Going to an NRA convention to find the "Mark Zuckerberg of guns"
I’m working on something a bit more longer and historical — about my Ukrainian grandmother and the Russian Civil War, a topic that has some similarities to the war that’s going on in Ukraine today. It’s part of my slow-moving book project: The Soviet Jew. But like always I’m my own worst enemy. Going on too many tangents, reading too many obscure books, and not doing enough writing.
So while I’m at it, I thought I’d repost something that I wrote eight years ago about my trip to an NRA convention and my search of the elusive “smart gun” — newfangled safety technology that Silicon Valley investors here in San Francisco were promising was going to be a miracle fix for one of America’s most depressing political problems: gun massacres. This was right after the Sandy Hook shooting and they put up money to fund “smart safe guns,” and were applauded for their civic minded initiative.
A gadget that could solve a deeply political problem and be profitable to the VC set? Yep, that’s what Silicon Valley was pushing at the time: a free-market techno fix that could sidestep politics altogether. That’s American can-do culture for you. And what’s funny, I found out that even this was considered too communist for the people at the NRA convention. They like their guns raw and ready to fire. Putting tiny digital finger scanners on their guns? What are you trying to do, push them to do patriotic regime change in Washington DC?
Anyway, here we still are: mass massacres in schools are a totally normal fixture in America, more so than when I wrote the article almost a decade ago. Pretty clear that these days people can’t really get themselves to be outraged about about them anymore. That’s how normalized they’ve become.
I wrote this article when I worked for Pando. It has since disappeared off the Internet. So I’m bringing it back.
The “Zuckerberg of guns” could save lives and make millions, but he’ll have to fight the NRA first
By Yasha Levine
May 7, 2014
I flew in to Indianapolis on Friday morning, sleep deprived and dispirited after spending a red-eye flight stuck next to a guy with foul breath who passed out with his elbow in my rib.
Inside the airport, incoming planes were disgorging hundreds of eager NRA convention attendees — more camo patterns, Vietnam vet hats and gun-themed T-shirts than I had ever seen in an airport at one time. The cab line was backed up, so I shared a ride to the convention center with a guy from Austria, who said he was a sales rep for an American gun company there.
He didn’t seem to know much about smart guns, but he was keen on talking about Germany’s Nazi past and the country’s increasing belligerence in European affairs — from squeezing Greece to trying to talk a tough game with Putin about Ukraine. “They’re painting now on Merkel Hitler mustaches,” he said, shaking his head and sucking in his breath. “My father was in the Luftwaffe. During the war, he had like most people been brainwashed. He believed it. My generation…we really could not forgive our parents for what they did. My sister was particularly bad — she got really nasty with him about it sometimes. Called him a Nazi, a Hitler lover. Later she married a Jewish fellow…”
His preoccupation with fascism and rightwing belligerence in his homeland was a bit surprising. He thought the NRA was a harmless gun trade/lobby outfit, and didn’t seem to realize that it was much more than that: a cultural nexus for some of the most toxic politics in America: rabid xenophobia, racism, longing for a purer past, the glorification of extrajudicial justice against a creeping threat from within… tendencies that are not all that different than the bile that brought Hitler to power, I might have pointed out.
But I didn’t press the point. I wasn’t there to preach or educate. I was there to report.
Inside the convention center, crowds of people packed the registration tables to get their passes, maps and guides. A pimped out minivan — painted jet black with machine guns poking out from every side — stood in a corner by the escalators. There was a small queue of limping, hobbling attendees at the motorized wheelchair rental station — $75 per day. Several pretty young women in glittering gold miniskirts were handing out fliers for a gun raffle. Row upon row of posters featuring good looking NRA members of all races and sexes streamed from the ceiling, and the bland face of NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre smiled down on it all from a big color banner.
Here and there people stood clutching their NRA program booklets and blinking at the lights, overwhelmed by the majesty of it all.
There was a lot to be excited about. On top of the massive gun show featuring hundreds upon hundreds of exhibitors running from 9 to 5 every day, there were breakfast prayer sessions, luncheons featuring famous right-wing speakers, political rallies, educational seminars, book signings, raffles, and lotteries, not to mention the unauthorized demonstrations that were sure to be happening across the street.
At any moment of the day, attendees had lots of choices: they could hear Ted Nugent speak about Guns and God, get a book signed by their favorite Iran-Contra super patriot Ollie North, listen to Sarah Palin, learn up on how to properly smoke sausages, and how to kill it at their next gun fight: “Do you want to survive or thrive in a gunfight?”
