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Colorado startup says it has a viable smart gun that only shoots for registered user

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The premise behind a smart gun is pretty simple. It uses technology similar to what's in your smartphone so that only a registered user can unlock the weapon and fire it. Developing a smart gun that works, though, has been tricky. But now a Colorado startup says it's bringing a smart gun to the market. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas looked into it and has this story, which - a quick warning - will include the sound of gunshots.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: The general idea of a smart gun has been around for decades. One even makes an appearance in the 2012 James Bond film "Skyfall."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SKYFALL")

BEN WHISHAW: (As Q) Walther PPK/S nine millimeter short. There's a microdermal sensor in the grip. It's been coded to your palm print, so only you can fire it.

LUCAS: There's the movies, though, and then there's the real world. And in the real world, the technological challenges, as well as some political ones, have meant that smart guns haven't become a reality. But that may be about to change because a Colorado startup called Biofire says it has developed a viable and reliable smart gun for market. The company's founder and CEO is 26-year-old Kai Kloepfer.

KAI KLOEPFER: The event that really kicked off my involvement in thinking about smart guns and thinking about how technology could be applied to gun safety was the Aurora theater shooting.

LUCAS: That shooting at a midnight screening of a Batman movie killed 12 people and wounded dozens more. Kloepfer was 15 years old at the time and lived about a half-hour drive from Aurora. He says that back then, he knew about gun violence, but it had never hit so close to home. And so as a kid with an interest in engineering, he wondered whether there was a technological solution that could help curb gun violence.

KLOEPFER: I set on a smart gun, which is basically, you know, a firearm that's always locked by default, but instantly accessible to the user.

LUCAS: So Kloepfer got to work trying to engineer one as a science fair project. Now, 11 years later, that science fair project has morphed into Biofire, a company with 40 employees and $30 million in venture capital funding. And last week, the company became the first to offer for sale a smart gun that uses biometrics - in this case, facial recognition and fingerprint verification - so that only a verified user can fire it. That journey from science fair project to firearms manufacturer has been a long one. At Biofire's headquarters outside Denver, there's a hallway that holds five illuminated glass cases, each holding a prototype of Kloepfer's smart Gun.

KLOEPFER: This is a nice little kind of visual chronology of the different, like, key milestones. Again, we've built hundreds of prototypes and hundreds of generations.

LUCAS: And this is the science fair model.

KLOEPFER: And this is the science fair model. So this is...

LUCAS: It is, in fact, the final prototype from the science fair, he says.

KLOEPFER: As you can tell, it's not actually a gun, right? I wasn't allowed to work on firearms for the science fair. It would have gotten me kicked out, actually.

LUCAS: Instead, he worked on what was basically a 3D printed plastic model, one in the glass display case here. It looks like a plastic gun with the top half missing. But on the side of the gun grip is his technological leap.

That's the fingerprint...

KLOEPFER: Yeah.

LUCAS: ...Sensor right there on the...

KLOEPFER: Big fingerprint sensor there on the side. If you look at that, it looks very kind of old school, right? Back in 2013, that was the state of the art, right? That was the best fingerprint sensor you could buy.

LUCAS: In Kloepfer's own telling, that science fair model barely worked. But the engineering and analysis that went into it still won him first place at an international science fair in engineering. He spent some of his prize winnings on a bicycle. He was, after all, still just a high school kid. But he kept tinkering away on his smart gun idea. And with $50,000 in grant money, he managed to engineer a new prototype, one that actually fired. What he did, in essence, was meld a fingerprint sensor onto the grip of a Glock handgun. It was rudimentary, and it wasn't reliable, but it did work for the most part.

KLOEPFER: It was very clear that taking Glocks and buying off the shelf firearms and drilling holes in them is not a good way to build a reliable product.

LUCAS: After a short stint at MIT, Kloepfer dropped out to focus on Biofire. His team designed and build hundreds of prototypes as they tried to meld old school gunsmithing with the latest in cutting-edge electronics. And it's here at its Colorado headquarters in a nondescript office building off a highway that it now does all of its research and development and testing.

