A pistol grip that recognizes the hand of its owner. A radio-controlled firearm-access device. A mobile-phone notification service when your gun is moved or touched.
Such ideas are what a group of mostly tech philanthropists hopes will help solve an intractable problem in America — gun violence.
With some local legislation but little to no tangible political change from Washington, D.C., 13 months after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., the Smart Tech Foundation thinks ingenuity, technology and the invisible hand of the free market will persevere where the federal government has failed.
“Let’s use innovation to bring about gun safety. Let’s not rely on Washington,” said tech investor Ron Conway, the group’s main backer and the head of nonprofit group sf.citi. “What we want to come out with is the equivalent of a seat-belt safety device for authentication of guns. This can be done. I have been at the forefront of some of the greatest innovation in history.”
That will happen through grants handed out to people and entrepreneurs with promising gun-safety ideas they want to eventually commercialize.
The idea of bringing the tech community together to end gun violence sprouted in Conway’s mind Dec. 14, 2012, when 26 people were killed at Sandy Hook. That day, Conway happened to be hosting 30 major tech company founders at his home.
By March 13 of last year, that kernel of an idea became reality when Conway announced that tech leaders and investors would work on creating new gun-safety technology.
Now Smart Tech is taking grant applications for the best ideas in gun safety, with about $1.7 million in funding so far. Their seed money came from Conway, Google’s Eric Schmidt and Salesforce.com founder Marc Benioff, among others.
Smart Tech ultimately hopes to raise $7 million.
Grants and other aid totaling $1 million will be issued to grantees, each in different areas of gun safety. The application door opened Tuesday and will close March 31.
Until the group’s nonprofit status is secured, donations will be received under the umbrella of The Philanthropy Workshop West.
“We believe that by incentivizing innovation we can create smarter consumer products and ultimately a higher standard for safety for all Americans,” said Smart Tech Director Jim Pitkow, adding that the effort is not about gun control but rather increasing safety so gun owners can continue to exercise their Second Amendment rights.
But an unbounded belief in the power of technology to solve all problems may run up against intransigent gun owners and a firearm lobby that is wary of anything that hints at gun control.
Earlier this month, a California law called innovative by law enforcement that requires manufacturers to put a traceable micro stamp on all new semi-automatic pistol models has already been challenged in court. What’s more, two firearm manufactures — Ruger and Smith & Wesson — have said they will simply not sell new models subject to the law.
When asked how new technology would differ from already available gun locks, Conway compared yet-to-be-invented devices to the iPhone: It was a product that created its own market, one no one knew they wanted until it was invented.
A focus on firearms
Examples of companies that are developing or have developed gun-safety technologies:
Everlokt Corp.: Safe Access Ammunition (SAAMO) modifies existing guns so that only SAAMO-equipped bullets can be loaded
Allied Biometrix Inc.: Dynamic Grip Recognition (DGR) only allows the owner of the gun to use it through a gun-grip “signature”
Yardarm Technologies: Wireless technology notifies a gun owner via mobile phone if and when his or her firearm is being handled
Armatix: Smart System is a radio-controlled wristwatch that grants access to a gun through a code; if the radio contact is broken, the gun is unusable
Some laws passed in San Francisco and California since Sandy Hook shooting:
In the state Legislature, a historic number of gun bills were introduced in 2013 and 11 were signed into law. Safe-storage initiatives aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of people with severe mental illnesses were approved, as were stricter reporting requirements for mental-health care providers.
One of those bills, SB 140, authored by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, provides funding to seize guns from people prohibited from possessing firearms. Another, co-sponsored by Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, made a gun owner liable for an unsecured firearm that lands in the hands of a minor. A city law passed by the Board of Supervisors in October banned the possession of high-capacity magazines altogether, though only their manufacture, sale and purchase are prohibited under state law.