Is Biometrics Killing the Smart Gun?

Earlier this year 19 year old engineering wunderkind and MIT freshman Kai Kloepfer was demonstrating his biometric smart gun live on the popular news show CBS This Morning when the firearm malfunctioned in front of a TV audience of millions. This was not the first time the performance of a biometric smart gun has fallen short of its promise and the gun industry bar of 99.99% reliability. Since 1999 a top notch team of designers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology have been working on a smart gun deploying a biometric process called dynamic grip recognition. The process uses 32 separate sensors to measure a gun user’s unique grip. The promising effort was cancelled after 15 years and several million tax dollar funding because the researchers could not prove sufficient reliability.

The biometric approach has long been the darling of many in the smart gun ecosystem ranging from interested Silicon Valley investors (who apparently believe what works for the ubiquitous iPhone should be good enough for a handgun) to leading public health experts and politician. Even Vice President Biden when he publicly came out in favor of smart guns referred to a biometric version. Indeed when either side of the gun debate discusses the pros and cons of smart guns, it seems to be the biometric version they have in mind.

The excitement around smart guns is understandable given both the terrible toll gun violence takes on our country and the less than remote chance of meaningful gun safety legislation in DC. On average about 34,000 Americans die from gun violence and smart guns have the potential to ultimately reduce fatalities by some 25%, or 85,000 lives over a ten year period. Smart guns could eliminate virtually all accidental gun deaths by children, gun injuries caused by the estimated 250,000 guns stolen annually and a good portion of the estimated ten thousand suicides involving a third party firearm.

Yet despite the keen interest and the tremendous desire for an apolitical solution, it is increasingly clear that the pursuit of a sufficiently reliable biometric smart gun is by itself a lost cause, and also runs the risk of dragging with it another less avant-garde but more proven approach. The gun business is a staid and slow moving $12 billion dollar industry dominated by a few old time players along with one more recent upstart. Glock burst on the scene in the late 1980s with a revolutionary new self loading pistol that was initially marketed to law enforcement. For smart guns to ultimately succeed they most likely will have to follow the Glock roadmap. After all if the FBI and NYPD professionals who face life and death situations regularly, adopt and vouch for a smart gun, what gun rights ideologue can convincing argue otherwise.

Law enforcement has several reasons to prefer a smart gun. Having their gun taken away by someone they are apprehending is a major concern of all in law enforcement and indeed almost 50 police officers have been killed with their own gun over the past ten years. Additionally an estimated 10,000 police officers have had their guns lost or stolen over the past five years, so many in fact that the state of California this year made it a criminal offense for police officers not to safely store their firearm. Despite gaining police acceptance of a biometric smart gun will be extremely difficult. Many officers typically wear gloves or get mud, sweat and blood on their hands which prevents a biometric option involving a fingerprint and also raises reliability concerns with the dynamic grip recognition approach..

Thankfully there is a smart gun technology that has been proven and meets not only the 99.99% reliability bar but has been successfully field tested in the cold of Northern Alaska, the humidity of the Panama jungle and the heat and sand of the Arizona desert. Radio frequency identification (RFID) has been around for over thirty years and involves a simple, digital handshake. It’s most prominent proponent Ernst Mauch is a legend in the gun industry and previously was CEO of one of the most respected handgun manufacturers in the world Heckler and Koch. One two star US General who worked side by side with Mr. Mauch has called him a genius. For his part Mr. Mauch has stated he thinks marketing a biometric smart gun would be “a criminal act”

On a macro level several trend arrows seem to be favoring the eventual adoption of smart guns including a new large research study by Johns Hopkins Public Health that shows more 2 out of 5 gun owners expressing purchase interest. Even Alan Gottlieb Founder of the Second Amendment Foundation has publicly stated that he would be the first to buy a smart gun “if they could be proven 101% reliable”.

The main item currently holding up investment in smart guns is a New Jersey law that offended the gun rights group by mandating all guns sold in NJ must be smart guns. But that issue is expected to be resolved by elected officials sometime over the next 12 months. The moment when the New Jersey Mandate is put to bed will be a critical window and perhaps the last moment of truth for smart gun market acceptance. For those of us who truly want to impact this public health tragedy, we can only hope that those in the fields of public health, politics and public safety can come together over an RFID approach that increasingly appears to be our only viable option.

Ralph Fascitelli

President Washington Ceasefire