There was a lot to do, and people better learn to walk — or Hoveround — fast: The events were spread around a convention space the size of twenty football fields. And that’s not counting the adjacent Lucas Oil Stadium, home to the Indianapolis Colts, which would be used for NRA political rallies.
That’s where I was headed for my first big event of the day: the Leadership Forum — hosted by the NRA’s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action — to see what gun rights lobbyists had to say about “smart gun” technology.
For decades, smart guns have been stuck in a technological backwater. Technology that made guns safer by preventing unauthorized use and tying them to a specific users — like James Bond used in Skyfall — has been deemed too expensive, faulty, and unreliable to be used in the real world. No one took it very seriously. But that changed earlier this year.
In February 2014, legendary Silicon Valley angel investor Ron Conway (also, a Pando investor) launched a foundation and a $1 million competition to find and fund inventors of next-gen smart gun technology. The competition was open to all types of tech: biometric grips, RFID bracelets, Bluetooth gun-pairing smartphone apps, and whatever else people come up with. Winners are being selected now, and will be awarded with prizes of up to $200,000 to develop the technology to the point that they can get their first round of investors.
The press ate it up. CNN, the Washington Post, and NBC all covered the coming next wave of safe gun technology.
Conway launched the challenge after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre – he was appalled by the slaughter of innocents and a lack of action by politicians in DC. Even the murders of over two dozen young children couldn’t move Congress to enact a modest national gun background check program. Pressure from gun rights and right-wing groups was too great, despite near unanimous public support for the law.
But Conway saw a way to get around the log jammed DC politics: free markets and technology.
The Smart Tech Challenges Foundation is organizing a series of challenges aimed at encouraging the creation of free-market solutions to reduce gun violence. We can speed up the discovery of innovative technologies to make America safer without encroaching upon our Second Amendment rights.
At a press conference that announced the launch of the smart gun challenge, Conway said, “We’re going to be able to point to the Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page innovator for gun safety, who made their fame by inventing around gun safety.”
For Conway this wasn’t just about doing good or making kids safe, but making gobs of money as well — smart gun tech was a free market solution, after all.
“We need the iPhone of guns,” Conway told the Washington Post. “The entrepreneur who does this right could be the Mark Zuckerberg of guns.” (Surely the iPhone of guns would be invented by the Steve Jobs of guns?) “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.”
With a wink at the NRA members, the folks at Smart Tech Foundation have gone out of their way to stress that smart gun technology has nothing at all to with actual gun control.
Jim Pitkow, Conway’s partner in the foundation, said, “We believe in the free market and the democratic process. This is about examining the current realities of gun violence and the systematic market failures in terms of innovation and active capital. This is not about gun control. In no way do our efforts challenge the right to bear arms.”
Even so, the NRA’s lobby group — the NRA-ILA — didn’t see it that way.
A few weeks before the convention, the NRA-ILA issued a communique warning its members to be wary of the push for smart gun technology.
It called attention to a plan by US Attorney General Eric Holder to budget $2 million for smart gun technology research — a federal government program similar to Conway’s private sector smart gun challenge. The NRA-ILA described it as underhanded strategy to enact tech-based gun control. Of particular concern to lobbyists at the NRA-ILA was legislation that would mandate smart guns once they hit the market: “There are surely those who would be happy to adapt this technology to firearms, and to legally mandate its use, fundamental human liberties be damned.”
Now was my chance to hear what the folks at the NRA-ILA had to say about smart guns firsthand.
Its flagship event — the Leadership Forum — was being held at the Lucas Oil Stadium for the benefit of the grassroots Republican activist base. Zealous rank-and-file members, local politicians, and Tea Party bosses from small towns across the US all came to see their trusted leader, Wayne LaPierre, appear before them for his annual address.
Would he warn them of the smart gun threat? Discuss strategies on how defeat it? Maybe the NRA had a change of heart and he’d introduce the Mark Zuckerberg of guns on stage to thunderous applause?
After being misdirected by various stadium attendants a half dozen times, I emerged on the stadium floor just a few rows away from the stage. Wayne LaPierre was already up there, reading a right-wing sermon off of two teleprompters, his giant tanned face projected on a pair of massive screens behind him.
