Who Killed the Smart Gun?

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Mar 23 2017, 5:18pm

It happened in an instant.

Nicholas Naumkin was at a friend's house the evening of December 22, 2010. Middle school had let out for winter break and the two boys were left home alone, playing video games like Halo and Call of Duty and popping off an otherwise harmless Nerf dart gun. But the playdate would take a violent turn in the kitchen, where Nicholas found himself on the wrong end of an actual gun.

The scene played out in a way that's become all-too-familiar in American households: The 9mm semi-automatic pistol belonged to the father of Andrew*, Nicholas' playmate. It had been stored in an unsecured dresser drawer and at some point was loaded with an eight-round clip, according to police testimony. Andrew removed the gun from the drawer and came into the kitchen to show Nicholas. There was a round in the chamber when suddenly, the gun fired. The bullet hit Nicholas in the eye.

Andrew called 911 sometime after his friend collapsed to the floor. First responders found Nicholas in a pool of his own blood, before a team of paramedics rushed him by ambulance to the Albany Medical Center Hospital. In the United States, 98 children aged 17 and younger were accidentally killed by guns in 2010. Nicholas Naumkin was one of them. He was 12.

*

Oxsana Naumkin, Nicholas' mother, will never understand why the gun that killed the eldest of her two sons hadn't been securely stored. Oxsana and her husband, Yuri, have never owned firearms but always assumed those who did would keep their guns locked up, especially around kids.

"To me, it's a no-brainer," said Oxsana, who choked back tears during an interview at the Naumkin house near Saratoga Springs, New York. "We never thought to ask."

Nicholas

Nicholas. Photo: Naumkin family

Oxsana is now determined to put a dent in the approximately 33,500 people fatally shot on average in America every year. In 2015, the most recent year for which there is reliable data, the majority of US firearm fatalities were homicides (12,979) and suicides (22,018), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accidental or unintentional gun deaths accounted for far fewer (489) of the total gun deaths.

But if Oxsana can save one kid's life, she will have done her duty in her grief, she said. She's been vocal in her support of stricter gun control laws since the day Nicholas died and also champions a potential technological failsafe against unauthorized firearm use, in the form of a gun that only fires in the hands of an approved user. Such user-authenticated, personalized, or "childproof" firearms, better known as smart guns, have been in development for decades. Current iterations employ one of two recognition mechanisms: a magnetic or radio frequency identification proximity device like a ring or a bracelet, or a biometric like a fingerprint reader. If you're not wearing the ring, or if your fingerprint isn't coded to the grip sensor, the gun will remain disabled.

It's a technological innovation that's not gone unnoticed at the highest levels of government in a country defined by its gun culture as much as anything. (The national gun stock today accounts for anywhere between 260 to 300 million firearms, with some estimates approaching one gun for every person in the US, according to the Congressional Research Service.) In early 2016, then-President Obama endorsed smart guns, prompting the Department of Justice to issue official guidelines for developing smart guns.

"If we can set it up so you can't unlock your phone unless you got the right fingerprint," Obama told reporters, "why can't we do the same thing for our guns?"

Watch A Smarter Gun in full:

Some smart gun proponents believe the technology could be even more effective than legislation when it comes to averting deaths caused by unauthorized gun use, namely suicides and accidentals. That's why a small, multi generational movement seeks to change the very technology at the heart of firearms, to make a gun that is inoperable to all but the individual (or individuals) registered to use it. They don't see smart guns as a cure-all to gun violence, but believe the technology has potential to help reduce the number of daily gun deaths in the United States, which cumulatively amount to a mass shooting nearly every day of the year.

"Such guns have the potential to reduce morbidity and mortality from firearms," as a group of leading health policy and injury prevention experts wrote last year in the American Journal of Public Health." If household guns were personalized to adult, authorized users only, youths would be unable to use them in suicidal crises, young children would be unable to unintentionally shoot playmates and siblings, and guns stolen from home would not work."

