Is There Such a Thing as a Safe Gun?

Not really.

Flames exit the barrel of a gun as a man fires a Sig P320 at a Utah gun range in December 2015. (George Frey / Reuters)

There’s that old line, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” How absurd is that? Of course guns kill people. Killing is what guns do. And they do it really, really well.

Plenty of people, however, are skilled at keeping guns around, and using them, without killing anyone. But that doesn’t mean the guns themselves are safe. Gun-safety technology has barely improved over the decades, even as many firearms have become more powerful.

“Handgun designs have been the same for the last 100 years,” said Timmy Oh, the co-founder of Dual:Lock, a startup that’s making a fingerprint-authentication system for firearms. “So in that sense, there hasn’t been much safety technology integrated, and everything is still very mechanical. In terms of the design of firearms itself, it’s something that has been designed to be a weapon.”

Oh is one of many entrepreneurs working on improving gun safety at a time when officials are increasingly calling for technological progress in this realm. In a speech at the White House earlier this month, President Barack Obama announced he’s directing the departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security to conduct or sponsor research into what it would take to make guns harder to use without authorization, and less likely to fire accidentally.

“If we can set it up so you can’t unlock your phone unless you’ve got the right fingerprint, why can’t we do the same thing for our guns?” Obama said. "If a child can’t open a bottle of aspirin, we should make sure that they can’t pull a trigger on a gun. Right?”

The technology Obama described seems possible, certainly, but it isn’t necessarily straightforward. That’s for a few reasons. For one thing, gun owners often want their weapons to be instantly accessible and usable. That’s why so many people choose not to store their firearms in safes. According to one American Journal of Public Health study, there is at least one unlocked firearm in 43 percent of homes with guns and children in them in the United States; and 9 percent of homes have guns that were kept unlocked and loaded.

The system Dual:Lock built attempts to solve this safety problem with an external safe that essentially keeps the gun locked in its holster until the authenticated user reaches for it. “The thumb aligns perfectly on the sensor, so that movement of grabbing the gun unlocks it,” Oh told me.

Making guns personalized so that they only work for approved users is a major theme in gun-safety technology today, but not everyone agrees that fingerprint sensors are the way to go. “A biometric solution is a great solution for someone who is not in inclement weather, or someone whose hands aren’t going to be dirty,” said Margot Hirsch, the president of the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, which offers grants to individuals working on gun safety. “So then you’ve got RFID, which uses radio frequencies, and only allows the firearm to discharge when the gun owner places a corresponding token—like a ring or a bracelet—in very close proximity to the trigger.”

Authentication that uses RFID, short for radio-frequency identification, might be better for law enforcement or a hunter, for example. “Or someone perhaps a little more recreational,” Hirsch said, “Because you can still wear a glove. Your hands can get dirty or wet.”

Among those advocating for improvements to gun-safety technology, the biggest challenge may be getting people to buy the guns equipped with them. One buzzed-about smart-gun company, Armatix, has had a difficult time gaining traction. Its handgun, which used an RFID authenticator linked to a wristwatch, was the first firearm of its kind to reach the market. Armatix went through a bankruptcy-like restructuring last spring, after many people criticized the relatively high price of its guns. A review by America’s 1st Freedom, a publication run by the NRA, called Armatix’s smart weapon “sleek” but unreliable and ultimately “disappointing.” The review also raised questions about remote hacking, an aspect of personalized authentication that is likely to continue to come up.

“Some guys sniggered that [Armatix’s] .22 was for shooting squirrels,” said Robert McNamara, the founder of TriggerSmart, another company building a weapon authenticator. “The purists of the gun world would’ve considered it a peashooter. As is often the case, the pioneers make mistakes and the next wave of people who come along benefit from that.”

McNamara may be one of them. TriggerSmart is developing its own RFID-enabled gun, one that he hopes—like many of the people developing advanced gun-safety technologies—will appeal to law enforcement. That’s one strategy for wider adoption: If gun enthusiasts see police officers and members of the military using a certain weapon, they’re more likely to buy the same thing. “Police officers, they don’t have time to swipe their fingers in a crisis situation,” McNamara told me. “Half the cops in America are going around wearing gloves, anyway. With RFID, as soon as they pick up the gun, it works ... as fast as I can draw the weapon, the weapon is active and ready to fire.”

That’s the idea, anyway. TriggerSmart is still testing its product, a painstaking process, and one that McNamara estimates will take a couple more years. “Because they’re such serious weapons,” he said. “We need to go and test technology rigorously in extreme conditions—in the desert in Africa and in the snow up in Alaska—to make sure that they perform perfectly well.”

Then there are the cultural and political hurdles to overcome. In the United States, especially, guns are part of the cultural identity and inextricable from politics. “It’s quite possible this thing might happen overseas before it ever happens in America. It could be Australia or England or somewhere, where they might develop smart guns first,” McNamara said. In America, anything related to gun regulations—and, by extension, improving gun safety—is so contentious that it may take longer for smart guns to gain acceptance.

“Nobody’s trying to take away guns,” McNamara said. “This is just offering another kind of gun. There’s thousands of types of guns. This is just another one. I don’t think, in any stretch of the imagination, that there’s anything in the president’s announcement that we’re taking away anybody’s guns. But of course there’s the fear-mongering. Paranoid fantasies.”

Hirsch, at the San Francisco-based Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, is more optimistic. But she also, when I asked about how realistic it is to expect smart guns to become widely accepted in the U.S., chose her words very, very carefully.

“We believe that the market demand will drive the gun manufacturers to want to take advantage of this opportunity to provide safer firearms for their customers,” Hirsch said. “I believe smart guns will take time to see broad adoption, but the momentum is building.”

Will Murphy, a Florida detective who’s developing a fingerprint authenticator called Gun Guardian, is more frank: “For a current firearms manufacture to convert equipment over to start producing smart guns is going to be extremely expensive,” he told me. “It’s my opinion that they won’t convert until they see a large demand by the consumer.” (Murphy, for his part, says safe guns already exist: “All firearms are safe when used properly and responsibly,” he said.)

In the United States alone, there are some 350 million firearms—or, as The Washington Post recently pointed out, more guns than people. “The majority of gun owners are responsible,” Hirsch said. “I don’t know if guns are any more lethal than they used to be. The problem is they’re falling into the wrong hands.”

That’s true. People do kill people, just like guns-rights advocates like to say, but they wouldn’t always be able to without guns.

“It’s in their inherent nature that firearms disseminate violence really quickly,” said Oh, the Dual:Lock co-founder. “Just the simplicity, pulling the trigger. It’s not something like a construction machine, where if you make a mistake you might lose a hand. You’re playing on a much higher level when talking about safety.”

This article is part of our With Great Power project, which is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation.