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The Rise of Smart Guns

High-tech, personalized firearms may finally be here — after decades of setbacks

A smart gun is a personalized firearm that can only be operated by an authorized user. While various technologies have been tried, the most common examples are smart guns with biometric sensors that unlock after reading the correct fingerprint, much like smartphones. Other attempts at smart guns utilize radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology — like hotel room keys and “tap” credit cards — meaning the gun will only activate if the user is wearing the correct RFID-enabled watch, ring, or bracelet, for example.

potential benefits

While all firearms are dangerous and capable of taking life, smart guns may help address several key issues, including unintentional shootings, suicides, and thefts. In 2022, there were at least 324 unintentional shootings by children across the U.S., resulting in 145 deaths and 193 injuries, and firearms are now the leading cause of death among children and teens. If a child discovered a smart gun, however, they might not be able to activate it — a failsafe that could save hundreds of lives annually.

Smart guns may also help reduce the number of firearm suicides, especially among youth. More than 3,100 young people die by firearm suicide each year, a figure that has grown by 53 percent in the past decade. The presence of a firearm in a home doubles and triples everyone in that home’s chances of dying by homicide and suicide, respectively. But if a parent or guardian owned a smart gun instead of a conventional firearm, their children or teens may not be able to operate the weapon.

Every year, an estimated 380,000 firearms are stolen from people before entering the illegal market and, in many instances, ending up at crime scenes. In other words, while a stolen firearm represents a loss for an individual, it’s a danger to the public at large. But a smart gun that can only be used by the owner would be useless to a thief and potentially help stem further crimes.

Smart guns may also help reduce firearm thefts and fatalities among police officers. Thousands of guns are stolen from law enforcement personnel every year, and many are later recovered at crime scenes. Over 7 percent of the police officers killed in the line of duty from 2010 to 2019 were first disarmed of their service weapons, and nearly 4 percent were killed with their own weapons. The lifesaving implications here would only be compounded if police carried smart guns that could only be fired by authorized users and that tracked the gun’s location and if it’s been fired.

gun lobby resistance

Smart guns are not new inventions. Several companies, including some of the country’s largest gun manufacturers, have been designing and developing smart guns for decades using various unlocking or activation methods. But none have successfully entered the marketplace — in part because past developers faced opposition from the gun lobby and gun advocates.

That resistance continues today. For example, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the firearm industry trade association, which is made up of the country’s largest gun manufacturers and sellers, has claimed that smart guns are “not ready for prime time” and warns people not to “believe the hype.” The organization states that it isn’t against the development of smart guns — only legal mandates that might require them — and holds that “the marketplace should decide if this technology is truly ready for market.” 

The NRA has gone so far as alleging that smart guns may “collect data” from their owners, “can be GPS-tracked or deactivated remotely” and “will phase out access to traditional, mechanical firearms.” 

Large gun manufacturers like Ruger and Smith & Wesson have also resisted smart guns in recent years, though the latter actually attempted to develop them decades ago before boycotts almost put it out of business. In 2018, shareholders of Ruger and Smith & Wesson approved proposals for the companies to issue reports on their “activities related to…efforts underway to research and produce safer guns and gun products,” and argued for the development of smart guns. But the companies’ executive leadership balked, echoing talking points from groups like the NSSF.

Ruger stated that “User-authentication technology has not been successfully integrated into firearms and the company does not believe that there is a viable commercial market for so-called ‘smart guns.’” Similarly, Smith & Wesson claimed that it “does not believe that current authorized user or ‘smart gun’ technology is reliable, commercially viable, or has any significant consumer demand.” Both also reiterated that they are against legal mandates. These answers are lacking because they focus on current technology, and these are companies that spend millions of dollars on research and development every year. Smith & Wesson even once agreed to bring “authorized user technology” to market over 20 years ago.

Industry intel

Smart Gun Development History

Smart guns have been in development since at least 1997. Many prototypes have come and gone in those intervening years. Some worked but were never perfected; others were deemed unreliable and shelved. Many developers abandoned their plans in the face of real or potential industry opposition.