Yet the far-flung players behind the movement to develop and market a viable smart gun face a legacy of opposition from gun advocacy groups like the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearm industry's trade association, and the National Rifle Association, which advocates for personal responsibility and education when it comes to gun safety. In a written statement provided to Motherboard, an NSSF spokesperson said "there are several tried and true means of safeguarding firearms, such as securing them in safes and lockboxes or with the use of cable locks." The spokesperson added that while the gun industry "does not oppose the development and marketing of authorized-user technology equipped firearms, [w]e do oppose government mandates requiring this technology in the marketplace."

That fear is not unfounded. Critics of smart guns often point to the New Jersey Childproof Handgun Law, as a slippery slope of regulation-turned-ban. This bill passed in 2002, and would require all guns sold in the state to be smart guns within three years of the technology first making it to store shelves. The law was intended to spur smart gun development to cut down on accidental killings, but it had the opposite effect. It sent a chill across the gun industry and gun owners who assumed once one state goes all-in on smart guns, so the rest of the country would go.

To this day smart guns struggle to gain any traction in the consumer marketplace. People victimized by gun violence like Oxsana are left wondering, why are smart guns at least not an option? Looking back, she can't help but think how December 22, 2010, would've transpired if only it were a smarter gun in Andrew's hands that day. Would Nicholas still be alive?

It's a question at the heart of A Smarter Gun, Motherboard's new feature-length documentary. Filmed over the course of roughly two years, A Smarter Gun features interviews with advocates and critics of smart gun technology. The film tells the story of what happens when we try marrying an analog mechanical technology with electromagnetic or digital security tokens, and why integrating the two is such a deep point of contention in a world where seemingly everything, from teddy bears to refrigerators to cars has gone high-tech—except firearms.

We found ourselves on a journey to find a smart gun—and then the election happened.

*

The mood was low-key giddy inside Frazier's Pawn Shop last November 9, the day after the 2016 US Presidential election. Frazier's is part of a constellation of gun-friendly pawn shops in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle region. A Trump-Pence "Make America Great Again" sign hung in a storefront window.

It would've been a much different vibe that morning had it gone the other way, according to Bill Hoffman, who runs Frazier's gun counter. Traditional handguns and sporting rifles make up most of his inventory here, though he does carry a small line of tactical assault rifles. In a place where "people get guns before they get milk," as one customer put it, there wasn't the panicked run on guns and ammunition Hoffman, a licensed dealer who's been reselling firearms in pawn shops for around seven years, figured he would've woken up to if Hillary Clinton, a supporter of gun control, had won.

Hoffman said he sees the same phenomenon at play in the wake of a Sandy Hook or an Orlando, or any other mass shooting in recent memory that triggered gun and ammo buying sprees in the belief that a liberal president or lawmakers will exploit tragedies to implement harsh firearms bans. Better stock up before it's too late, the thinking goes.

"All the technology does is hamper the person trying to use the gun"

Firearm sales have in fact dropped nationwide since the election, as the gun industry hits a "Trump slump". But when we spoke to Hoffman he didn't appear worried about Trump. The billionaire and former reality TV figure ran a pro Second Amendment campaign, was endorsed by the NRA, and has never so much as mentioned smart guns publicly, unlike Clinton and her husband before her, who've both expressed support of smart gun development initiatives. Hoffman would hope Trump doesn't come to harbor any techno-optimism when it comes to making firearms safer.

"All the technology does is hamper the person trying to use the gun," Hoffman said. "It's nice for Star Wars and certain movies, but in reality it's not feasible."

Say you misplace the watch or ring or wristband that needs to be worn to activate the firearm. Or your hands are sweating and the grip sensor can't recognize your fingerprint. Hoffman would argue an extra layer of high-tech whatever will only be a barrier to using a gun in the moment it's needed most.

