Why RFID Is the Only Viable Path for Life-Saving Smart Gun Technology

By Ralph Fascitelli

Radio frequency identification offers the only feasible commercial approach to reducing the plague of gun violence in the United States.

Gun violence is the United States' own unique public health catastrophe. Since the turn of the millennium some 17 years ago, more than two million Americans have been shot, including 565,000 fatalities. It is a rate of gun violence almost 20 times higher per capita than the average for all other modern industrialized societies. And despite the horrific toll—which easily exceeds all U.S. combat deaths combined since the Civil War—the prospects for federal legislative remedies are virtually nil.

In the midst of all this gloomy conundrum is a technological solution that could save upwards of 10,000 lives annually by reducing the incidence of child firearm accidents, suicides involving third-party firearms and homicides committed with one of the 250,000 guns stolen annually. Smart guns are firearms that utilize technology to ensure they can only be operated by an authorized user. Two different approaches have been proven to be workable: a biometric approach, which typically involves thumbprint identification, and radio frequency identification, which involves a digital connection with a computer chip on a Fitbit-type bracelet or ring on the opposite hand.

For a variety of political and financial reasons, the ultimate market success of smart guns will depend on which path is taken. While many in Silicon Valley and elsewhere prefer the sexier biometric approach, it is increasingly apparent that the RFID path represents the only viable commercial approach.

There are more than six million handguns sold annually in the United States each year, the vast majority of which are sold to consumers via federally licensed retail gun dealers. But dealers have been hesitant for a while now to carry smart guns. Some gun rights extremists are leery of any combination of firearms and technology, and unduly paranoid of an alleged federal master switch that theoretically could render all such smart guns inoperable. As for the National Rifle Association (NRA), while they are officially neutral on the topic of smart guns, they have been hesitant to call in the extremist wolves that are generating the most pushback at the retail level.

That leaves the almost 20,000 local police departments representing more than one million firearm-carrying law-enforcement officers as the critical key beachhead for new smart gun technology. Thirty years ago, success with local and national police groups enabled new automatic-reloading Glock pistols to gain a quick foothold in the U.S. gun market. Direct sales to law enforcement provided higher profit margins that enabled Glock to be cash-flow-positive much earlier than if they initially went through the retail dealer channel.

Significantly, the additional cache of being used by a variety of police departments that carry out months and months of testing before changing gear generated a significant halo effect for the much larger consumer market. After all, if the NYPD and the FBI are carrying Glocks, who in their right mind with any degree of credibility is going to question the reliability of a new type of firearm?

And therein lies the problem with the sexier biometric approach: they don't work for the strategically crucial law-enforcement market. Police wear gloves or get mud, sweat and blood on their hands, which often precludes accurate thumbprint readings. On the other hand, RFID is proven and binary simple. One well known German smart gun developer, Ernst Mauch, the former CEO of Heckler and Koch, has already developed an RFID smart gun that has passed rigid testing in all types of extreme weather and has proven its reliability 99.99 percent of the time.

An alternative path some are considering for a biometric smart gun is a direct sales approach to end users. But how many consumers are going to buy a new firearm with new technology sight unseen, particularly one that the gun rights crowd is going to push back on with every ounce of effort? The direct-sales channel for even proven brands of firearms is quite small. At best, it's hard to see annual sales of more than 10,000 biometric smart guns direct to consumers, not to mention the steep advertising and marketing costs and significant expense for product returns.

The smallest gun manufacturers in the United States sell around 60,000 firearms annually. This is not a coincidence, but a matter of economics, as 60,000 to 80,000 unit sales annually is just about breakeven for a firearms manufacturer. A company that sold just 10,000 firearms annually would lose millions of dollars, in addition to the $10 million or so for the initial cost to set up manufacturing and effectively prove its viability in field testing. It's not likely that any reasonable capitalist would invest in such a business model.

The main thing holding up investment in smart guns at the moment is a New Jersey law that offended the gun rights group by mandating all guns sold in that state be smart guns once such weapons became commercially available. It proved to be an unnecessary overreach by some well-meaning legislators and public health experts, given that two separate large research studies have since shown that buying interest for smart guns is above 40 percent of all gun owners. But to get there, they have to overcome pushback from hardcore gun lovers—and to achieve that, they have to successfully sell to law enforcement. And in that critical important market, only an RFID smart gun approach will suffice.

Ralph Fascitelli has been the board president of Washington CeaseFire, a leading Seattle-based civic activist group dedicated to reducing gun violence, for 11 years. He assumed that position shortly after the successful sale of his high-tech ad agency Imagio to WPP. Ralph firmly believes RFID smart guns can have a significant, non-partisan impact on gun violence. He can be reached at ralphfascitelli@gmail.com.