The weapons being tested at this site are smart guns: They can identify their registered users and won’t fire for anyone else. Smart guns have been a notoriously quixotic category for decades.
In an office parking lot about halfway between Denver and Boulder, a former 50-foot-long shipping container has been converted into a cramped indoor shooting range. Paper targets with torsos printed on them hang from two parallel tracks, and a rubber trap waits at the back of the container to catch the spent bullets. Black acoustic-foam padding on the walls softens the gunshot noise to make the experience more bearable for the shooter, while an air filtration system sucks particulates out of the air. It’s a far cry from the gleaming labs of the average James Bond movie, but Q might still be proud.
The weapons being tested at this site are smart guns: They can identify their registered users and won’t fire for anyone else. Smart guns have been a notoriously quixotic category for decades. The weapons carry the hope that an extra technological safeguard might prevent a wide range of gun-related accidents and deaths. But making a smart gun that’s good enough to be taken seriously has proved beyond difficult. It’s rare to find engineers with a strong understanding of both ballistics and biometrics whose products can be expected to work perfectly in life-or-death situations.
Some recent attempts have amounted to little more than a sensor or two slapped onto an existing weapon. More promising products have required too many steps and taken too much time to fire compared with the speed of a conventional handgun. What separates the Biofire Smart Gun here in the converted shipping container is that its ID systems, which scan fingerprints and faces, have been thoroughly melded into the firing mechanism. The battery-powered weapon has the sophistication of high-end consumer electronics, but it’s still a gun at its core.
Smart guns have been a notoriously quixotic category for decades.
During two target sessions earlier this year at the Colorado headquarters and range of Biofire Technologies Inc., the gun I selected from a table recognized me without an appreciable delay each time I picked it up. I let off several rounds, and the weapon felt just like many of the handguns I’ve fired in the past, delivering a light kick. Other users registered for permission to use the gun had the same experience, whereas nothing happened when people who hadn’t registered pulled the trigger. On the whole, the target practice confirmed that the smart gun worked as billed-and that I still have mediocre aim.
Kai Kloepfer, Biofire’s founder and chief executive officer, is 26 years old and has been working on this gun since he was 15, submitting early prototypes to school science fairs along with grant programs. He kept reworking his designs as an undergrad at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and refined them further after dropping out in 2018 to start the company. Today, Biofire has raised $30 million in venture capital and private funding, and Kloepfer has reached a moment of truth. By the time you’re reading this, the company will have just begun accepting pre-orders for its Smart Gun, an effort to gauge whether its manufacturing capacity can keep up with demand. The company declined to provide specific manufacturing targets, but says it will assemble the guns at its factory in Colorado and start shipping them early next year.
An engineer at Biofire’s headquarters near Boulder, Colorado.
Kloepfer, whose precise word choices and pensive affect out him as an engineer to the core, says his 40-person team feels the urgency of its mission. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that guns kill more American children than any other cause. The figures, including murders, suicides and accidents, have risen dramatically over the past two decades, while auto fatalities, the previous No. 1 cause of death among kids, have steadily dropped. Advances in technology have made cars safer, and Kloepfer says the gun industry needs to apply those lessons, too. “I’m not from Silicon Valley, so I don’t think technology can solve every problem,” he says. “But I do think America has a unique ability to solve some complicated sociopolitical problems with technology.”
Complicated doesn’t begin to describe the US’s relationship with guns or the nested social ills correlated with the surge in suicides. The gun lobby has spent many years telling anyone who will listen that smart guns can’t be trusted-that they’re glitchy at best and, more likely, part of a government conspiracy to gain more control over weapons. There are 400 million guns in private hands in the US, so no matter how many Kloepfer’s team can make, there will still be plenty of less smart options to go around. The vast majority of Silicon Valley investors have dismissed the field as a money pit, and it will be tough for Biofire to sell enough guns to show its impact with any clarity anytime soon. (Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg Businessweek parent Bloomberg LP, also founded Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates gun-safety measures.)
No one knows the challenges ahead better than Kloepfer. He’s spent more than a decade working on his smart gun while friends, venture capitalists and trolls told him why he shouldn’t. Still, here he is, betting that he’s right and just about everyone else is wrong.
Kloepfer grew up in Boulder County, Colorado, with lawyers for parents. By the time he was out of elementary school, he was making custom circuit boards and flummoxing science fair judges who assumed he’d gotten outside help. He was on vacation from Fairview High School in the summer of 2012 when a homicidal man walked into a screening of the latest Batman movie in Aurora, a half-hour from his home, and shot 70 people, killing 12. “These people just died right down the street, at the movie theater that I often went to,” Kloepfer says. “I easily could have been there. It was a major shift for me. I felt like there was something I could do.”