"That gun does you no good whatsoever," said Hoffman, who thinks there is no point in trying to push more advanced firearm technologies because he believes regular old guns are just fine the way they are. He personally owns at least 25 of them. The day we met, he was carrying two SIG Sauer handguns at the waist. He wasn't the first person we'd spoken to either at the ground-level of the legal gun business whose criticism of smart gun technology took root in a decidedly if-it-isn't-broke-don't-fix-it approach to firearm innovation.

Take Michael Timlin, who runs RT Smoke & Gun Shop and firing range in Mount Vernon, New York. When we visited Timlin in 2015, he said he fears a future in which the government tries to make smart gun technology mandatory. Like Hoffman, Timlin stands by the time-tested simplicity of the modern firearm and is wary, aghast even, at the idea of curbing gun violence with high-tech solutions.

"There is no such thing as a smart gun," said Timlin, who told us he hadn't seen any consumer demand for user-authenticated firearms. "We cannot put a device or anything on a firearm that would allow it to become smarter. What's been wrong with the way it's been?"

Rack

Inside the vault. Photo by the author

As it turns out, the government maintains an archive of "the way it has been" just a short drive from Frazier's. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms National Firearm Reference Vault, in Martinsburg, West Virginia, houses just about every gun imaginable—some 19,000 items from around the world.

It's one of the biggest collections of its kind—a cramped, meticulously-itemized cache that smells like an oaken antique store and serves as a sort of roll call of firearm evolution, which has circumvented an era of breakneck disruption. Guns, including models like the 9mm semi-automatic pistol that killed Nicholas, remain virtually untouched by the electronic and digital revolutions. 

The fundamental internal workings of the firearm as we know it today—be it bolt-action, semi-auto, or full-auto—haven't changed much over the last century: A user pulls a trigger, causing a mechanical firing pin to strike a primer, which creates an explosive chemical reaction that forces a projectile—cannon ball, rocket, bullet, whatever—out of the gun's barrel, toward its target.

Montage

GIF by Rachel Pick

That basic design holds true despite the sheer diversity of guns out there, according to Earl Griffith, chief of the ATF's Firearms and Ammunition Technology Division. Historically, most gun innovation has been cosmetic, or defiantly low-tech. Stand in a room full of canons, RPGs, World War II-era machine guns, AKs, ARs, Glocks, 3D-printed liberators, something Griffith called a "street sweeper," 1911s, all manner of low-tech deadly innovations—pen guns, a Penguin (umbrella) gun, even a briefcase gun—and literally thousands more firearms and it's not hard to see just how little gun tech has evolved.

What you won't find in the ATF library, however, is a single smart gun. At least not yet, according to Griffith.

The path to market for smart guns has been a long one that's repeatedly hit a dead end. In fact, a pair of pioneering American gun manufacturers coordinated with the US government to design a smart gun, and it almost sunk both companies.

In 1997, Colt, a firearms company that's been around since the Civil War and helped popularize the revolver, announced it was prototyping a user-authenticated gun. The news led to major blowback from Colt's loyal customer base, triggering a grassroots boycott. After months of criticism, Colt abruptly pulled the plug on the project in attempt to recover the company's reputation.

Then, in 2001, gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson faced a number of municipal and federal lawsuits over gun violence, so the company cut a deal with the Clinton Administration. Like Colt, Smith & Wesson immediately faced tremendous opposition. An ensuing boycott turned the company into a gun industry pariah. Smith & Wesson faced a multi million-dollar drop in value that year, and was forced to lay off 15 percent of its workforce before an eventual sale. Needless to say, Smith & Wesson's smart gun didn't make it out of the lab either.

"Some critics out there would say we have the technology and it would work, but I'll tell you we don't think the technology is there yet," Griffith said. "It's going to take industry or independent people out there to want to perfect this technology," but if history is any indication "if you build it, someone will buy it."

Then again, Griffith smirked, early gun designers just "got it right."

Earl

Earl in the ATF shooting range with a Thompson submachine gun. Photo: Lara Heintz

To show me what he meant by that, Griffith loaded up a spread of firearms and asked me if I was ready to go shooting.