He trashed the media elites — “Political dishonesty and media dishonesty have linked together, joined forces, to misinform and deceive the American public. Let’s be straight about it — the political and media elites are lying to us.” He talked about a better, bygone pre-African-American-President America — “All across America, everywhere I go, people come up to me and say, Wayne, I’ve never been worried about this country. Until now… We fear for the safety of our families. It’s why neighborhood streets that were once filled with bicycles and skateboards, laughter in the air, now sit empty and silent.”
LaPierre also talked about the need to buy more guns and more ammo so that people could protect themselves. It was all generic and lukewarm stuff compared to the racist bile that has spewed from the NRA’s leadership of old — folks like Harlon Carter, a convicted murderer and onetime US Border Guards chief, who transformed a sleepier NRA into the fanatical far-right crazy NRA we all know today. (Read Mark Ames’ “From “Operation Wetback” To Newtown: Tracing The Hick Fascism Of The NRA“)
But Wayne’s most important message was about billionaire former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Bloomberg recently launched a project called Everytown for Gun Safety and pledged to spend $50 million to take on the NRA. His group focused on organizing grassroots anti-gun activity, lobbying the government and funding political campaigns. Like Conway, Bloomberg was spurned into gun safety action by the tragedy of Sandy Hook, and the lack of action from politicians to address gun violence.
For maximum NRA trolling, Bloomberg told the New York Times that his anti-NRA initiative would guarantee him a VIP spot in heaven.
“I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close.”
Naturally, the association jumped all over that, projecting that quote on the massive screen behind the stage. Bloomberg was bogeyman of the moment.
To LaPierre, Bloomberg is a decadent, liberal billionaire who wants to push his godless metropolitan values on red-blooded Americans — folks who had one simple wish: to enjoy their God-given constitutional rights. LaPierre vowed to use the small contributions from the 5 million honest hardworking members of the NRA to defeat the “liberal” billionaire, while a giant ad flashed on the screen behind him:
“Bloomberg is one guy with millions. We’re 5 million members with 25 bucks.”
The crowd went wild.
LaPierre was followed by a bunch of other speakers — Senator Rick Santorum, Governor Bobby Jindal, Governor Mike Pence, Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Mitch McConnell. Their speeches all blurred together, but they drilled in pretty much the same NRA litany… in which owning guns and having the right to shoot people with those guns solved all problems and replaced any other type of political activity.
And still I caught nothing about smart guns. Nothing about the Zuckerberg of Guns — the man who would bring peace to the gun debate by placating liberals with high-tech safety features, while leaving the gun industry wide open and unregulated. Instead, the NRA-ILA honored some young cop who did not flinch from his duty. Despite having been wounded by an armed criminal, he dropped to one knee and fired off several rounds, killing the assailant. Another shining example of a bad guy with a gun stopped dead by a good guy with gun — not a fancy smart gun, but an old-fashioned dumb gun.
The people here did not talk about smart guns, but it’s obvious that they wouldn’t take kindly to an outsider like Conway meddling in the gun industry. What made him different than Bloomberg? Is he not just another decadent urban billionaire who thinks he knows better than the common folk?
Still, the gun industry isn’t monolithic. There are plenty of entrepreneurial small gun makers. And at least some of them must realize that with Silicon Valley’s most famous billionaire angel investor getting involved in the smart gun business, now was the time for them to elbow their way in for a cut of the action of this emerging market.
The big question is: Would there be any smart gun makers here at the convention showing off their wares?
It was time for me to get out and hit the gun show floor.
As I climbed the bleacher stairs to get out of the stadium, I noticed that the people I passed glared back at me with open malice. It took me a while to understand why: I had a giant PRESS PASS hanging around my neck. I was a member of the sniveling and lying liberal media elite that LaPierre blamed for ruining America. Out here, I might as well have been wearing antlers.
Back in the convention center, I started looking for a smart gun.
The task wasn’t as easy as it seems. There were thousands of people crowding the walkways between stalls, foot traffic jams everywhere. It could take 10 minutes to walk 50 feet. There was a constant background noise of zapping tasers, cocking guns, clicking hammers, and the ever-present “Wall of Guuuuuuuuns… Gotta be in it to win it… Waaaaaall oooooof Guuuuuns” chant coming from a gun raffle out in the hallway.
There were something like 600 different booths and exhibitors, showcasing countless guns and accessories, body armor, gun sights, ammo, knives and swords, camping equipment, BBQs, tasers, and safes. There were tank wheelchairs, amphibious golf carts, and travel agencies.
