Smart guns: One answer to the mass-shooting epidemic?

Technology could offer a solution to the raging debate over gun control.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
Expertise Mobile, 5G, Big Tech, Social Media Credentials
  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Terry Collins Staff Reporter, CNET News
Terry writes about social networking giants and legal issues in Silicon Valley for CNET News. He joined CNET News from the Associated Press, where he spent the six years covering major breaking news in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before the AP, Terry worked at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and the Kansas City Star. Terry's a native of Chicago.
Roger Cheng
Terry Collins
3 min read

The Smart Tech Challenges Foundation hopes consumers will someday be able to purchase smart guns like this one by Safe Gun Technology Inc.

Smart Tech Challenges Foundation and Safe Gun Technology Inc.

Wednesday's shooting -- when a couple killed 14 people at a San Bernardino, California, disabilities center -- was the third mass shooting in less than a week.

That grim statistic pales to this one: The United States has seen more mass shootings than days this year, according to a tracker put together by the Guns Are Cool subreddit.

But what if guns worked only after recognizing shooters' fingerprints? That's just one technology already being used to keep guns away from unauthorized users. Other so-called smart guns rely on radio-frequency identification, or RFID. These guns can only be used when they're near, say, a watch that's sending out the correct radio waves.

Watch this: Tech competition takes aim at smarter, safer guns

The topic is part of the passionate debate on gun control.

Gun-rights groups say smart technology is just another way for the government to track, and ultimately ban, firearms. To be sure, smart technology would not have stopped the San Bernardino shooters, who legally bought their four semiautomatic guns, two rifles and two pistols. No American gun shop sells smart guns, according to an October report on CBS' 60 Minutes. (CNET is owned by CBS.)

Gun-control proponents counter that technology can cut shooting accidents and curb the free flow of illegal firearms.

"I find it ironic that certain gun rights advocates are trying to prohibit smart guns, especially when they are preaching gun safety. It is extremely frustrating," said Mike McLively, a staff attorney for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, in San Francisco. The nonprofit was created in 1993, after a mass shooting at 101 California Street, in the heart of the city's financial district, left nine people dead.

The National Rifle Association did not respond to requests for a comment.

Could the creation of smart guns help curb mass shootings? Silicon Valley investor Ron Conway, center, speaking at the launch of the Smart Tech Innovation Challenge held last year in San Francisco, believes so.

Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Count Silicon Valley as smart gun fans. Take the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation. Spearheaded by angel investor Ron Conway, the foundation last year set up $1 million in prizes to innovators designing safer guns.

The foundation -- created in response to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 20 children and six adults -- has funded 15 inventions so far. Now Conway, an early investor in Facebook and Google, is evaluating additional technologies to fund.

"These firearms should be available so consumers can choose whether or not they want to own one. If you don't like the technology, don't buy it. Don't stop people from purchasing this type of technology," said Margot Hirsch, the foundation's president. "It's just another solution to help prevent gun violence. To prevent guns from falling into the wrong hand, we need many different solutions and we need to be open to all possibilities."

Not everyone is a fan. On its website, the NRA says it's not against the technology, but it does oppose "any law prohibiting Americans from acquiring or possessing firearms that don't possess 'smart' gun technology."

Last month, New Jersey State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said she plans to introduce a bill that requires guns dealers to sell at least one smart gun, replacing a broader but less effective rule from 2002.

"It makes sense to alleviate some of the concerns of gun owners and dealers out there," McLively said about Weinberg's proposal. He credits Weinberg with being open to constructive criticism as she tries to craft legislation in favor of the technology.