In a low-slung test firing range across the hall from the vault I fired a M4 semi-automatic shotgun, a vintage Thompson submachine gun ("Tommy Gun"), a Glock handgun, and a state-of-the-art HK416, a fine-tuned AR platform considered the pinnacle of traditional gun innovation. The HK416 is standard armament for US Special Forces and holds worldwide popularity as the gun that supposedly killed Osama bin Laden.

I had a chance to chat with the man who designed that very gun, the reclusive Austrian firearm designer Ernst Mauch. He is perhaps best known for his work designing the HK416, but could also be called a godfather of the smart gun. After leaving H&K (Heckler & Koch) in 2005, Mauch joined Armatix, where he helped develop the iP1, its signature smart gun—the first and only smart gun ever brought to market. But when it launched, the response was less than positive. And when the iP1 was first sold in the US, the reaction was even more severe.

Mauch left Armatix in 2015 citing a difference of opinion with the company CEO. But he's still working toward a smart gun future. When we met him in Washington, DC, he was looking for partners to help with his decades-long quest to build and popularize the perfect smart gun. Now in the twilight of his career, Mauch granted Motherboard a rare on-camera interview that spanned his time in the gun industry and what he thinks society stands to lose if smart guns aren't ever fully realized.

The short answer: "thousands and thousands more lives," including kids. Smart gun technology is available, Mauch said, but implementing it at scale will be a long haul. "It will take time," he said. "I will not give up."

Mauch

Mauch talks during an interview on July 11, 2014, at the headquarters of Armatix in Unterfoehring, near Munich, Germany. Photo: Sebastian Widmann for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, freshman wunderkind Kai Kloepfer runs a biosecure smart gun startup out of his dorm room. Originally from Boulder, Colorado, Kloepfer was so moved by the Aurora theatre shooting that he decided to design a prototype smart gun for his school science fair. He was 15.

After some preliminary R&D, Kloepfer pivoted from mass shootings to suicides and accidental killings, which he believes are use cases that lend themselves more readily to an engineering solution. But every smart gun he's seen has fallen short, particularly Mauch's iP1. The iP1 required the owner to wear a watch with keys for typing a code in order for the gun to fire. Plus, it only fired a .22 caliber bullet, what Kloepfer calls a "Boy Scout round."

He thought he could do better, so he's created a handgun that unlocks like an iPhone with a matching fingerprint. He recently test fired his prototype for the first time.

If a smarter gun needs fresh blood to see it through, Kloepfer, now 19, certainly has no shortage of optimism. He said he thinks we'll see smart guns prevalent in the next decade.

Others in the smart gun movement have come to a more cynical outlook. Amal Graafstra is a renowned biohacker living outside Seattle. Amal has been working with RFIDs and has been a prominent fixture in the body implant scene since the mid 2000s. He's not your typical gun guy. Sometime last year, he got an idea: Could he make a gun that was almost seamlessly part of his body? The world's first implant-activated smart gun was born.

Amal

Amal, his biohacked smart gun, and a syringe. Photo: Lara Heintz

Amal said he plans to update his prototype until it suits his standards of reliability, but he holds no illusions about scaling up the tech for a wider market. In any case, it was ready for an initial first test fire. The world's first biohacked smart gun shot was a success. Until Amal ran into an unforeseen problem, when the gun locked up.  

We didn't run into that problem with Jonathan Mossberg, scion of American gun manufacturer O.F. Mossberg & Sons and owner of iGun Technologies. Mossberg has patented a personalized shotgun that only fires when a user wears a special magnetic tag in the form of a ring. He let me test fire the gun—at Michael Timlin's shooting range, of all places—and, well, it worked. Just don't call it a smart gun.

"It's an iGun," Mossberg said. "There's multiple technologies out there and we want to make sure we don't all get lumped in together."