The State of Israel had a booth offering trips to the Holy Land, complete with trips to the Wailing Wall, Dead Sea and a combat session/target practice at an Israeli Defense Forces camp. There was a rep from IZHMASH, the Russian company that makes the AK-47. Did he think there will be an AK-47 shortage because of the civil war breaking out in Ukraine? “We’re not commenting,” he said. But his loyalties were clearly with Russia. “Ukraine is screaming over there acting like its World War III,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “Look, they’re a small country…”
There was even a company selling Stand Your Ground legal insurance — which would cover up to $1 million in legal fees for people who live in states with Stand Your Ground laws and shot someone in “self-defense.” The company motto: “Why settle for less? Get the MOST COMPREHENSIVE protection for armed self-defense in America.” The guys at the booth told me their policy would’ve been great for an armed vigilante like George Zimmerman — who shot and killed a 17-year-old black kid named Trayvon Martin just because he looked suspicious. “Of course, Zimmerman’s uninsurable now…” Naturally, the rep made an Obama assassination joke. He couldn’t help himself.
I chatted up reps at various gun big manufacturers — Colt, Smith & Wesson, Glock — trying to figure out their smart gun strategy. Did they plan on rolling them out? What kind of tech did they plan on using? How many years would it take to bring them to market?
I was met with blank and puzzled stares. Many of them didn’t understand what I meant by “smart gun.”
The closest thing to a smart gun company I could find was called iSightsMount, which sold an iPhone/smartphone app as well as a mount to strap smartphones to rifles and machine guns. The combo turns your smartphone into a video gun sight, allowing you to target your opponent and record video — all at the same time. Just think of all the first-person shooter style school rampage videos this could lead to on YouTube!
iSightsMount is a cool toy, but it was built mostly as a gimmick and experiment. iSightsMount rep Mark Neidig III told me the program was developed as a research product by ITAMCO, a tech and manufacturing company out of Indiana that’s been playing around with using mobile tech and Google Glass to aid in the manufacturing process — for instance, allowing factory workers to visually identify parts, troubleshoot equipment, update information and interact with computer systems without ever touching a computer. The company recently won an award for a Google Glass application that did just that.
Neidig said they had even linked up Google Glass with their iSightsMount app, which meant that they could see what they’re shooting even around corners and over walls — all this with standard off-the-shelf consumer products.
As badass as an iPhone/Google Glass gun sight app might be, it was no smart gun. After a day of wandering around, I was still no closer to finding one.
But there were lots and lots of bright guns — pink and girly-colored guns hanging on just about every display rack.
As my buddy Alexander Zaitchik, a veteran of gun rights and NRA reporting, pointed out, gun makers have been trying to boost their appeal to the female — especially young female — demographic. Most gun makers now feature entire lines of shotguns, hunting and assault rifles, handguns, and all sorts of gun accessories with “girly” trim: bright neon colors, shades of pink, rose camo patterns. One stand even sold pink shooting targets, with proceeds helping fund breast cancer awareness.
It was a worrying trend — bright and colorful guns also look a lot like children’s toys.
Exact statistics are hard to come by as record keeping varies from state to state, but an estimated 1,000 kids are accidentally shot every year. Mother Jones found that of the 200 children fatally shot in 2013, most of them were shot in their own home — and almost half “pulled the trigger themselves or were shot dead by another kid.”
Speaking of which…What about NRA moms? Did they at least support smart gun technology? You know, for the sake of their children? I mean, what kind of parent wants their kid to accidentally blow their own face off just because they found grandpa’s old gun in the closet?
Lucky for me, a group called “Moms With Guns Demand Action” set up a small rally on a lawn across the street from the convention hall.
They were gathered under a banner reading “An Armed Society Is A Safe Society.” It wasn’t the exactly the kind of slogan you’d expect to see from smart gun supporters.
When I got there, a far-right gun rights leader named Larry Pratt had the mic. Pratt had been known to praise apartheid in South Africa and has a nasty history of ties to white supremacy and militia groups — his racism was even too much for Pat Buchanan, who booted Pratt off his own 1996 presidential campaign as a result of it.