  • 1997: In 1997, firearm manufacturer Colt received over $500,000 from the Department of Justice to develop smart guns that could only fire if the user wore the correct RFID-enabled wristband. The company eventually created two prototypes by 1998, but they were deemed too unreliable during testing. Gun advocates also boycotted Colt products that year, costing the company millions in sales.
  • 1998: Jonathan Mossberg created the iGun M-2000, a shotgun that could only fire if the user wore an RFID ring. The gun was fully functional but never mass produced. In interviews, Mossberg said that his family’s company, O.F. Mossberg & Sons, did not want to risk boycotts cheered on by the gun industry.

    A man aims an iGun M-2000 shotgun while wearing the correct RFID-enabled ring.
    The iGun M-2000 shotgun could only fire if the shooter wore the correct RFID-enabled ring.
  • 1999: Smith & Wesson began developing smart guns that used PINs as well as fingerprint and grip sensors. When the company promised to continue developing smart guns as part of a deal with the Clinton administration in March 2000, the gun industry organized a boycott of the company, which almost went bankrupt before it was sold to new owners. However, the company kept quietly working on the project until 2005, receiving a total of $3.7 million in DOJ grants and eight smart gun patents. Only two prototypes were officially produced.

    Former Smith & Wesson CEO Ed Shultz poses with a smart gun prototype.
    Former Smith & Wesson CEO Ed Shultz poses with a smart gun prototype. (AP Photo/Steve Miller)
  • 2000: FN Herstal, a Belgian firearms manufacturer with an American subsidiary, received $2.6 million from the DOJ to develop smart guns using RFID rings. Three prototypes were created, but they “behaved erratically” during testing. Once again, the guns existed but were never perfected.
  • 2006: In 2006, a German company called Armatix began developing a .22-caliber smart gun that could only be fired if the user wore an RFID watch. The company announced that it would begin shipping the pistol to the U.S. in 2014, but gun advocates boycotted the gun shops that attempted to sell it in Maryland and California, and hackers were able to bypass the gun’s security measures. Armatix filed for bankruptcy in 2015.

    The Armatix smart gun is displayed with the RFID-enabled watch required to operate it.
    The Armatix iP1 paired with an RFID watch.
  • 2014: Kai Kloepfer began working on a pistol frame with a fingerprint sensor. After announcing his design, Kloepfer attended MIT and founded a company called Biofire Technologies.


While smart guns have had a long developmental history, a few companies are currently known to be attempting to bring new designs to the market.

  • Free State Firearms (previously known as SmartGunz) of Baldwin City, Kansas, has developed 1911-style pistols that can only fire when paired with an RFID ring. The company states that law enforcement personnel are currently testing its designs, and it expects to begin taking orders soon. In January 2023, it announced that it would begin shipping pistols in the second quarter of 2023. The 9mm model will cost civilians $2,495.
  • LodeStar Works of Pennsylvania and Tennessee has developed a Glock pistol frame with several redundant user-authentication features. You can unlock the gun with two fingerprint sensors, a PIN pad built into the front of the grip, or a smartphone app that pairs with the gun via Bluetooth. The company has stated that it will sell complete pistols for $895, but it is still in the testing phase.
  • Biofire Technologies announced in April 2023 that it would begin taking preorders for a newly developed smart gun that uses all-original parts and an entire suite of sensors, unlocking immediately after recognizing a registered user’s fingerprint or face, much like a smartphone. The 9mm Biofire Smart Gun is priced at $1,499 and will begin production toward the end of 2023 or the beginning of 2024.

Of course, smart guns are only one solution for keeping guns out of the wrong hands. Responsible gun owners should always lock up their firearms when they aren’t in use, for example. But smart guns — like more traditional safety mechanisms that can be used to deactivate firearms and help prevent unintentional shootings, including manual safeties, loaded-chamber indicators, and magazine disconnects — should be embraced by the firearms industry, not spurned.