Will This Smart Gun Solve America’s Gun Problem?

A trio of Brooklyn engineering students think they’ve figured out how to make firearms safe. But will it work?

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

More than five years ago, on the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, in the quiet Connecticut enclave of Newtown, Adam Lanza killed his mother, Nancy, and stole her Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle. He then traveled a few minutes over to his childhood alma mater, Sandy Hook Elementary School. Lanza used his mother’s rifle to shoot through the school’s glass door and subsequently murder 20 children and six adults before killing himself.

The Sandy Hook shootings unleashed a debate that, five years after the tragic mass shooting, continues about gun control in America. Since then, the country has experienced more mass shootings, now memorialized by their locales: Orlando, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs. Gun control has bifurcated the nation’s politics, torn apart families, and created a raging debate about the right to own guns guaranteed by the Constitution’s Second Amendment.

But what if guns were safe? What if they came with a biometric lock that prevented a person who didn’t own that gun from using it? What if Adam Lanza hadn’t been able to use his mother’s Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle? Would 26 innocent people still be alive?

In August 2016, Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams announced a smart gun design competition to create what he referred to as a “safer gun.” Adams, who retired from the New York Police Department after serving for 22 years, told The Daily Beast that the development of a smart gun is a potential compromise between gun rights and gun control activists.

“I think that the problem is that people use [the phrase] ‘gun control,’ but actually, it’s guns out of control,” he said. “Oftentimes when we think of illegal guns, we think of a person who goes out and commits a crime. But the crime that was committed was using a gun they weren’t authorized to use.”

It might seem like an oxymoron to describe a gun that is technologically superior to a “normal” gun as “safer,” but Adams is insistent that a smart gun might be the way to quash a significant portion of gun-related deaths, which he said are primarily from stolen guns.

“We use smartphones for everything,” Adams pointed out to illustrate how easily a smart technology can be adopted. “The only thing we haven’t applied technology to is handguns.”

To be sure, the concept of a “smart” gun has been around for a few years and is not new. Efforts have been under way for a few years but have never really bubbled up to viability; Motherboard went so far as to call the pursuit dead last year.

Adams wasn’t deterred, though. His goal in launching a smart gun design competition was to encourage innovators to think critically and creatively beyond what had already been invented in the smart gun space, which often included clunky toy gun lookalikes and biometric operations (fingerprint scanning, for example). Adams hoped that the competition would encourage a creative, unique approach that would appease gun owners looking to keep their guns safe yet quickly usable.

The team that emerged victorious in the competition—after several months of tinkering on a design that ultimately failed—was a trio of scrappy students at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. It was surprising, given their competition: professional laboratories, defense systems researchers, and more.

But what perhaps helped the students’ design to stand out from the rest was their relative lack of experience, both with shooting guns and with designing smart guns.

The students—Sy Cohen, Ashwin Raj Kumar, and Jonathan Ng—were guided by adjunct professor Anthony Clarke. Cohen originally fielded the idea as a sort of senior project, asking Clarke if he would advise his work and turning to Raj Kumar—Clarke’s former teaching assistant—for advice initially, then help.

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The team first went along the straightforward-seeming plan of re-engineering a gun, studying up on semiautomatic pistols—the most commonly used in American households—to see if they could somehow change the components to make it “smart.”

“But we kept failing,” Cohen told The Daily Beast. “Guns today are built so efficiently and mechanically tight that if you change one thing, you change everything.”

Clarke added that it was important to the team to maintain the initial weight distribution of the gun, something gun owners were particular about regarding their firearm. “Anything we added to the gun would hamper that,” Clarke said, which made tinkering with the components that much more difficult.

The team—who couldn’t test their ideas on a real gun during this phase of the process—used computer-aided design to toy with various ideas: Maybe they could attach a biometric card in the holster, or rejigger the intestines of the gun to make room for an RFID card. But none of these ideas seemed to work, and they hit a dead end. “Nothing fit in the gun,” Cohen recalled.

Frustrated, the team traveled to a shooting range in nearby New Jersey—a first for the three team members, none of whom had ever shot a gun before. But the experience of shooting—holding a gun and feeling the cold metal, the kickback from the shot, the strangely delicate structure of something so deadly—clicked something in the team members’ minds.

Cohen recalled looking at Raj Kumar and feeling as if they had the exact same idea at the same time: It wasn’t about re-jiggering the gun’s anatomy. They had to make an accessory to the gun, something that was not permanent but could be taken off when being used, then re-attached when not.

Clarke said the genius of the system—unlike any other smart gun that has been made available thus far—is that there is a two-step hierarchy involved in unlocking the gun, ensuring that only the user can access the gun. Unlocking a gun kicks off with a fingerprint scanner. If the fingerprint scanner succeeds in identifying the fingerprint of the person, the user can access step two: checking to see if you’re in range. A radio frequency identification (RFID) tag is on the user’s person within a short distance, and the holster checks to see if the tag is in range. “It’s similar to keyless car entry,” Clarke said, explaining the RFID tag.