KLOEPFER: So these over here, these are our thermal chambers. And so basically, both of these - what they allow us to do is simulate all sorts of different environmental conditions without having to actually go to those different environments, right? So if we...

LUCAS: That sort of testing is critical to ensure that a gun loaded with electronics works in a hot and humid environment as well as in the rain or the freezing cold.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLICKING)

KLOEPFER: Hey, guys.

LUCAS: Through a door, there's a machine shop.

KLOEPFER: Dave here is our operator who's in charge of this piece of equipment. I am not allowed to touch it or even look at it funny because I might break it. But this lets us do, like, complex, like, machining operations, like, manufacturing slides and barrels, largely in-house.

LUCAS: The machine looks like a giant metal booth with two small sliding glass doors. Inside, small hoses spray coolant as the machine whittles a gun stock down to the precise size.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY BUZZING)

LUCAS: Out back in the company's in-house firing range, Kloepfer sets a heavy duty black plastic case on a table. He opens it and takes out the latest model of Biofire's smart gun. It looks like a handgun, but one out of a futuristic movie. On the grip, right where your middle finger rests when holding the gun, is a small fingerprint sensor. On the back is a 3D facial recognition sensor. Having both biometrics, Kloepfer says, makes it more reliable.

KLOEPFER: The two combined work in pretty much any environmental conditions, any environment, any grip style, things like that.

LUCAS: In this demo, Kloepfer is the only person authorized to use the gun. As soon as he picks it up, a green light on the sight and on the back of the gun turns on, letting him know that it recognizes him and is unlocked.

KLOEPFER: So pretty simple. This is a Biofire magazine. It works just like any other magazine. So I'll load the firearm here. So the farm is now loaded. You'll see, even as I was starting to handle that, it had already unlocked. And so I get up on target.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRING)

LUCAS: So you just fired it.

KLOEPFER: I just fired it. Yep.

LUCAS: You're the only registered user. I am not registered to it. I'm not an authorized user. But I'm going to walk over to it and see if this works. So I'm walking over to it, pick it up. It recognizes that someone's touching it, but the white light is on. It's not green. I point it downrange. I pull the trigger and nothing. OK. Set it back down.

KLOEPFER: And then I can pick this right back up if you want to see that.

LUCAS: Yeah.

KLOEPFER: And then again, it'll go green, obviously.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRING)

KLOEPFER: And it fires.

LUCAS: The gun holds a charge for months, he says, and it comes with a smart screen charging dock, which is also how you add authorized users. Previous attempts at a reliable, smart gun have failed. Smith & Wesson, for example, shuttered its smart gun development years ago in the face of fierce NRA-led opposition. The NRA, for the record, doesn't oppose smart guns. It opposes anything that would mandate smart gun technology. A German company called Armatix brought a gun to market in 2014 that used a radio frequency watch to unlock the weapon, but it faced technical troubles as well as political blowback.

This time may be different, says Nick Suplina from the gun control group Everytown. He's seen the Biofire smart gun in action, and he says it does what previous attempts at a smart gun have not. It works. But he cautions that smart guns also aren't going to end the epidemic of gun violence in America.

NICK SUPLINA: Even if widely introduced, smart guns only solve part of the problem of gun violence in the United States.

LUCAS: One thing that they could help with, though, is preventing unintentional shootings involving children.

SUPLINA: Firearms are now the leading cause of death among children and teens. A smart gun would prevent a child from successfully firing a weapon that they're not authorized to access. And that's really a promising development.

LUCAS: Smart guns could also help tamp down on accidents and suicides, the latter of which makes up more than half of all gun deaths in the U.S. each year. For his part, Kloepfer acknowledges that his smart gun wouldn't have prevented the mass shooting in Aurora more than a decade ago or more recent ones in Tennessee and Kentucky. There are no total solutions, he says.

KLOEPFER: My goal is I want to have an incremental positive impact on sort of the uniquely American challenge of gun deaths.

LUCAS: He thinks his smart gun can do just that. Ryan Lucas, NPR News, outside Denver, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.