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'Smart gun' innovators seek to reduce firearm deaths

The LS9, a "smart gun" being developed by LodeStar Works, can be locked or unlocked through three security mechanisms: the owner's thumbprint, a Bluetooth-enabled app and a PIN pad. The little dark square near the yellow sticker on the guns shown here is where the owner's thumb would unlock the gun.
Ginger Chandler
The LS9, a "smart gun" being developed by LodeStar Works, can be locked or unlocked through three security mechanisms: the owner's thumbprint, a Bluetooth-enabled app and a PIN pad. The little dark square near the yellow sticker on the guns shown here is where the owner's thumb would unlock the gun.

Updated July 13, 2022 at 7:01 AM ET

Ginger Chandler had a hunch. She'd spent years developing products for major gun manufacturers Smith & Wesson and Remington, so gun safety was a big topic at home. But when her stepfather passed away, she worried that her own gun-savvy mom didn't store his gun properly — the type of common mistake that causes scores of accidental deaths in the U.S. each year. When they went to check on the gun, there it sat in an unlocked drawer with the ammo next to it.

"I said, 'Mom, we talk about this all the time. If you didn't know, there are so many people who don't know,'" Chandler recalled.

This anecdote is part of what motivated Chandler to join the startup LodeStar Works as it develops a "smart gun" that features three options so that it can be unlocked only by its registered owner. This type of technology could help prevent accidental firearm deaths, suicides or homicides by unauthorized users. But it's not gun control, and it also would not prevent a mass shooting perpetrated by someone who legally purchased the weapon used.

"In the United States, there are a lot of firearms out there, and people are just unaware that their own firearms aren't safe. Everybody's kind of going, 'Oh, that guy's stuff is not safe but mine's good,'" Chandler said.

The LS9, a 9 mm pistol that Chandler and her team hope to bring to market next year, uses biometrics so that the owner's thumbprint can unlock the weapon, as well as a PIN pad and a Bluetooth connection that works with a mobile app.

Gun violence is one of the most confounding and intractable problems in the United States. Every day, over 100 people die from gunshots — part of the more than 300 individuals who are shot each day, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. But the right to own guns is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, and the issue has torn at America's social fabric.

While not explicitly opposed to smart guns, the National Rifle Association has raised concerns that if these firearms become commercially viable, the technology could become mandatory for all guns sold in the United States. In fact, President Biden's own campaign platform called for all firearms sold nationwide to be smart guns. And a recent NPR/Ipsos survey found that most American gun owners support moderate gun control measures such as background checks or increased age requirements.

But the last time a smart gun was available in the U.S., it failed miserably. In 2014, hackers broke into the radio-frequency identification (RFID) of German manufacturer Armatix's product, and magnets could also disable the locking mechanism.

Chandler is determined to get it right this time. At the next level of testing, when the prototypes will be tooled up, LodeStar Works plans to enroll the help of hackers to identify any potential weaknesses and resolve them. Additionally, the profile of the typical gun buyer has changed significantly, which could help improve the viability of a product like the LS9 on the market. Last year, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, about half of new gun owners were women, and nearly half were people of color.

"They want to own their own destiny. But they also have small children at home. ... Maybe they're working remotely with their older children," Chandler explained. "They don't want to just have firearms out, but they also want to be in control."

Margot Hirsch has provided support to innovators like Chandler through her Smart Tech Challenges Foundation for the better part of a decade. In 2014, the foundation provided a total of $1 million in grants to 15 gun safety innovators.

"Breaking ground in a very traditional industry continues to be hard," Hirsch said. "The firearm industry is not one to innovate. My sense is they'll only do it when they're forced to do it. And so it takes really brave innovators to forge a path in this area."

Firearm-related injuries are now the leading cause of death among children and adolescents from age 1 to 19, according to expert analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And that's where Hirsch says smart guns could play an important role in reducing deaths.

"Mass shootings, as horrific as they are — and they obviously dominate the news — they account for less than 2% of the injuries and deaths due to guns," she said. "Although a smart gun might not prevent a mass shooting, they could definitely be used to address youth suicides."

At the same time, it's unlikely that traditional guns would get traded in for smart guns, which aren't even sold yet.

"We do believe that gun owners, when they go to buy new guns, will consider these guns for multiple reasons, and one is for personal protection," Hirsch explained. "This could be the gun that is readily available, let's say, on the bedside table, in the kitchen, wherever, where it's secured and locked and their children can't access it. But they know that if someone broke in their house or tried to take their weapon from them, it could not be used in that type of scenario."

Anti-gun violence activists note that introducing smart guns is also adding to the number of weapons available, but Hirsch stresses that firearms are going to remain available "for the foreseeable future."

"So, if people are going to continue to buy guns, we believe it is imperative that there is a smart gun option on the market. I do think it's imminent," she said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Olivia Hampton