Now Pratt was praising the rabidly racist deadbeat Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, calling the man’s stand against the US Bureau of Land Management a crusade for freedom. Pratt was followed by a massive guy introduced as “Anonymous Patriot” — who argued that government taxation was no different than being a slave on a plantation, and declared that the media was the “most dangerous weapon of all.” He was followed in turn by a woman in knee-high boots, a gun strapped to her right ankle. She denounced a Bloomberg-funded group called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense — which had staged a meeting about a mile away from the convention — and vowed to fight those who wanted to exploit the Sandy Hook tragedy to push through totalitarian gun control laws — meaning anything that had even a whiff of gun control.
This wasn’t looking so good.
I scanned the crowd gathered in front of the banner. There were only about a dozen people there — and half of them were armed to the teeth. There were at least four individuals armed with multiple weapons: fully loaded rifles, shotguns and AR-15s slung over their shoulders, backup handguns hanging off their belts and spare mags sticking out their pockets. One of the guys, with a mean face pitted by harsh weather and years of working outdoors, had a rifle with a powerful scope. Was he here to hunt deer? Or assassinate someone?
While all this was going on, I made my way around and asked a couple of rifle-moms what they thought about smart gun technology. As moms, wouldn’t they want a gun that would protect their children against accidental discharges?
The answer was a unanimous: “No!”
“I don’t want anything that’s gonna fail. So guns don’t have to be so technically, you know. My kids know. I’d rather teach them than to have something that’s gonna fail,” said Jill Trammell, a mom from somewhere around Atlanta who runs a PR outfit called “Patriot Promotions.”
This sentiment was repeated by several other mothers I talked to at the convention: they don’t want a gun that would fail at the moment they needed it most to protect your family against armed invaders.
Had they ever used a gun to protect their kids? Well, no. But that doesn’t mean they won’t need to in the near future…
Right after the moms with guns protest, I ran into a gun rights activist named Kyle Coplen. He ran the Armed Citizen Project, a non-profit that hands out free shotguns and provides gun training to single mothers in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods. It was all about protection — helping moms defend themselves with arms.
Coplen proudly sported a “I Support Single Moms” T-shirt that had a silhouette of a svelte woman wearing high-heels, holding a shotgun with one hand and a child’s hand with the other.
Coplen told me that some of the single moms he trains and equips with guns have children who are mentally disabled. So what does he think of smart guns? Would he support tech that would prevent kids from shooting themselves and/or others?
Coplen largely ducked the question.
“Well you know, first of all, mentally challenged children, ah, a lot of kids that are on the autism spectrum, whatever, they are perfectly functioning children and not something we should be scared of them all the time. We need to pay special attention to make sure that they understand the rules more. And do take special attention to lock those guns up.”
Yes, the best way to protect kids with behavioral problems, learning disabilities and autism is to get them to “understand the rules” of guns.
“When we train our folks, we give them a padlock and it goes right behind the trigger guard. And if you want to use it, great. If you don’t want to use it, it’s up to you.”
I dived back inside the convention to continue my search and, at some point, I ran across a tiny booth manned by Alan Gottlieb, who founded and runs the Second Amendment Foundation (SAF).
Small, with a bald pate, a tiny mustache, and a bow tie, Gottlieb sat perched on a barstool. He didn’t look like he belonged at the NRA convention. But his appearance was deceptive. A longtime Republican activist and rightwing operator who runs a lucrative direct mailing business, Gottlieb’s been tied up with the Moonies, the anti-environmental movement, and Young Americans for Liberty. His gun politics are to the right of even people like Wayne LaPierre. “I am the premiere anti-communist, free-enterprise, laissez-faire capitalist,” is how he’s described himself in the past.
Gottlieb is a legend in the gun rights movement. He’s taken multiple gun control laws all the way to the Supreme Court — and won. Most notable was District of Columbia v. Heller — a 2008 Supreme Court decision that overturned a three-decade long ban on guns in the District of Columbia and affirmed for the first time that owning guns for self defense is protected by the US Constitution. SAF partnered with Smith & Wesson on a commemorative revolver marking the historic decision. That same year, Gottlieb also overturned a San Francisco law that banned guns in the city.
Gottlieb was the perfect person to ask about the future of smart guns — in particular, regarding state laws that could mandate smart gun technology.
In fact, at least one such law already exists on the books. New Jersey passed a smart gun law more than a decade ago, mandating that all guns sold in the state be equipped with smart gun technology — no later than three years after such technology becomes available on the consumer market.
Here is the New York Times reporting on it back in 2003:
After five years of debate, the state Assembly had passed the most significant gun legislation since the ban on assault rifles more than a decade ago. Then, a week before Christmas, the same measure – which urges the creation of a new type of handgun breezily labeled the ‘‘smart gun’’ – moved easily through the state Senate.
