Design challenges are common in Silicon Valley. Tackling heated political issues is not.
Some recipients of a high-profile contest for "smart gun" designs are refusing to allow themselves to be announced publicly, The Verge has learned, for fear of a backlash from gun rights activists.
A smart gun is a computer-enhanced weapon that authenticates users before allowing them to shoot. Smart guns may rely on biometric data such as a fingerprint, voice print, or the unique way the user grips the gun. They can also require a password or the proximity of another device, such as a wristband.
Proponents say implementing this technology will decrease gun violence, especially of the type that involves children getting ahold of their parents' guns.
The Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, a Silicon Valley-based organization formed in 2013 in order to fund smart gun research, announced its $1 million competition back in January. "We need the iPhone of guns," Silicon Valley investor Ron Conway, who is backing the challenge, said at the time. Conway threw his weight behind gun control reform after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, backing a number of anti-gun violence initiatives and encouraging others in the tech community to do the same.
No smart guns have been sold in the US
The Foundation received more than 200 applications, and by June it had selected 15 winners. But so far, only one winner has been announced: 17-year-old Kai Kloepfer, who designed a fingerprint scanner that fits on the handle of a gun and requires user authentication in order to fire. Kloepfer was awarded $50,000, which was announced yesterday.
More winners will be announced, the Foundation says, but some have asked that their names be withheld because of the controversy surrounding the issue.
"All the grantees have been selected, but as you can imagine they are at varying degrees of comfort with public exposure," a representative for the Smart Tech Foundation told The Verge. "Some have asked to remain almost anonymous because of the negative backlash they may face. So we will be announcing grantees on a rolling basis in an effort to protect some innovators and highlight others."
The reaction to Kloepfer's invention has been positive so far, but the smart gun debate has been vituperative in the recent past.
Gun lovers say smart guns will fail when you need them
Back in May, a Maryland gun store announced it would begin stocking the Armatix iP1, which only fires if it’s within 10 inches of its companion iW1 watch (presumably on the owner’s wrist). It can also be disabled with a timer or a PIN code.
The backlash was immediate. The owner received a flood of complaints, angry rants, calls to boycott his shop, and even two death threats. Within 24 hours, he announced that the shop would no longer stock the smart gun.
Gun lovers are afraid the government will require guns to have this kind of technology, which they feel would encroach on their rights. Smart guns introduce an element that could fail when you need it most, opponents say, and they may encourage states to collect biometric data on all gun owners. "Gun enthusiasts would resist this technology until it was cold dead hand gun prying time," writes the blog The Truth About Guns.
Some gun control advocates also object to the smart gun
Working smart guns already exist, but none have been sold in the US yet largely due to pressure from gun advocates. One issue is a strict New Jersey gun law signed in 2002 known as the Childproof Handgun Law, which says that all guns sold in New Jersey must be state-approved smart guns within three years of a smart gun being sold anywhere in the country. If Raymond had sold an Armatix iP1 to a customer, it would have triggered the clause.
Some gun control advocates also object to the smart gun. Smart guns would only prevent a tiny fraction of violent incidents, according to the Violence Policy Center. In addition, there are so many non-smart guns in existence that it would be impossible for the smart gun to replace them all.
The merits of the smart gun — and the consumer demand for it — may be limited, but the vitriol around the issue has become excessive. Armatix marketing executive Belinda Padilla is regularly harassed by gun rights advocates and has recently been laying low due to threats. In other words, winners of the smart gun challenge are probably right to fear harassment.
UPDATE: After publication, the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation contacted the Verge to affirm its intention of announcing all the winners of the competition. Its statement is below.
The Smart Tech Challenges Foundation was thrilled today to help shine a spotlight on 17-year-old Kai Kloepfer, the first of many featured innovators to be publicly recognized for innovation in the firearms safety space. We are proud to support our grantees as they make strides in improving the reliability of their technologies. We look forward to introducing you to these innovators, both in the media and on our website at www.smarttechfoundation.org, throughout the duration of the Smart Tech for Firearms Challenge, and beyond.