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Smart gun makers need tech investors to step up

Startups creating smart guns have the creativity and the will, they just need the funding.

There's demand out there for smart guns. The trouble is, smart gun startups aren't attracting the funding they need to bring their products to market.

That's the reality check from smart gun makers and proponents who gathered Tuesday at a smart gun symposium in San Francisco. They say support is building for smart guns after a gruesome year of shootings in Paris; Roseburg, Oregon; Charleston, South Carolina; and San Bernardino, California. Even so, it's going to take some creative thinking to get gun manufacturers and lobby groups to adopt technologies that could reduce gun-related violence. An estimated 33,000 Americans die each year from gun-shot wounds.

Angel investor Ron Conway, left, and San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr talk to reporters about the importance of gun safety during a smart gun symposium in San Francisco.

Terry Collins/CNET

"The gun companies have chosen to sit on their asses and not innovate while Silicon Valley and the [San Francisco] Bay Area are coming to their rescue," leading angel investor Ron Conway told attendees. "The tech industry had to get involved in this."

Smart guns use radio signals or fingerprint scanners to identify who's pulling the trigger so that only the owner can fire the weapon. Tuesday's event is the latest indication that smart technologies could finally be coming to a gun dealer near you. No US dealer currently sells guns equipped with smart technology, and some dealers who attempted to sell them have received death threats.

Gun-rights groups, including the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), say they aren't opposed to smart gun technology but have fought against any law that mandates their use. Proponents say such weapons could cut down on stolen guns, gun accidents and school shootings.

"We're close to seeing a major breakthrough," said Ralph Fascitelli, president of Washington CeaseFire, a gun-control group based in Seattle. "We want to move from theory to a reality that will save lives."

Last month, President Barack Obama urged the departments of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security to study the technology. In addition, 60 percent of Americans surveyed said they'd be willing to buy a "smart," "personalized" or "childproof" firearm, according to a recent poll conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins, Harvard and Northeastern University.

The Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, spearheaded by Conway, aims to get more smart people building the technology. Since 2014, the nonprofit has donated more than $1 million total to a dozen designers creating safer guns. Many are poised to take the next step: seeking venture capital to launch their companies.

On Tuesday, Conway singled out 18-year-old Kai Kloepfer of Boulder, Colorado, who's spent the last three years creating a smart gun using fingerprint technology. "He is going to disrupt the gun industry," said Conway, calling the teen "the Mark Zuckerberg of smart guns."

Smart gun maker Kai Kloepfer said he is close to finishing a prototype of his fingerprint-sensor gun that can only be fired by a user with a matching fingerprint.

Terry Collins/CNET

Kloepfer, who delayed attending MIT for a year, said he expects to have a working prototype in about a month, and a product to market in a year or two.

"Congrats, you are going to save America," Conway said.

Meanwhile, veteran gun maker Jonathan Mossberg, who has created a smart pump-action shotgun, said Tuesday he could have a smart handgun prototype ready within a year but needs $1 million to $5 million in funding to pull it off.

"There is no quick fix," said Margot Hirsch, executive director of the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation. "This will take time, focus and tenacity to overcome hurdles and bring technologies that will reduce injuries and save lives. And it will take investors who want to make an impact -- both financially and socially."