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Can smart guns slash gun violence? Silicon Valley says yes

Star investor Ron Conway is among those behind a series of $1 million challenges aimed at using technology to improve gun safety. The key? Find ways to make sure only guns' owners are able to fire them.

The Intelligent Pistol, from Armatix, can only fire when it is within ten inches from a watch, with which it synchronizes.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Gun violence in the US is an all too common occurrence. Almost every day, there's a new school shooting or a report of someone's kid getting shot accidentally. Could technology come to the rescue?

A group spearheaded by angel investing kingpin Ron Conway thinks it can, and it has $4 million that says so.

A press conference downtown here on Tuesday, the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation launched the first of four $1 million challenges aimed at inspiring the kinds of innovation that could help lead to safer guns -- and a reduction in the number of tragic deaths and injuries that make the headlines nearly every day.

Although the foundation's leaders aren't naïve enough to believe that they can stop all gun violence, or bring technology to all firearms, their goals are simple: Help entrepreneurs and innovators bring new technologies to market that make it far harder for guns that fall into the wrong hands to hurt people. They think that the kinds of smart technologies already being used to track and lock devices like smart phones may well be the key.

"The (U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms) reports that a quarter of its criminal gun trafficking involves stolen guns," said San Francisco police chief Greg Suhr at the press conference. "Guns do kill people. We need to have better gun control....Our [legislative] efforts to date have not been very successful, but...maybe there's more than one way to skin a cat."

Suhr, who introduced Conway, explained that since technology already exists to brick stolen cell phones, "We thought, maybe there's a way to create a lock to control firearms."

Silicon Valley investor Ron Conway, speaking at the launch of the Smart Tech Innovation Challenge, in San Francisco Tuesday. San Francisco police chief Greg Suhr is to Conway's right. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Conway said that on the day that 26 people -- including 20 children -- were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, he had former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, herself the victim of a mass shooting, at his house in Silicon Valley. Also there were the leaders of dozens of the top technology companies in the world, and together, they had an "epiphany."

From that, Conway said, "the tech community got completely engaged [in the gun control issue]. But the Sandy Hook massacre should cause people to act, and the tech community has done that."

To start, Conway continued, some of the top venture capitalists in Silicon Valley have committed to investing in new companies and products in the gun safety sector. And, they agreed to fund the new innovation challenge, with the hope that the firearms industry can follow the example set decades ago when the auto industry adopted the seat belt and driving soon became far safer than it had ever been before. "We can have the very same impact on gun safety," Conway added, "and through innovation, we intend to do that."

To be sure, Silicon Valley's interest in inspiring this kind of innovation is not entirely altruistic. As Conway -- who was an early investor in companies ranging from Twitter to PayPal to Square -- put it, this is an opportunity for investors to get in on the ground floor of what could be a highly lucrative new field. "We're going to be able to point to the Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page innovator for gun safety," he said, "who made their fame by inventing around gun safety."

Of course, California may be an odd place to try to jump-start a smart gun revolution, given the attitude some firearms companies have about the Golden State. Just last week, for example, Smith & Wesson said it wouldn't sell its newest semiautomatic pistol in California thanks to a new state law requiring the microstamping of unique identifiers on bullets. The Los Angeles Times reported that Smith & Wesson CEO James Debney said in a statement that "the law was poorly conceived and would make it impossible for Californians to have 'access to the best products with the latest innovations.'"

The first challenge
Still, starting today, entrepreneurs and innovators can submit proposals for new technologies aimed at making guns safer. The first $1 million challenge focuses on technologies that limit use of guns to their actual owners or others who are authorized to use them. The deadline to apply is March 31, 2014.

Three later $1 million challenges will focus on big data approaches to smart guns, the promotion of brain health, and smart technology for community safety.

The first $1 million will be awarded by a panel of judges with expertise in the military and academia. They will be looking for potential winners in all stages of innovation, explained Jim Pitkow, the director of the Smart Tech Foundation. Money could be awarded to existing companies with products in the market already that need additional capital; to those who need funds to put prototypes into the market; or to those that need money to get new technologies off the ground.

Conway told CNET that he hopes the challenge will "encourage researchers and founders all over the world to innovate in gun safety," and that the foundation's aims are being furthered in parallel with legislative gun control efforts.

While there are certainly Second Amendment adherents who bristle at the notion of additional gun safety regulation, the foundation believes that gun rights will hardly be impacted by the advent of new technologies. Pitkow said that the foundation has reached out to organizations associated with the National Rifle Association, and that the feedback they've received makes them "cautiously optimistic" about potential cooperation.

To be sure, existing firearms companies are already on board. At the San Francisco event, seven firms were on hand to show off their current smart firearms technologies. Many of these were various approaches to ensuring that guns cannot be used by anyone other than their owner.

For example, Belinda Padilla, CEO of Armatix, showed off her company's Intelligent Pistol technology. That system is built around a .22 caliber pistol that synchs to a watch. When engaged, the system, designed by Ernst Mauch, the developer of the XM25 rifle, only allows the gun to be fired if it is within 10 inches of the watch. Plus, the weapon is automatically disabled if the magazine is removed -- a time when many accidents occur thanks to the remaining round in guns' chambers.

Another company, Yardarm Technologies, showed its system, which can track a gun's location, movement, and even whether it's holstered or unholstered, via smartphone. That is interesting to law enforcement, said Yardarm's Vice President of Marketing Jim Schaff, because many agencies are eager to be able to tie the use of weapons to specific officer action.

Several other companies also showed various technologies aimed at gun safety.

While new technologies may reduce the amount of accidental gun deaths or injuries, even Conway admitted that there is little that could be done today to stop incidents like that at Sandy Hook Elementary. But, he said, alluding to the idea that it's essential to start introducing smarter weapons as soon as possible. "Innovators are long-term thinkers," he said. "In 50 years, all the [current] guns will have been flushed out. We have to start somewhere."