Entrepreneurs and engineers have been developing technology to make safer guns since the early '90s, and by now we've got working prototypes of guns that read fingerprints, hand grips or even sensors embedded under the skin. But after 15 years of innovation, personalized guns still haven't penetrated the marketplace.
Why? Smart guns are caught in the crosshairs of a heated debate over guns, for one thing. Pro-gun groups see it as an attack on Second Amendment rights and, you know, freedom. Anti-gun groups worry that if guns are safer it will inspire more people to buy them. Perhaps more troublesome is that consumer demand just isn't there. “The gun industry has no interest in making smart-guns. There is no incentive for them,” Robert J. Spitzer, a political science professor at SUNY Cortland told the New York Times.
No incentive? What about saving lives?
Some people argue that even if all guns came equipped with the latest personal lock technology, it would only make a tiny dent in gun violence, since the vast majority of gun deaths aren't caused by accidents, but by people firing their legal weapon. Still, the flood of tragic news of senseless preventable violence keeps the smart gun conversation kicking. Interest in the technology saw new life in the wake of Sandy Hook. In response to the tragedy, President Obama called for research into gun safety technology, offering prizes to companies that developed affordable personalized guns. The Sandy Hook Promise Innovation Initiative is also working with Silicon Valley to offer grants for new gun safety technology.
But the problem isn’t coming up with ideas. There are already numerous startups developing biometric technology—sensors that identify fingerprints, hand geometry, eye scans and other biological features to authenticate the owner of a gun a la James Bond's gun in Skyfall that's been coded to his palm print.
The problem is getting anyone to buy them. A group called Safe Gun Technology developed a functioning prototype of biometric fingerprint recognition technology in 2008, and recently tried to crowdfund the money to build a market-ready version. The Indiegogo campaign fell $48,000 short of its fundraising goal.
Robert McNamara, cofounder of TriggerSmart, a startup that uses radio frequency identification (RFID) to match owner and gun, has tried to convince the gun manufacturers to license the product, but none have agreed. If the gun industry won’t budge, it could take a government mandate to get people to buy personalized guns.
Rep. John Tierney of Massachusettes is taking on that fight. He recently proposed a bill that would require personalization technology on all guns purchased. Needless to say, conservatives in Congress aren' lining up to support the legislation.
Short of a mandate, getting smart guns to sell will be up to gun owners’ better angels. Maybe if there's a silver lining to the violence and tragedies coloring the news cycle, it's encouraging public demand for the technology that could prevent them.