Politics & Policy

The Smart-Gun Maker Who Told Holder Off

The technology can save lives, if government steps back.

The setting was a behind-closed-doors meeting at the National Institute of Justice, the research, development, and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. The place was Washington, D.C. The time was April 2013. It was months after the Sandy Hook massacre, and Attorney General Eric Holder was quietly meeting with some gun manufacturers.

“I then had the biggest development in smart-gun technology coming together at my facility in Utah — the Intelligun” says W. P. Gentry, president of Kodiak Arms. The Intelligun uses scanners on a pistol’s grips. If a person’s biometrics — essentially, the patterns of his fingerprints — have been added to the gun’s software, the pistol will activate within one second of being touched.

“This interested Eric Holder,” Gentry says. “He wondered how we might be able to control who was or wasn’t authorized. I stopped him right there. I looked right across a table at Eric Holder — yeah, the attorney general of the United States — and told him, ‘If you try to mandate my smart-gun technology, I’ll burn it down.’ The Intelligun is designed to save lives, not restrict freedom.”

That ended the meeting, but not the fight for freedom. Anti-gun groups are now spreading the narrative that gun-rights advocates are preventing the development of these guns. The Washington Post’s Michael S. Rosenwald wrote that American gun owners see the German gun designer Ernst Mauch — formally with Heckler & Koch — as a “traitor” for joining a German company called Armatix and developing a .22-caliber smart gun called the iP1. Rosenwald also wrote: “The National Rifle Association and other gun groups fiercely oppose smart guns.”

The truth is the NRA hasn’t presented an official position on smart guns in general, and that’s not unusual. The NRA typically lets the market determine the viability of gun technology. The group has, however, officially opposed “requiring guns to be made with electronic equipment that would allow the guns to be deactivated remotely, or with other features that gun owners do not want.” Similarly, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the trade association for firearms manufacturers, is opposed only to making such technology mandatory. The NSSF’s president, Larry Keane, recognizes that “most firearms manufacturers have been reluctant to invest R&D dollars in smart-gun technology because gun-control advocates want to make the technology mandatory. If that happens, new guns will become prohibitively expensive, which is part of what these groups want.”

The idea that the federal or a state government could make this technology mandatory is what has a lot of gun owners — however unfairly — voicing opposition to companies like Armatix and the stores that sell smart guns. They’re concerned for good reason. A 2002 New Jersey law states that when there is a proven smart-gun on the U.S. market — the New Jersey attorney general must decide when this is the case — then within three years, all new handguns sold in New Jersey must incorporate this (likely patented) technology. Meanwhile, many anti-gun groups are publicly salivating over what such restrictions could do to the gun market.

The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, for example, sees an opportunity here to ban many guns, to make those available prohibitively expensive, and perhaps even to put a bureaucrat’s sticky fingers inside the firing mechanism of every gun sold. Interestingly, though, not all anti-gun groups have been in favor of this technology. In a long list of criticisms of smart guns, the Violence Policy Center worried that “packaged with a strong sales pitch, [smart-gun] technology could penetrate new markets for a gun industry.” So this group is actually opposed to smart guns because they’re worried that smart guns might make gun ownership more commonplace.

Meanwhile, about a year after meeting with Kodiak Arms and other gun makers, Holder said, while testifying before a U.S. House of Representatives appropriations: “Vice President Biden and I had a meeting with a group of technology people and talked about how guns can be made more safe by making them either though fingerprint identification, the gun talks to a bracelet that you might wear, how guns can be used only by the person who is lawfully in possession of the weapon.” Though his statement was a bit garbled, Holder seemed to be saying he wants to explore “commonsense” gun reforms that might include forcing licensed gun owners to use smart guns.

Now, people who know little about firearms might ask: Why not put a new safety measure on every gun sold? The answer is: Because it’s not possible. Guns are precise mechanical instruments, and there are thousands of different makes and models being sold today in many different sizes and configurations. No technology is going to fit all of those old and new designs. Such a mandate would be like the government saying only electric cars can be legally sold. It would effectively ban almost all the products now on the market.

