Investor Ron Conway. (Photo: Brian Ach/Getty Images)

Silicon Valley’s Bigwigs Might Be Creating the Future of Gun Safety

The tech community is famous for disruptive innovation, and it could be coming to firearms.
Sep 19, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Patricia Dao is a regular contributor to TakePart. She is a Los Angeles–based serial tech entrepreneur and managing director of the nonprofit Girls in Tech–LA.

From Uber and Lyft to PayPal, Silicon Valley is well known as a hotbed of disruptive technology and ideas. Now some of the tech industry’s geniuses—and the investors who bring their concepts to life—are hoping to shake up an area that’s become a focus of social and cultural debate: gun safety.

The movement to bring a tech spin to gun safety is being led by Ron Conway, one of Silicon Valley’s renowned tech investors and gun safety advocates. Conway and his colleagues have launched the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation to support entrepreneurs in their endeavors to create inventions that can increase safety in the U.S. and reduce gun violence.

“We need the iPhone of guns,” Conway told The Washington Post, noting that the latest iPhones can be unlocked quickly with a fingerprint.

The need for such a product is there. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, almost 1.7 million children live in a home with an unlocked and loaded gun, resulting in accidental injuries and death.

“The entrepreneur who does this right could be the Mark Zuckerberg of guns,” said Conway. “Then the venture capitalists like me will dive in, give them capital, and we will build a multibillion-dollar gun company that makes safe, smart guns."

The first effort launched by Conway’s foundation is the Smart Tech Fire Challenge. The competition encourages the innovation of solutions around mental health, firearms, big data, and community safety. Examples range from biometric-access firearms, crisis-response telecoms, optimized police-patrol routes, and programs that address mental health.

That doesn’t mean the foundation is against the right to keep and bear arms (one of its goals is to preserve the Second Amendment), but it does mean it’s looking for innovative ways to promote firearms safety. It’s granting and distributing $1 million across the top 15 out of 200 innovators who submitted ideas and inventions to the challenge.

Seventeen-year-old Boulder, Colo., high school student Kai Kloepfer is one of the top 15. Kloepfer was granted $50,000 to pursue the development of his biometric electrical mechanical firearm safety project, which incorporates a fingerprint sensor that can be used to lock or unlock firearms based on the fingerprints of the owner.

Kloepfer has reported a 99.995 percent success rate in identifying the authorized user and aims to increase gun safety by preventing children and other unauthorized users from using the weapon. He hasn't integrated his fingerprint technology with a live firearm, so he has yet to see it unlock a real gun. But the young inventor intends to use portions of his grant to do just that.

With Sandy Hook and the University of California, Santa Barbara, school shootings at the forefront of gun safety debates, smart gun technology isn’t a new concept. Various safety and smart gun technologies have been developed and tested, and attempts to sell the products in the U.S. have been made. One such product, the Armatix iP1, is a smart gun that can only fire if it’s at least 10 inches away from a security watch worn by the shooter.

Gun stores in California and Maryland that announced they would sell the smart gun faced immediate backlash and threats from gun rights activists. Some firearm advocates see these guns as a harbinger of tougher gun laws and restrictions. Others have heavily criticized the technology. They claim it could have bugs and result in slow reaction times right when a user needs to fire a gun for protection.

The heated debates and negative public reaction to smart guns coming to market have affected participants in the Smart Tech Fire Challenge. Although the top 15 winners have been selected, only Kloepfer has been announced; other winners are hesitant to expose themselves to the public.

Whether you’re pro- or anti-gun, the need to increase gun safety can’t be denied. Conway believes the souped-up firearms are an inevitability. “You let the free enterprise system take over,” he told The Washington Post. “Just like everyone opted into the iPhone and abandoned the flip phone and BlackBerry, consumers will vote with their feet. We want gun owners to feel like they are dinosaurs if they aren’t using smart guns.”