After the Aurora shooting, Kloepfer became obsessed with gun violence and how he might help reduce it. He couldn’t figure out how to stop something like Aurora, but he thought a smart gun might at least head off a number of accidental shootings and youth suicides. Schoolwork soon became an afterthought, as Kloepfer’s family home filled up with crude prototypes and fingerprint sensors. He estimates that he spent about 1,500 hours working on the model he submitted in 2013 to the Intel (now Regeneron) International Science and Engineering Fair, an annual competition among millions of students from 70 countries seeking cash and prestige. Kloepfer won a prize in the electrical and mechanical engineering category and received $3,000, enough to press on.
The next year, Kloepfer received a $50,000 grant from the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation to keep developing his prototypes. With support from Ron Conway, one of Silicon Valley’s most successful angel investors, the nonprofit was looking for promising smart guns and similar technology after another mass shooting, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. “The entrepreneur who does this right could be the Mark Zuckerberg of guns,” Conway not so artfully told the Washington Post at the time. “Then the venture capitalists like me will dive in, give them capital, and we will build a multibillion-dollar gun company that makes safe, smart guns.”
The foundation awarded a total of $1 million to 15 projects, including biometric gun cases, PIN-coded plugs for gun barrels, tech-infused holsters and three biometric weapons. Many of these projects have had a moment in the spotlight, but it’s tough to find any on the market today besides the cases and holsters. The other two gunmakers, LodeStar Works Inc. and iGun Technology Corp., have notices on their websites saying they’ll let interested customers know when their products become available. “They are not prototypes, models or ideas,” iGun says of its weapon. “They exist, and they work. Unfortunately, there has been not enough demand for them to be brought to large-scale production.”
Kloepfer spent his last years in high school, a gap year and two years at MIT working on Biofire’s prototypes and business plan. Although the prizes and grants provided encouragement, the real world tossed obstacles into his path. Kloepfer started a crowdfunding campaign with a compelling pitch: “Help me save lives with smart gun tech.” But it fizzled, raising $12,000 of the requested $72,000. MIT didn’t care for the idea of his tinkering on a weapon in his dorm room. Still, Kloepfer couldn’t get the product and its purpose out of his mind. Eventually, he made the difficult call to his parents to let them know he was dropping out to make Biofire his full-time job.
Kloepfer got $100,000 in 2019 from Peter Thiel, part of the billionaire’s fellowship program for students who drop out and start companies. Kloepfer ran the company from Boston for a couple of years before moving back west, which he says is more hospitable to a gun company. “Everything we were doing in Boston was legal, but it was frictional,” he says. “Landlords would not call us back.”
Biofire’s Colorado office feels part software startup and part R&D hub. There are about three dozen people sitting at desks in an open-plan area meant for computing, plus a large area near the back for experimenting with different parts of the gun. There are stations with soldering irons and scientific equipment and laser cutters. Nearby, a separate room has its walls papered with years of design mockups.
Kloepfer and his team spent a long time debating whether the gun should look normal or futuristic, like a Star Trek phaser. They went normal, mostly. The gun looks like a Glock with a weight problem. Its barrel is about twice the size of a standard handgun’s, and the grip has some added girth, too. These are spots where Biofire squeezed in the electronics, processing power and battery needed to make the gun quick and reliable. Kloepfer says the upside of the added weight is that the gun kicks less when fired, making it easier for most people to handle. The fingerprint reader is on the grip, and the facial recognition sensor is at the rear of the weapon just above your hand and below the sight. Another presence sensor wakes up the gun and prepares it for action when it simply notices someone approaching. A schematic of the gun’s insides reveals a device packed with so many mini circuit boards, detectors and wires, it could just as easily be a small video game console.
A patent on display at Biofire’s offices.
Kloepfer says that’s what it takes to make a smart gun that works. His is the first commercial “fire by wire” handgun, meaning it’s controlled by software. “We have removed a huge portion of the mechanical linkages and replaced them with solid state electronics,” he says. “It’s like an electric gun.”
Pulling the trigger feels the same as a traditional gun does, but the trigger isn’t attached to the firing pin. It might as well be a button. This trigger pull sends a signal to an electronic firing system in the same split second the biometric sensors check the user’s identity. “There’s a state change taking place in a transistor that takes about a millisecond and is extremely reliable,” Kloepfer says. “It’s like an electronic braking system in a car or a missile guidance system.” The gun feels heavy and solid and has redundant components in all the crucial places. It also comes with a small handheld computing device, one with a touchscreen for registering your fingerprints and face.
