The first smart gun with facial and fingerprint recognition is now for sale : NPR
In the 2012 film Skyfall, Q presents James Bond with a special gun for his latest mission – a Walther PPK 9mm short – fitted with a coded sensor for Bond’s palm print so he can only fire it. It is Hollywood’s version of a smart gun, a firearm that only an authorized user can unlock and fire.
There’s the movies, though, and there’s the real world. And in the real world, technological challenges as well as some political ones meant that smart weapons did not become a reality.
But that may be about to change because a Colorado start-up called Biofire says it has developed the first biometric smart gun for the market. This month, the company began taking pre-orders for the firearm, which uses facial recognition and fingerprint verification.
“The basic premise of a smart gun — a firearm that works just for you — is kind of obvious and uncontroversial,” says Biofire founder and CEO Kai Kloepfer. “The challenge is that no one has ever built one that always works for you and never works for anyone else.”
For Kloepfer, 26, it’s a journey that started the same year Skyfall came out – but not because of the technology in the film. Kloepfer says he started thinking about how technology could improve gun safety after a gunman killed 12 people and wounded dozens more at a midnight showing of a Batman movie in suburban ‘ Denver at Aurora in July of that year.
Kloepfer was 15 years old.
A science fair project that became a start up
Kloepfer lived about half an hour’s drive from Aurora. He says he knew about gun violence back then, but it had never hit so close to home.
As a kid with an interest in engineering, he wondered if there was a technological solution that could help reduce gun violence.
“It takes off on a smart gun, which is basically a firearm that is always locked by default but instantly accessible to the user,” he says.
Kloepfer set to work trying to design one — as a science fair project. It was basically a 3D printed model – it’s on display at Biofire’s headquarters – and it looks like a plastic gun with the top half missing. But on the side of the pistol grip is its technological leap: a fingerprint sensor.
“As you can tell, it’s not actually a gun,” he says, pointing to that earliest prototype in the display case. “I wasn’t allowed to work on the guns for the science fair. I was kicked out, actually.”
That science fair model barely worked, Kloepfer says. But the engineering and analysis that went into it still won him first place at an international engineering science fair. (He says he spent some of his prize winnings on a bicycle.)
But he kept tweaking his idea of a smart gun, and with $50,000 in grant money he managed to design a new prototype — one that actually fired.
What he did, essentially, was screw a fingerprint sensor onto the handle of a Glock handgun. It was rudimentary and unreliable, he says, but for the most part it worked.
“It was very clear that taking Glocks and buying guns off the shelf and drilling holes in them is not a good way to build a reliable product,” he says.
After a short stint at MIT, Kloepfer dropped out to focus on Biofire, now a company with 40 employees and $30 million in venture capital funding.
His team has designed hundreds of built prototypes, trying to combine old-school weapons with the latest in advanced electronics and doing his research, development and testing at his headquarters outside Denver.
In the main workshop space, there are thermal rooms that simulate different environmental conditions. That kind of testing is critical, Kloepfer says, to make sure the electronics-loaded gun works in any kind of environment.
“We’re focused on home defense, but building a firearm that stops working because you took it back in the rain obviously doesn’t work,” says Kloepfer. “So we did a lot of work around testing for super hot environments, super cold environments, what happens when it gets wet or goes down in a puddle or a bucket of water, goes down in the mud.”
Biofire’s latest model — the one recently made available for pre-order — looks like a regular handgun but one from a futuristic movie. On the pistol grip, there is a small fingerprint sensor right where your middle finger rests when you hold the weapon. On the back there is a 3D facial recognition sensor.
When someone authorized to use the gun collects it, green lights on sight and the back of the weapon lights up, indicating that the firearm recognizes the person and unlocks. He put the gun down and the lights went out.
In a test done for NPR at Biofire’s internal firing range, Kloepfer was the only person authorized to use the gun. He picked up the weapon, aimed at a downward target and fired.
He put the gun down and the green light immediately went off.
When an NPR reporter, who was not an authorized user, picked up the weapon, the weapon remained locked and would not fire.
Previous attempts to build a reliable smart gun have failed
Smith & Wesson reached a voluntary agreement with the Clinton administration to implement several reforms, including the development of smart guns. But the company shut down its smart gun effort years ago in the face of fierce opposition led by the NRA.
The NRA does not oppose smart guns, only anything that requires smart gun technology.
And a German company called Armatix brought a gun to market in 2014 that used a radio frequency watch to unlock the weapon. But it faced technical problems and political blowback.
This time may be different, says Nick Suplina from the gun control group Everytown. He’s seen the Biofire smart gun in action, and he says it does what previous smart gun attempts haven’t: It works.
But he also warns that smart guns will not end the epidemic of gun violence in America.
“Even if widely introduced, smart guns would only solve part of the gun violence problem in the United States,” he says.
However, one thing they can help with, he says, is preventing unintentional shootings involving children. In 2022, for example, there were more than 320 unintentional shootings by children in the United States, resulting in 145 deaths and more injuries, Suplina says.
“Firearms are now the leading cause of death among children and teenagers,” he added. “A smart gun prevents a child from successfully firing a weapon that they’re not authorized to have access to. And that’s a really promising development.”
Smart guns can also help curb accidents and suicides, the latter of which account for more than half of all gun deaths in the United States each year.
For his part, Kloepfer acknowledges that his smart gun wouldn’t have prevented the mass shooting in Aurora more than a decade ago that set him on this smart gun path. There are no total solutions, he says.
“My goal is to have an incremental positive impact on this uniquely American challenge of gun deaths,” he says.
Audio story produced by Lexie Schapitl