If the two match up—fingerprint and RFID tag—to the person, the accessory unlocks and the gun becomes usable. If, however, something doesn’t work in the processing—the fingerprint is too smudgy or sweaty, the user forgets to use their RFID tag, Clarke said some backup measures were in place. A voice-activated command will disable the gun’s safety features and unlock the holster but require the user to get a brand new set.

And if you’re not authorized to use the smart gun voice activation backup plan? Well, you’re out of luck.

That’s the best, probably most valuable part of this smart gun: Not only does it attach to a gun but it also makes the gun unusable to anyone but the person who is supposed to use it.

It’s what appealed the team’s design to Brooklyn borough president Adams, and it’s what he thinks could solve the problem of guns being stolen from officers—an incredibly common issue, he told The Daily Beast—to be used subsequently in crimes. “When I was a rookie, someone broke into my apartment [and stole my gun],” he said. “Cops lose their guns. It’s hard to trace them when you’re dealing with a city like New York City and you have 30,000 police officers.”

To a certain extent, Adams and the team may be right: There is hope that a smart gun could help solve America’s gun problem, and manufacturers are jumping on the “smart” bandwagon with enthusiasm.

Most of the time, the “smartness” of the guns comes from the fact that using the weapon requires some sort of identification that verifies the authorization of the user. iGun Technology, based in Daytona Beach, Florida, has been designing one since at least May 2016, with a firearm that embeds a chip within a ring to send a signal to a circuit board within the gun that authorizes a user. German company Armatix GmbH has created a gun that relies on a watch with an RFID to be within 10 inches of the gun for its use.

But smart guns remain a novelty, for more than a few reasons. First, making a gun “smarter” requires technological work that makes it, by definition, a more expensive purchase. Second, guns with added accessories make for a bulkier product, rendering them less desirable—an issue Cohen and his team tried to deal with in creating their smart gun, which uses embedded technology.

The problem with smart guns isn’t that they are trying to be safer. Indeed, that’s a noble aspect that is desperately needed in America right now, as the body count of gunshot victims rises. Preventing people from using firearms they aren’t supposed to be able to use—whether that is from stealing it, or accessing a family member’s gun trove for suicide or murder, intentional or accidental—will unquestionably be useful in making guns safer.

But smart guns won’t solve America’s sadly unique gun violence epidemic. Most American mass shooters had access to use their own firearm. And smart guns won’t stop a mentally ill person from being able to use their own gun, or a person determined to use a gun to find a way to use one.

We’re also not even sure if smart guns can work. Julia Wolfson, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health who has studied gun violence prevention policies, said the data simply do not exist to argue that smart guns can save lives.

“Precisely quantifying the number of lives potentially saved by smart guns is not possible at this time since smart guns have not yet been introduced to the market. The ‘experiment’ has yet to run,” she told The Daily Beast. “However, evidence examining the circumstances of gun deaths and injuries suggests that smart guns would be helpful in preventing deaths and injuries resulting from unintentional shootings, and gun violence using stolen guns”—exactly what the NYU team is hoping for.

It’s a promising start to curbing gun violence, particularly among children, who can tragically come upon guns and accidentally use them, thinking they’re a toy. Wolfson also said smart guns could viably cut down on suicides, “particularly among adolescents who find a parent’s or other family member’s gun. If a depressed teen were to find a gun equipped with smart technology, it wouldn’t fire for them.

“Given rising rates of teen depression, this could be very important in coming years.”

But smart guns are still not capable of ending mass shootings. Even without research, Wolfson said smart guns were not a solution: “In the case of shooters who use guns that belong to them, no, smart guns would not stop the shooter,” she noted. But “in cases where shooters are using a stolen gun, smart guns would not fire for the unauthorized user and would present one additional barrier to that person being able to carry out the act.”

The team members are hoping to release their smart gun sometime this year. They’ve already applied for a patent; upon approval in several months, Cohen, Raj Kumar, and Ng hope to found a company that will put this technology out in the market. It’s a prospect the team is excited about and thinks can bridge what might seem like a stark divide between gun rights activists and their anti-gun opponents.

“The NRA doesn’t oppose the development of ‘smart’ guns, nor the ability of Americans to voluntarily acquire them,” Clarke said. “The NRA opposes any law prohibiting Americans from acquiring or possessing firearms that don’t possess ‘smart’ gun technology. As a gun owner, I should be able to go into a licensed dealer and purchase a smart gun. This is all about safety and providing consumers with options.”

Wolfson, for her part, said smart guns are a promising first step toward slashing gun death rates in America. “Though mass shootings do receive substantial attention, it is the everyday gun violence—including suicides and unintentional injuries, particularly among children—for which smart guns are most likely to be helpful.

“Hundreds of thousands of guns are stolen every year. If those were all smart guns, they would be useless once stolen.”