A federal agent lost his loaded gun in San Francisco last week after leaving the firearm on top of his car and driving off. In September, police say a man with a Glock 26 pistol stolen from a federal immigration officer’s car shot and kill a beloved Oakland artist. And in July, a man allegedly used a federal ranger’s semi-automatic pistol to shoot 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle in a random San Francisco killing.
The thefts and resulting gun violence have raised questions about the individual officers and agency protocols, but in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, police officials and tech entrepreneurs say the offenses shed light on a much broader issue: the need for personalized “smart” guns that only the weapons’ owners can use.
Those California tragedies and other recent high-profile shootings loomed over a “smart gun symposium” in San Francisco this week that brought together manufacturers, law enforcement experts and gun control advocates pushing to build and market digitally enhanced firearms that automatically block unauthorized users from firing shots.
Despite political, financial and technological obstacles, the coalition hopes that personalized guns can soon become the new normal. Like the iPhone feature that uses fingerprints to enable the owner to unlock the phone, smart guns are equipped with sensors, biometrics and other authentication technologies that limit access to an individual – with the long-term goal of preventing the many forms of violence that occur when guns get into the hands of people other than the owner.
“We had three guns taken in auto burglaries last year that are responsible for four homicides in the Bay Area,” San Francisco’s police chief, Greg Suhr, told the Guardian.
Referencing the agent who left a gun on his car last week, Suhr added: “He didn’t do that on purpose. But if somebody picked up that gun, it would be of no use if it was a smart gun. So if we can arrive at that technology, why not make it available?”
At the gun conference – hosted by Washington CeaseFire, an anti-gun violence group, and Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, which funds firearm safety innovations – it was clear that smart-gun entrepreneurs face a long road before their products hit the market and become mainstream within gun culture, the firearms industry and law enforcement agencies.
But in a country that has repeatedly failed to pass meaningful laws restricting access to firearms – even after the unimaginable tragedy of a mass shooter killing 20 young schoolchildren – technological innovation is a critical area in which the US can make progress on preventing gun deaths, participants at the symposium said.
“Legislation isn’t going to happen,” said Ralph Fascitelli, president of Washington CeaseFire. “We can do this. Just give us a chance … We can save thousands of lives.”
Smart guns could help prevent suicides, accidental shootings, street violence and mass shootings, advocates argue. Two million children, for example, live in a home with a firearm that is loaded and unlocked, and children accidentally shot at least 265 people in 2015.
It’s not uncommon for police to be killed with their own firearms.
Last week, after an Uber driver in Michigan went on a shooting spree that killed six and injured two others, many focused on potential problems with the ride-share company’s background checks. But others argued the outrage should center on how the suspect accessed his gun and whether stricter laws could have prevented the bloodshed – though police haven’t yet disclosed if his gun was legally obtained.
Although it seems logical that personalized guns would prevent the many deaths and injuries that occur when people use guns they don’t own, backers of the technology say they face resistance in many forms.
Smart guns are available overseas, but currently no American retailers sell them.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) and other gun rights activists have long expressed concerns about smart guns in large part tied to a 2002 New Jersey law requiring gun retailers to exclusively sell the personalized firearms once the technology is established and marketed.
The NRA now claims it does not oppose smart guns, but continues to express concerns about the potential for laws that would restrict traditional firearms and about technology that could allow for guns to be “disabled remotely”.
“We’re just against government mandates that tell consumers what they have to buy,” said Amy Hunter, NRA spokeswoman.
Griffin Dix, co-chair of the Oakland Alameda County chapter of the Brady Campaign, a gun control group, said he was not convinced the NRA would stay out of the discussion and let the smart-gun industry thrive. “They seem to essentially want to boycott anyone who sells these guns.”
Smart-gun entrepreneurs also have to overcome consumer skepticism, with some gun owners expressing discomfort with digital technology and fears about possible malfunctions – such as the gun failing to fire in a crucial moment of self-defense.
“The NRA isn’t against smart guns, but the NRA constituency is a different story,” said Kai Kloepfer, a smart gun engineer. “The culture is an obstacle, but it’s not insurmountable.”
If law enforcement agencies utilize the technology, it could go a long way in inspiring confidence and reducing fatalities and injuries, advocates said.
But police officers are wary.
“We hate change. We’ve been wearing blue uniforms as long as we can remember,” said Ken James, a retired police chief. “Officers will look at it and say: ‘This is a good idea, but make sure that it works.’”
For many years there was no demand for smart guns, said Jonathan Mossberg, CEO of iGun Technology Corporation. But with the explosion of smartphones and the increasing debates about gun safety, there has been a growing US market, entrepreneurs said.
“This is a billion-dollar market,” Mossberg said. “Frankly, I’m shocked that we haven’t been inundated with investors … I don’t know if the investors are afraid of the gun industry? Some of them are anti-gun to begin with.”
Even though firearm safety objectives are at the root of smart-gun manufacturing, some investors are reflexively hesitant to support the cause. “They don’t want to get involved in the firearm market,” said Kloepfer.
Many of the people who have supported his efforts to engineer a gun with a fingerprint sensor are not gun owners, he added. “They’re not people … who are ever going to buy a firearm, but at the same time they understand the potential that this has to save lives.”