Governor McGreevey signed the legislation, the first of its kind in the nation, on Dec. 23, to the cheers of supporters and despite protests from gun owners and sellers alike.
…New Jersey’s law is novel in several respects. It directs that retail dealers of handguns sell only state-approved, child-proof pistols and revolvers as soon as smart gun technology comes on the open market. The National Rifle Association points out such high-tech guns have hardly reached the testing stage, and that the state law – which gives gun manufacturers five years to find a solution – is open-ended and legislates a product that does not even exist.
Other states may be joining New Jersey. A similar law is winding its way through California, which would mandate smart gun tech be integrated into guns 1.5 years after such technology becomes available.
There’s also a federal push for smart gun tech as well. Massachusetts Democratic Senator Edward Markey recently introduced the Handgun Trigger Safety Act of 2014. It’s unlikely that it will pass, but it’s serious about smart guns:
Beginning on the date that is 2 years after the date of enactment of this Act, no person may manufacture in the United States a handgun that is not a personalized handgun.
It also calls for putting up $2 million to fund private and state efforts to develop smart gun tech. $2 million might not be enough, but it seems to be just the beginning of a bigger federal push. Just the other day, Attorney General Eric Holder budgeted $2 million as part of “the Administration’s challenge to the private sector to develop innovative and cost-effective gun safety technology.”
These laws are one of the reasons why the first company to put cheap, commercial smart gun technology on the market stands to make a killing. And it might explain why Conway is so excited about pushing for smart guns.
A free market investment into a technology that will be government-mandated. Brilliant. You can’t ask for a better business prospect than a mandated market. Imagine how much richer Conway would have been if the government had laws forcing everyone on the Internet to use Facebook?
So what did Gottlieb have to say about the threat of a mandate? Was he trembling in his boots? Cowering in fear of Silicon Valley’s awesome disruptive power?
He was completely nonplussed: “It’s not yet ripe enough for a challenge. When it does become a problem, I’ll take these laws to court.” On what legal grounds would he challenge the law? “The prohibitive cost and ineffectiveness is an effective ban. That it violates your right to self-defense.”
Gottlieb said he wasn’t against smart guns, he was against the mandate. “If you could develop a really good smart gun, I’d buy one tomorrow.”
It was late in the day and I still hadn’t found what I was looking for. Then suddenly a glimmer of hope.
A burly rep from Bushmaster — the gun company that makes dirty cheap AR-15 that are particularly popular with younger rampage shooters — pointed me to a booth on the other side of the convention hall. It was called the “Intelligun,” put out in partnership with a gun distributor called Kodiak. “They have one of those guns you looking for. With a finger scanner in the grip…”
Sure enough, next to a booth selling low grade jewelry and necklaces, there it was: a single 1911 pistol revolving in a glass case, with a rectangular fingerprint scanner unmistakably built into its grip. Behind it, a flat screen replayed images of the gun and a reenactment of a cop getting his gun taken away from him, showing how it couldn’t be fired by unauthorized users…
“It’s a great technology. Faster than an iPhone,” said Kodiak rep Eric Lichtenberg. “You can program 20 different users, and you can unlock it in less than a second. The battery is a lithium ion, it will last about a year. Recharge it with a micro USB.”
There it was. My long search was over. I finally found the iPhone of guns! Here was a company innovating smart gun technology and pushing the frontier of the Internet of Gun-Things!
But Lichtenberg quickly deflated my excitement.
“We don’t even like calling it a ‘smart gun,’” he said, taking a step back and waving his hands after I used the forbidden phrase.
“Smart guns” evokes the touchy issue of a mandate — laws like the one in New Jersey that would force the adoption of the technology as soon as it hits the market. Kodiak didn’t want to be the one responsible for triggering the hated law.
“The one thing everyone is afraid of is mandation. The industry is afraid of it. That is why we call it an ‘accessory.’ That way the clock [on the law] doesn’t start — because it is an accessory,” he said.
“We are gun people. We are gun fanatics. I love my guns. I own probably close to a hundred guns myself. And all guns. Old guns. New guns,” he said, explaining that Kodiak would never do anything that restricts gun use — even if that meant artificially restricting their own business.
Lichtenberg was no Zuckerberg. And Kodiak was not the Facebook of guns.
