Ready, aim: the emerging tech of smart firearms

Since they first appeared in China circa CE 1000, humankind’s relationship with firearms has been a fraught one. As that problematic relationship finds itself once again in the spotlight, the question once more arises: what’s to be done? And in 2015, could technology be the answer?

Cases in point: The death of 24 year old Samuel Phillip Long in March this year after his father mistook him for a deer during a hunting trip (his father, Stephen Long, was discharged without conviction on Tuesday); 11-year-old Connor Brian Phillips who was shot dead on Sunday after a rifle accidentally discharged; and the near-miss of another child after a stray bullet pierced a caravan ten days ago in Central Otago.

Also this year, 21 year old Joshua Hill died after an accidental discharge during a hunting trip, as did James Johnston, 15, who accidentally shot himself while duck shooting near Whakatane.

Though most gun owners are, of course, responsible and law abiding, it’s difficult to avoid the fact that when it comes to guns, as a species, we’re bad at using them safely.  

Accurate statistics around the number of guns in New Zealand is difficult to gauge: New Zealand, like the United States, is one of the only Western countries that don’t have a firearms register (in this country the register system was abandoned in 1982 in favour of a user-licensing system), but we know this:

  • The number of guns held by civilians in New Zealand is estimated to be between 925,000 and 1,200,000, around 22.6 firearms per 100 people.
  • The number of registered guns is around 43,800. Approximately 36,000 of these are privately owned pistols and revolvers, and 7,800 are ‘military-style’ semi-automatic weapons.
  • The average number of total deaths from firearms is around 56.9 per year with around 6.7 homicides per year. From 2001 to 2010 the rate of accidental gun deaths is 2.9 per year, with non-fatal injuries for the same period is 72.9 per annually.

Source: http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/new-zealand

There’s a lot to be said for basic gun safety of course. The Arms Code, a firearms safety manual issued by the Police offers these seven basic rules of firearm safety, nevertheless, human nature is a difficult thing. Several of the tragedies listed above were delivered at the hands of experienced hunters, who, by all accounts, had excellent safety records until the fatal event.

Furthermore, two out of three hunting accidents, when the victim is mistaken for game, occur when the victim is shot by a member of their own party. Half are wearing high-vis gear.

So why do safety recommendations so often fail to save lives?

Some of this may come down to what’s known as ‘buck fever’, the ‘nervous excitement’ felt by a hunter at the sight of game. Such excitement can and does lead to misidentification of a target, sometimes with tragic results.

That’s what award-winning Kiwi company Hunter Safety Lab looks to address with the IRIS safety system.

The IRIS (Infrared Retroreflector Identification System), designed by the Wellington-based company, aims to prevent accidents resulting from misidentification of fellow hunters by giving a last second warning to hunters after conventional safety measures have failed.

The IRIS uses a two-part system ­– a gun-mounted infrared laser sensor and infrared reflective strips integrated into vests and caps – to alert hunters when their weapon I pointed in the direction of one of their party.

When switched on, the IRIS sensor continuously emits short pulses of infrared laser light. If the scope is pointed in the direction on the IRIS-detectable patches, the laser light is reflected back to a sensor on the scope, which then triggers an alert, warning the hunter not to fire.

The device works at night and even when the target is partially obscured behind vegetation.

The design was a purple pin winner at the 2014 Innovators Awards and has now been launched in the United States and Europe.



Developing innovative tech solutions to the gun safety problem is something the Smart Tech Gun Challenge looks to encourage.

Started in 2013, the challenge, inspired by the XPrize and led by Silicon Valley ‘super angel’ investor Ron Conway, offers cash prizes of up to a million dollars for inventors who develop innovative gun safety devices.


Image: Kai Kloepfer, Ægen Technologies 

The challenge has supported the development of sophisticated user-identification devices, such as Kai Kloepfer’s fingerprint-access technology.

Kloepher has received a $50,000 grant to integrate a fingerprint scanner onto a live firearm that can be programmed to detect multiple users and has a 99.99% identification rate.

Another option for user identification is proximity technology.

Jonathan Mossberg has received a $100,000 grant for an RFID (Radio-frequency identification) enabled device that prevents the weapon from being discharged by someone other than the owner.

Mossberg’s company, iGun Technology, is building a magnetic tag-enabled shotgun that is only activated when in the proximity of a ring worn by the user. When the ring comes within close range ­– i.e. the normal hand placement on the firearm’s stock – the iGun compares a unique code from the ring to the gun to see if there is a match. If the code matches, the trigger unlocks.

New technology is also being geared towards law enforcement and the military to improve safety and awareness, and accountability.

Perhaps the most sophisticated of this technology currently on offer is that developed by Yardarm Technology, a California-based company that’s designed a ‘telemetry sensor’ that gathers data about how the gun is being handled.

A bullet-sized sensor attached to the gun contains an accelerometer, gyroscope, wireless GSM telephony and Bluetooth device. Information, such as when the gun is taken out of its holster, what direction it is pointed in and how many shots have been fired are logged and sent over the internet to a central hub. In-depth information, such as when the firearm has been taken a certain distance from an officer’s cell phone, can be relayed instantly to commanding officers, and safety procedures, such as dispatching an ambulance when shots have been fired, can be streamlined.



The technology has been trialled by police departments in California and Texas so far.

But while there are plenty of good reasons to find ways to prevent gun-related deaths and injuries, not everyone is a fan of the technology.

Surprisingly, it’s not just the NRA and pro-gun interests that have a problem with the technology (although they do: some gun dealers in the United States who have expressed interest in stocking smart-weapons have received death threats).

Criticism is also coming from gun control advocates, such as the Violence Policy Center, who has described advances in smart gun tech as “a very seductive hoax”.

“At bottom, this is a ploy, a very clever ploy, by the gun industry to use your tax dollars and my tax dollars to expand its markets,” says Tom Diaz, senior analyst for the Violence Policy Center.

“I feel that the smart gun ultimately will take more lives…than it will save,” he says.

Still, developers are undeterred.

“My biometric technology can prevent tragedies,” says Kloepfer.

“If I save one person’s life, I’ve accomplished my goal.”