Is the murkiness of terms preventing the smart gun from coming to reality, or is it that we just haven't seen the tech work yet?

If there was a constant in our talks with people working to disrupt the largely static order of gun innovation, it's that they all have different working definitions for what a "smart gun" even is, what it should be used for, and what types of technology should be integrated. Is the murkiness of terms preventing the smart gun from coming to reality, or is it that we just haven't seen the tech work yet?

Either way, researchers like David Hemenway and Deborah Azrael, who take a data-driven approach to studying gun violence at the Harvard School of Public Health, would argue smart guns could do more to cut down on unauthorized gun use than trying to change human behavior.

"Changing technology is typically the way to reduce injury and violence," said Hemenway. He gave the analogy of airbags in cars: Only after decades of pressure did automakers finally adopt airbags, resulting in marked decreases in vehicular fatalities. "Typically it's much more cost effective to change the product than to try to educate every person," Hemenway added. "People make mistakes all the time, and often behave badly."

Yet according to gun dealers like Michael Timlin, technology can't and shouldn't be used to try and make guns safer. The problem that needs to be corrected—if it can even be corrected—he said, is irresponsible parenting.

"Here come the smart gun people, trying to fix that problem," he said. "Fix what? Stupidity? You can't fix stupidity."

*

Oxsana and Yuri were brought into the ICU to see their son around 2AM the day after the accident. Nicholas' doctors told his parents there was no activity in his brain, so they took him off life support. Now it was time to say goodbye.

Oxsana clutched Nicholas, putting an ear to his chest so she could listen to his heart. With each successive beat she wondered which one might be the last. His breathing stopped after 29 agonizing minutes.

"It was torture," Oxsana said.

The immense and inescapable grief Oxsana carries over losing Nicholas to gun violence is palpable. On a visit to the cemetery where her son is buried, a short drive from the Naumkin house, I could sense something else nagging at his mother too.

"The guilt is overwhelming," Oxsana admitted, standing in the bitter cold and hardened snow at the foot of Nicholas' grave, etched with an excerpt of a poem he'd wrote about his love of playing video games. "Why am I here, and he's not?"

Seven years on, Oxsana has become the driving force behind a bill known as Nicholas' Law, requiring the safe storage of firearms in the state of New York. But smart guns would be a logical choice for anyone with a family who wishes to own a firearm for protection, she said.

"This wouldn't prevent you from protecting your family but it would prevent accidental deaths of children, who are very curious," Oxsana said. "They're going to find this thing no matter what."

"This technology exists," she added. "It could definitely save someone's life in your house."

How could she not think it could've saved her son too?

"This technology exists. It could definitely save someone's life in your house."

The memory of that day will always haunt Oxsana. She is still figuring out how to live her own life in the wake of such tragedy. She describes it as "a new type of existence," a void of trauma, anger, and confusion that only the parent of a child accidentally shot and killed by an unsecured firearm could possibly fathom.

The realization that Nicholas is gone still knocks the wind out of Oxsana most days. But before it does, before she rolls out of bed and goes about her life, Oxsana says she feels content—if only for a moment. In these gauzy instants, her waking mind seemingly has not yet reached the conscious state that inevitably triggers the nightmare of December 22, 2010. It's almost like that nightmare never happened.

These are fleeting moments. Reality always crashes down, obliterating any feeling of contentedness.

"It never leaves," Oxsana said. "You just kind of learn how to live with it."

Investigators later found the round that hit Nicholas in the head lodged in the wall behind the stove in the kitchen. On the stovetop they noted the bullet exit hole in the black hat Nicholas had been wearing. The gun itself was found back where it started, in the dresser drawer. Officials found it with a half-dozen rounds in the clip and one still in the chamber. It was cocked and ready to fire.

*Name changed to protect identity of a minor.

With additional reporting by Lara Heintz and Chris O'Coin.

Listen to a special episode of Motherboard's pluspluspodcast for more discussion on smart guns and what's keeping them off the market.