Dressed in a navy suit, his hair more neatly combed than is normal for a boy his age, Kloepfer was speaking to me just before taking the stage at a TEDx event, where he was set to showcase his newest idea: a gun that can only be fired by its owner or a select few with permission to operate it.
The idea, which appeared to the high schooler in a dream, was born out of equal parts necessity and tragic inspiration. Kloepfer needed a science fair project, and about an hour’s drive away in Aurora, Colo., James Holmes had just murdered 12 people and injured scores more inside a movie theater.
Seven months and over 1,000 hours later, the budding engineer had created a model for a biometric firearm that requires an authorized user’s fingerprint to discharge. Kloepfer knew the design wouldn’t have stopped the Aurora massacre, but he thought it might prevent the kind of accidental shootings and suicides that cause more damage and get less media attention.
The current prototype is just plastic. Kloepfer plans to move the technology to an actual gun with a recently awarded $50,000 grant, the first in a number of prizes from a pool of $1 million being awarded by the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, Silicon Valley’s answer to the gun violence epidemic. Angel investor Ron Conway (with stakes in Facebook and Google, among other companies) started the group in response to the December 2012 mass shooting deaths of 20 elementary school students and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The main goal, as director Jim Pitkow explained to me, is to stimulate firearms safety technology “by engaging directly with innovators and incentivizing their progress.”
“We’re looking for the ideas that haven’t been thought of yet,” Pitkow said at a Fast Company event.
If America still doesn’t have a widely available smart gun—the nickname for a firearm that is useless in the wrong hands, able to recognize its shooter by PIN number, a radio frequency emitted by an owner-worn device, or some biometric marker like an electronically recognized grip or a fingerprint—it’s not for lack of trying. For as long as we’ve had guns, they’ve fallen into the wrong hands (those of children, or mass murderers), and the people that make and shoot firearms have worked on improvements to make them safer. Now, decades of research have finally culminated in the first generation of reliable smart guns—including Koepfel’s prototype and the Armatix, a handgun that uses radio frequency to identify its owner.
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