Why No One Wants to Back the Gun of the Future

Startups struggle as Silicon Valley investors shy away from investing in firearms

 
 

Some gun shops had planned to carry the German-made Armatix smart gun, but reversed course following pressure from gun-rights activists.
Some gun shops had planned to carry the German-made Armatix smart gun, but reversed course following pressure from gun-rights activists.PHOTO: MICHAEL DALDER/REUTERS
 

SAN FRANCISCO—It was supposed to be the dawn of a new era of “smart guns.”

Spurred by the deaths of 20 young children in the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, Silicon Valley set out to make safer, technologically advanced weapons that could only be fired by their owners.

Venture-capital luminary Ron Conway, known for his early investments in Google andPayPal , led the charge, raising millions for grants aimed at jump-starting the smart-gun industry.

Five years later, the smart gun has stalled in Silicon Valley. No smart gun has been brought to the market and most of the handful of startups are struggling. The Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, founded by Mr. Conway to give grants, brought national attention to the issue, but is now having trouble raising money.

The Florida high-school shooting that left 17 people dead in February has led to a renewed interest among activists and politicians to find ways to cut gun violence. Smart-gun evangelists hope to capitalize on the movement.

But the firearms industry and now Silicon Valley investors have shied away from smart guns largely for political reasons.

“The gun industry is not fond of [the smart gun] because it’s change, and Silicon Valley isn’t fond of it because it’s guns,” said Jonathan Mossberg, former executive at shotgun maker O.F. Mossberg & Sons whose effort to put a smart gun into production has stalled.

For decades, firearms companies have refused to sell smart guns because of glitches in some early models, as well as a backlash from conservative gun-rights activists, who fear the technology will prompt state legislatures to mandate it broadly. The activists say their fears were confirmed by a 2002 New Jersey law requiring all handguns for sale in the state to have smart-gun technology once it became available. Smith & Wesson’s parent company said last month it was still wary of making smart guns.

In Silicon Valley, a place that revels in its role as a disrupter and innovator, the smart gun was stymied in part by liberal funders reluctant to put money behind any type of firearm. Potential investors also shied away after stores pulled a smart gun in response to death threats and calls for boycotts—and because they viewed betting on hardware companies as too risky without a big-name entrepreneur.

Margot Hirsch, president of the Smart Tech foundation, said getting a smart gun to market is now “a question of when, not if,” but acknowledged the hurdles. “We underestimated the challenges we would face in getting these technologies to market and funding them,” she said. 

For Your Hands Only

Several manufacturers have developed ‘smart guns,’ that only allow the gun owners to fire them. One such weapon is the iGun, which was awarded $100,000 from the Smart Tech foundation.

In off position

Safety switch

Default mode

Detail

Trigger

Gun can’t fire. Trigger blocked from moving.

1. Grip switch

3. Solenoid

Firing mode

Slides back, releasing the trigger mechanism; window in the stock reveals the gun is ready to fire.

Pressed to activate the circuit.

Battery bank

Emits a signal when it needs to go to backup power.

Circuit board

Shell

4. Hammer

2. Ring

Rotates into the shell, firing the gun.

A passive RFID tag in the ring is read in close proximity by the circuit, identifying the owner.

Source: Mossberg Group

The technology behind these guns isn’t new. Prototypes have employed fingerprint readers like the iPhone’s that can identify authorized users, or radio frequency identification bracelets or rings that activate the weapon the way that key fobs are used with push-button car ignitions.

2013 survey by the National Sport Shooting Foundation, the firearms industry group, found that 14% of Americans would likely buy a smart gun.

2016 survey by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, coming after a great deal of publicity around the Silicon Valley push, found that 59% of Americans would be willing to buy one.

In the NSSF survey, three-quarters of Americans said they were concerned about the reliability of battery-powered biometric or radio-frequency activation systems.

 But in theory, a gun with a fingerprint reader or RFID technology might stop murderers like Adam Lanza who used guns purchased and stored by his mother, and to a greater degree prevent accidental shootings and suicides.

On the business side, the chance to get a piece of the $10 billion U.S. firearms market was tantalizing to Silicon Valley investors. Mr. Conway’s foundation raised about $3 million in 2013 and 2014 and gave $1 million in grants to inventors and entrepreneurs.

Mr. Mossberg, who built and successfully tested a gun more than 15 years ago that only fires if the shooter is wearing a low radio-frequency-emitting ring, got $100,000 from the Smart Tech foundation.

President Barack Obama in 2016 promised federal dollars for smart-gun research, development and testing. He also set in motion a plan to get a smart gun into the hands of law-enforcement officers.

But in the spring of 2014, gun shops in California and Maryland that planned to carry a smart gun—the German-made Armatix .22-caliber pistol—reversed course following threats from gun-rights activists.

At the time, the National Rifle Association said smart guns could open the door “to a ban on all guns that do not possess the government-required technology.” (Smart-gun backers are now trying to repeal the New Jersey mandate to ease gun owners’ concerns.)

The change in administrations in 2017 also dampened enthusiasm. Mr. Obama’s initiatives have amounted to little.

The startups struggled to explain to potential investors how they would get their products on shelves, said Don Kendall Jr., a social investor and co-founder of the Smart Tech foundation. “You can’t sell a smart gun in any existing firearms retail chain,” said Mr. Kendall.

Smart-gun evangelists also underestimated how liberal political sentiment in Silicon Valley would hurt their cause.

In November, the tech elite at San Francisco’s exclusive social club the Battery voted to give $1.3 million to five gun-control and anti-violence groups, but not to the Smart Tech foundation. Colleen Gregerson, who runs Battery Powered, the club’s philanthropic arm, said she was surprised that the members didn’t vote to fund a technology solution to gun violence.

“At the end of the day, it’s still investing in a weapon and I suspect conceptually that might have been a hurdle for people,” said Ms. Gregerson. “There might be some underlying feeling [like] ‘I just wish they would all go away.’ ”

An Alphabet company called Sidewalk Labs that focuses on making cities safer showed some interest in backing Mossberg and others, but decided against it because “it wasn’t something they wanted to lead with,” Mr. Mossberg said.

Ian Sobieski, chairman of the Band of Angels, said the group of angel investors turned down investment opportunities not because of politics, but because hardware deals carry more risk. Unlike developing software, building and testing physical things is more expensive, he said.

“If [Netflix CEO] Reed Hastings came around with a smart-gun company many angels would invest,” given his track record, said Mr. Sobieski.

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