By Dylan Simard, KUNC (Via AP Storyshare)
At first glance, the Biofire Smart Gun is different from other firearms. The large handgun looks part Halo, part Cyberpunk in design.
It’s an appropriate look since the gun is made with new technology ripped straight from science fiction. It’s unlocked biometrically, meaning it can only be activated with an authorized user’s fingerprint or face. That, in turn, means only authorized users can shoot it.
Kai Kloepfer is the CEO of the Broomfield-based company Biofire. He said making a gun like this was impossible until very recently.
“A lot of the technology we’re using did not exist two years ago, in most cases,” Kloepfer said.
Kloepfer began thinking about the smart gun in high school. He grew up in Colorado and remembers the 2012 Aurora theater mass shooting, where 12 were killed. He brought an early design to an international science fair and won first place. More than a decade later his plastic prototype has evolved into a fully functional handgun.
“I’ve gotten a chance to be shooting it, handling it. Even got to take one home for a little bit. It’s just been really cool to see something that I only dreamed of like 11 years ago,” Kloepfer said.
Experts say putting a computer into a gun is a remarkable feat—a gun’s explosive force once made it unthinkable. But beyond the computer, the gun is unremarkable in its function. Biofire’s smart gun is a semiautomatic 9mm handgun, meaning a user can pull the trigger, a round goes downrange, and a new round is fed into the chamber. It functions exactly like any other handgun of its class and caliber—and that’s by design.
It takes an expert like Bryan Rogers, the lead designer at Biofire, to bring the gun to commercial production. He said the secret to making a reliable smart gun is to enable more than one way to unlock it.
“It uses both fingerprint and facial recognition to recognize you as the owner,” Rogers said.” It’s either/or—whichever one it gets first.”
The gun uses a portable dock with a small screen attached to both charge the gun and edit its user permissions. The battery life is considerable—with a full charge, it will be ready to shoot as many as 6 months later.
So, a gun that can only be shot by its designated owner is now available for purchase—but does that mean it’s any safer than other guns? Eileen McCarron, president of the gun violence prevention organization Colorado Ceasefire, said this firearm is an improvement—but there are still no safe guns.
“The safest thing you can do for your family is to not have a gun,” McCarron said.
There’s evidence that the presence of guns makes a home more dangerous. Having a gun in the home leads to a fourfold increase in the risk of suicide, according to a study from Stanford University.
But this research didn’t look at smart guns, and it will likely be years before there is enough data to know if a smart gun is a safer alternative to a traditional gun.
McCarron remains concerned about the mental states of those in possession of smart guns.
“There’s still the issue of suicide for the person who is identifiable by the machine,” McCarron said of smart guns’ user-recognition technology.
The firearms industry has been closely watching the development of smart guns. Mark Oliva, a spokesperson for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said the new technology does have some people concerned.
“We’ve never been opposed to authorized user technology, or smart guns. What we oppose are mandates on that technology,” Oliva said.
Some Second Amendment advocates are afraid this technology might one day be mandatory for all guns. There’s no evidence of that yet, though it has been a focus within some state legislatures. New Jersey passed a law requiring stores to carry smart guns once they become available, but Biofire CEO Kai Kloepfer has said he wouldn’t submit the gun for the state’s review – specifically to avoid triggering the law.
Overall, the stakes are high for this smart gun from Biofire—and for all smart guns to come. Steve Wolf, a firearms expert in Boulder, is a plaintiff’s expert witness in a case against Alec Baldwin, after the actor was involved in an accidental firearm-involved death on the set of the film Rust. Wolf believes Biofire is taking a risk.
“If even one or two cases get out where it’s found that someone was unable to protect themselves because the gun didn’t recognize them… I think that’s going to kill the movement for a long time,” Wolf said.
The Biofire smart gun doesn’t just prevent unauthorized users inside of the home from using the gun—it also prevents use by strangers. Hundreds of thousands of guns are stolen each year in the United States, and many are used in violent crimes. Wolf said the smart gun might put a dent in that.
“It would diminish the ability of criminals to use the gun,” Wolf said.
For his part, Wolf hopes Biofire succeeds.
“Everyone wants to see gun safety improved,” Wolf said. “And if this is a step that gets us closer to that, more power to them.”
Biofire isn’t having any trouble selling out right now, even though the first guns won’t ship until the end of the year. But whether the technology is here to stay is still anyone’s guess. Firearms history is littered with technology that never caught on—but that history is also filled with innovations that changed the world.