While an expansion of background checks grabbed headlines, another executive action may have a more far-reaching impact on the future of gun manufacturing.
Following a years-long effort by the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Justice will lead several U.S. agencies on a smart-gun technology research initiative. Smart-gun technology is nothing new. Prototypes debuted a decade ago, but mass production isn’t likely unless the U.S. government mandates the technology or consumers hike demand in a massive wave.
Smart guns contain technology that prevents weapons from firing in the wrong user’s hands. The basic idea is that these technologies only allow the owner of a gun to unlock it and use it, similar to how smartphones open with a fingerprint or password. Some technologies will allow the gun to fire by being proximate to a watch that triggers a chip inside the gun. While the guns may improve safety dramatically, pushback has occurred. The biggest concern is that technology can fail, and whether the gun sector is one where innovators can truly build a better mousetrap. BB&T analyst Brian Rutterbur doesn’t expect consumers to support smart-gun technology because of concerns about the underlying technology.
“How many times have you tried to put your finger on the reader of a smartphone and it doesn’t work? Now, it’s no big deal for a cell phone. But If you’re trying to use a weapon – and it’s not working, then that’s a problem,” Rutterbur says.
But Margot Hirsch, President of the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, is confident that consumer choice will drive this market and dismisses technological concerns.“It’s important to give consumers an option to purchase a gun with a specific safety feature,” Hirsch says. “In terms of technology failing, these weapons can’t be released unless they are reliable. These safety features are regularly tested. And lost in the debate that traditional guns can fail as well. Anything mechanical can fail. Failure really isn’t an option.”
The Smart Tech Challenges Foundation was founded after Sandy Hook with a goal of boosting innovation in gun safety and user authentication technology. Hirsch also argues that technology has the capacity to solve significant problems and shift the political debate. “We felt there were multiple groups that would benefit from this technology,” she says. “This could be a way to bypass the political gridlock in Washington, make guns safer and save lives.”
Technologies being produced include locking devices, retrofit kits for existing guns and the smart guns that have biometric and RFID chips.
Hirsch argues that these small companies will create intriguing opportunities for investors willing to jump out in front of this technological curve. Not only is there potential for future gun demand, but many of the technologies also have the capacity to make the existing gun supply in the U.S. safer and more reliable. “With 300 million existing guns in America, there are many locking and security devices that could be sold,” she says. “We expect a shift that will [be] comfortable with these technologies. It’s important to note that technology like the biometric gun safe is already being sold by the NRA. That means that the NRA has an interest in these technologies.”
Hirsch argues that smart-gun technology is extremely attractive to homes with small children.
“One in three homes with a child have a gun. Many people with children [want] these types of features. It may not be something for everyone – but this is an issue of consumer choice. For early adopters of technology and people with families.”
The San Francisco-based project has given $1 million in grants to innovators. Hirsch hopes that successful development attracts investors at the institutional level, and helps bridge a political divide. “I would like to think that these entrepreneurs give these funds and universities an opportunity to address the issue by investing in technologies that could have an impact. It’s a great alternative way to address the issue and make a statement to the firearms industry.”