Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Silicon Valley seeks to disrupt gun industry

A mock-up of the Armatix iP1 pistol, which was intended to be the first “smart gun” for sale in America last year. The company’s handgun uses a radio frequency-enabled stopwatch to identify its user so no one else can fire it, but it has met with the same uproar that has stopped many seeking tougher weapons laws.
A mock-up of the Armatix iP1 pistol, which was intended to be the first “smart gun” for sale in America last year. The company’s handgun uses a radio frequency-enabled stopwatch to identify its user so no one else can fire it, but it has met with the same uproar that has stopped many seeking tougher weapons laws. New York Times file

After ducking talk of gun control in her 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton regularly calls for background checks for all firearms purchases as she seeks to excite her Democratic base.

Further elevating the issue, voters in Maine and Nevada in 2016 will decide ballot measures to expand background checks to include people who buy firearms from private parties, closing the gun show loophole, although the loophole is not quite the gaping problem it once was.

Billionaire Michael Bloomberg is promising to spend millions for candidates who support gun control and on ballot measures in Maine and Nevada, believing states must act so long as Congress remains yoked to the National Rifle Association.

Although Congress is mired, voters are restless. Pollster and strategist Mark Penn, who ran Clinton’s 2008 campaign, says 90 percent of the electorate, an overwhelming number, supports universal background checks that would exclude buyers who have criminal records and history of mental illness.

“This is an issue that is going to be joined. I don’t think there is any question about it,” Penn told a gathering of editorial writers last week in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The shift has been a long time coming, though I’ve witnessed pieces of it before. As a cub reporter in 1981, I traced John Hinckley’s trail through the Hollywood district of Los Angeles where the mentally ill man once wandered before he shot President Ronald Reagan and his press secretary, James Brady. Reagan reacted by approving Brady background checks, back before the NRA became rigid.

In January 1989, I sped to Stockton to cover the carnage left when Patrick Purdy used an assault weapon to slaughter five children at Cleveland Elementary School. Republican Gov. George Deukmejian signed the state’s first assault weapons ban. In the 1990s and 2000s, California lawmakers approved many more gun restrictions.

Gun restrictions do help, but not always. No law could have have stopped the three meth heads who stand accused of stealing a pistol from an unlocked car in San Francisco, and using it to kill a young Canadian woman in Golden Gate Park and a hiker in Marin County.

This, after someone broke into a Bureau of Land Management agent’s car in San Francisco and stole the gun that was used to kill Kate Steinle, a 32-year-old woman who was walking along the Embarcadero with her father in July. No law can stop careless gun owners from failing to securely stow their weapons.

Although gun restrictions have their place, and universal background checks should go without saying, part of the solution may lie in technology.

On Dec. 14, 2012, San Francisco investor Ron Conway hosted a holiday party at his Pacific Heights home. His guests included former Rep. Gabby Giffords, the victim of the January 2011 attack in Tucson that left six people dead.

Conway thought about canceling the party. No one was in a mood to celebrate. Earlier that horrible December day, Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But in a moment of silence that evening, in honor of Giffords and the Sandy Hook victims, Conway had an epiphany.

“The tech industry has to get involved in gun safety,” he said.

Conway was an early investor in Google, Facebook and other iconic Silicon Valley brands. Now he helps fund Sandy Hook Promise, made up of parents of children who died, and helps fund promising technology that could employ biometrics and radio frequency identification in smart guns.

The goal is to create weapons that won’t fire unless they’re in their owners’ hands, and to help create a gun company that would go head-to-head with legacy brands like Smith & Wesson.

“I’m assuming the existing gun industry is not developing a safe gun,” Conway said. “That’s why we’re going to use innovation to disrupt the industry.”

Disruption is a powerful force. Technology has upended many industries and business models. Why not gun manufacturing?

Conway assumes some people will continue to buy guns. But a stolen smart gun would be of no use without the owners’ unique identifier. A child who discovers a parents’ safe gun could not accidentally shoot a sibling. A criminal who wrests away a cop’s imprinted gun could not turn it on the officer.

“We think consumers will be clamoring for a safe gun,” Conway said.

He also believes technology can go only so far. Wise policy would have a role, too. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives issues annual reports showing that other than California, Nevada and Arizona, states with lax gun laws are the largest sources of guns used in crimes in California.

“States with loose laws tend to export guns to states with tougher laws,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, which, with help from Bloomberg and 75,000 other donors, is backing the Maine and Nevada ballot measures. “Good background checks make for good neighbors.”

As technology one day could disrupt gun manufacturing, the Internet affects sales. In past years, gun control advocates focused on gun shows, such as those in Reno, where private parties sell to individuals, with no obligation to check the buyer’s history. Lately, private parties have migrated to Internet sites where they sell guns without regard to who’s buying.

After mining data from gun sales sites for two years, a Conway-funded project concluded that the sites are a “magnet for people with criminal records” who are barred from legally buying firearms, a dark side of disruption. But a critical mass is gathering around new ways to think about this nation’s addiction to firearms, and that’s a sign that innovation is coming.

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