All these political threats aside, the more immediate objections many gun owners have to this emerging technology is more practical. Many note that batteries go dead, temperature or moisture can harm electronics, and most smart-gun designs — such as Armatix’s iP1 — require that a person wear a bracelet or other device. Gun owners are understandably critical of guns that might go click when they really need to go bang. Why would your average gun owner want to take a very proficient instrument, one that might save his or her life, and add a battery-powered layer of uncertainty to it?

There are other reasons why this technology has been slow in coming. While researching my book The Future of the Gun, I gained entry to a lot of America’s gun manufactures’ R&D departments. Some of them have spent money on smart-gun concepts, but I was told over and over that they’re hesitant because smart guns have been made controversial by anti-gun groups; because there are liability worries (if a gun maker has the technology only on more expensive models, could they then be sued if one of their less expensive models is used by an unauthorized person?); because there is a lack of interest from gun owners; and because digital technology isn’t what they do. Gun makers cut steel and polymer into intricate shapes and fit them together into newer and better firearms. Fitting electronics into these mechanisms isn’t something they have expertise in.

To make the Intelligun, Kodiak Arms hired outside help. With contractors who have experience with biometric scanners, Gentry says, “We developed state-of-the-art technology that exceeds U.S. Department of Defense requirements. Our biometric scanners can see right through sweat and even blood. The first model of the Intelligun is a conversion kit that is easy to install on a 1911 pistol. It’s as simple as changing out the grips and the mainspring. Within the next year we’ll have Intelligun conversion kits available for other popular handguns.”

Gentry says he thought about whether he should develop a smart gun and decided: “Government be damned, we need this potentially life-saving technology.” The Intelligun doesn’t read a person’s fingerprints. It actually takes a series of photos of a person’s fingertips and overlaps them. It then looks for enough points that match an algorithm. Engineers working on smart guns have previously tried things like radio-frequency identification, fingerprint-recognition systems, and magnetic rings. The Intelligun is the first design to make this gun-safety technology practical.

If he can keep the government out of the way, Gentry says, he sees a lot of possibilities for the technology. Theoretically, a villain couldn’t take a gun from a police officer or armed citizen and then use that gun — as the Navy Yard killer did. Also, a parent would have another safety mechanism to help prevent a child from firing a self-defense gun.

The Intelligun has an official failure rate of one in ten thousand. If the battery goes dead on a civilian model, the gun locks, but on models being marketed to police departments, a dead battery unlocks the pistol completely. When you pick up the gun, your fingers naturally touch its biometric scanners. A pressure sensor keeps the gun turned on. If you put it down, the gun locks within a second. The consumer model has a manual override — a key a person can use to unlock a firearm that has a dead battery.

Gentry says, “We’ve already sold some to schools. A few of the schools have installed gun safes in various parts of their school buildings. They’re hidden in the walls. They have biometric scanners. If an authorized person touches the scanner, the box opens, giving them access to an Intelligun. If they’re also authorized to use the gun, they can respond to a school shooting in seconds, not minutes.” When the Intelligun safe is opened, it sends a text message to other teachers and school administrators, and it calls 911 to let the police know a gun has been accessed and that a teacher is now armed on the premises. That’s a part of a safer future he sees.

Meanwhile, the Intelligun doesn’t send or receive signals. It can’t be turned on or off by anyone in some government office. It puts the power in the hands of the individual. Gentry says, “This technology can create a safer country . . . if the government will just stay out of our way.”

Firearms like these are part of the future of the gun — and of our freedom. But to win this battle for freedom, we need the truth to undo the spin coming from mainstream news outlets. The rest of the true story you need to hear is in my book, The Future of the Gun.

— Frank Miniter is a New York Times bestselling author. His books include The Ultimate Man’s Survival Guide, Saving the Bill of Rights, and now The Future of the Gun.


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