What was the Intelligun for? What kind of crazy entrepreneur would develop and invest in the technology, only to straightjacket their own product?
Well, this is where things got interesting.
Turns out the purpose of the Intelligun, as the Kodiak people saw it, wasn’t to make guns safer or prevent gun deaths. It was to expand gun use and bring universal gun rights to every nook and cranny of America: schools, work, stores, hospitals, prisons, airplanes…
“Some of the applications that we foresee being handy is where you normally wouldn’t see a gun: high risk prison facilities, opening up being able to have employees on company policy carry firearms in high risk situations, pharmacies, high risk drug situations. There was an incident with Walgreens and a company called OnTrack that delivers for pharmacies. He was kidnapped and held hostage for drugs. Ha-ha! For three days! Under company policies it is much easier for employers to say well, ‘Why are you afraid of these people carrying guns?’ It’s like, ‘What if we are held liable?’ They’re worried that if they leave it in the bathroom, what is gonna happen. If you can take away that argument, then…”
I was too shocked to respond. Lichtenberg kept talking, excitedly outlining their vision.
“If you really want to think about it…If you can take away the argument that people won’t allow guns in certain cases…Why did everyone fight pilots getting guns? It’s what happens if they get taken away…”
Smart gun locking technology takes away those concern and fears — and not just for pilots.
If you pair the Intelligun with legislation that takes away liability from employers in case a gun is brought in by employees and used at work, Lichtenberg argued that people should be allowed to come to work packing heat: “What argument does the company itself have for creating policies that prevent having guns in the workplace? This is doable in Utah.” He bragged about a pilot program in Idaho that will arm teachers with the Intelligun in public schools.
Put simply, the Intelligun is a tool that allows gun rights folks use the anti-gun crowd’s own arguments to eliminate gun-free zones.
To Lichtenberg, gun locking technology like the Intelligun destroys anti-gun arguments and ought to make all gun laws null and void. “They got nothing. They got nothing. Give us a half a century and we’ll prove our point for the rest of time. Ha-ha!”
What about the threat of state mandates? Is he worried that putting a smart gun technology on the market could one day backfire — and at some point all guns might be required to be smart guns?
“I’m not pro-mandation. But if it comes to that point, well, you better let me take my gun everywhere. Because now I can take it on an airplane. Right? No one else can use it. If I’ve proved that I’m safe to carry it, so why can’t I get on an airplane. Right? If you force this technology down our throats now, I’m gonna sue you because you won’t let me take my gun anywhere. Ha-ha. I mean, we just gotta keep fighting for the right causes with the right mindset. If we can prove it. If we can make it safe and get something that can allow us to carry our guns to work. Give us… I mean seriously… Give us half a century and we’ll prove it for the rest of eternity.”
As the NRA convention drew to a close, the New York Times published a frightening story about Belinda Padilla, who works with a German company called Armatix which has been trying to roll out a small .22 caliber smart pistol/wristwatch combo in the U.S.
So far, Arnatix has been viciously blockaded by the gun industry, and has been unable to find any gun stores willing to carry their smart gun.
Padilla received death threats for trying to bring the gun to market; gun nuts linked her to a grand global conspiracy involving George Soros.
Calguns, a popular forum for California gun owners, has been hosting the digital lynch mob against Padilla and Armatix. “I have no qualms with the idea of personally and professionally leveling the life of someone who has attempted to profit from disarming me and my fellow Americans,” a commenter wrote.
On his radio show, Sean Hannity alleged that smart gun technology similar to Armatix’s is a government plot that’s “Orwellian” — presumably straight out of 1984: “…gun tracking bracelets are something the Justice Department wants to explore as part of its gun control efforts. Now that sounds to me like a Orwellian nightmare where the government is going to be tracking your gun and where you are at any given minute with that gun.”
So, what can we take away from all of this? Well, Ron Conway is probably going to find that the gun world is much less amenable to “disruption” than he ever imagined. Gun freedom is not just important for the lucrative business interests of gun and ammo companies. It’s central to a warped right-wing libertarian political culture backed by the most powerful reactionary plutocrats in the world — a culture that promotes guns as the ultimate tool of political self-empowerment and equates even the most harmless attempt to regulate or technologize guns with big government totalitarian-fascism.
Is Silicon Valley ready to go to war with these folks? On the contrary, the tech world’s been getting deeper and deeper in bed with them.
[illustration by Brad Jonas and photos by Yasha Levine for Pando]