The process of registering a shooter is very similar to that of configuring a smartphone and takes a few seconds. As many as five people can be registered for a weapon and added or deleted as desired. Both the gun and the computing device are charged via a USB-C cable, with the gun able to fire for months, according to Kloepfer, on a full charge. (The full charge takes an hour.) There’s no GPS location tracking chip in the gun, and it’s up to the owner to decide whether to connect the computing device to the internet for updates. To prevent hacking or spying, the gun itself has no wireless or internet communications systems. Biofire is taking pre-orders at smartgun.com. A $149 deposit puts you in line to pay $1,350 more when the weapon is ready to ship. That puts it somewhere between double and triple a decent retail price for a standard-model Glock.
Once a shooter’s face or fingerprints are authenticated, green lights at the front and rear of Biofire’s Smart Gun signal that the weapon is armed and ready to fire. Authentication takes less than one second.
As the rest of the world knows, the US has an enormous gun violence problem. CDC data show that about 50,000 Americans die from gunshots each year, more than 50% of them from suicide and about 40% from murder. Gun owners are four times more likely to die of a gunshot than non-owners. Stephen Teret, a professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has long been one of the most vocal advocates for smart guns, citing studies that concluded the devices could prevent as much as 37% of accidental deaths and many more murders and suicides, especially among the young. “Toddlers would not be able to fire a gun found in the home, and depressed teenagers would not be able to end their lives with smart guns,” Teret wrote in the New York Times several years ago. “Guns stolen in home burglaries, if personalized, would have no value in the illicit market that fuels gun violence.”
Many gun rights advocates, however, remain dubious about the value of smart guns and note the flimsiness of the data on them. Some concede the technology could reduce suicides but are more skeptical about its likely impact on accidents. “You have to convince me that the kind of person who leaves a loaded gun out in the house will be the same person that selects a smart gun instead of a Glock,” says Jon Stokes, a co-founder of the gun rights organization Open Source Defense. “This is hard for me to buy.”
The history of smart guns also includes more than a few fiascoes. Some weapons have frozen during press demonstrations. Others required watches and 10 seconds of unlocking procedures to fire. And laws meant to promote smart guns have turned the hardcore against them. Most infamous was New Jersey’s Childproof Handgun Law in 2002. It basically said that all handguns sold in the state would need to be smart guns once a single, reliable weapon had been approved for use there. In 2019 the state repealed the law and put a new system in place that will require gun stores to offer at least one smart gun as an option when a decent product arrives. Officially, the National Rifle Association doesn’t oppose smart gun development or sales, but the gun lobby continues to oppose related prohibitions on non-smart models and says no viable smart options exist.
Partly for that reason, Stokes fears the likeliest buyers of smart guns will be ill-equipped to use them. “I worry that people will go out and buy this thing, because they think it’s safe, without taking the time to go to the range and take classes to learn the proper rules around safety,” he says. “If you’re not prepared to use a Glock, then you’re not prepared to use a smart gun. You should stay away from guns.” Biofire’s only real hope for business success, Stokes says, is having police and the military adopt the weapon first.
During my trip to Colorado, I did find at least one military backer of Biofire’s gun in Michael Corbett, who joined me inside the shipping container. Corbett spent a decade running counterterrorism operations as a Navy SEAL and was skeptical of smart guns until he gave Biofire’s a try several months ago. “When I came out to the range, I did not expect much,” Corbett says. “Then we fired it, and I was like, ‘I can’t believe it. They’ve actually got a gun that works.’ ” About the same time he first tested the weapon, his 9-year-old shocked him by unlocking a gun safe next to his bed. The child had seen Corbett enter the safe’s PIN code in the past and committed it to memory. Corbett subsequently invested in Biofire.
Although Stokes doesn’t approve, people like me also represent a potential huge market for Kloepfer’s company. I’m not really into guns, but I can see the allure of having a weapon at the ready to protect my family. Given the chilling safety stats, I’ve avoided buying a handgun, and something like the Biofire gun would likely be the only thing I’d really consider purchasing. Police forces could also adopt the weapons to mitigate the risk of their guns being turned against them.
For a 26-year-old, Kloepfer is almost too savvy at deflecting criticism. He’s spent a decade polishing his pitch and has an answer for every doubt. Instead of seeking smart gun mandates, for example, Biofire has lobbied against them, hoping to avoid becoming public enemy No. 1 among NRA types. Kloepfer has turned into an avid shooter and owns many guns, in part so he can speak with deep knowledge to experts. Leading up to the introduction of the Biofire Smart Gun, he’s been courting online gun influencers and is looking forward to the moment when hackers begin tearing the weapon apart to try to find flaws.
When pressed on how he can overcome hostility from the gun industry and its superfans, Kloepfer sets a more measured short-term goal. “We want to prove that this market exists,” he says. And he notes that he doesn’t need to remake the whole business in one go to justify his decade of toil. “If we can save one life, I think that’s the right thing to do,” he says. “I think we can save tens of thousands of lives.”