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Will a 'smart gun' finally make it to market?

Advocates say guns designed to be unlocked like smartphones will save young lives, but the gun lobby is skeptical.

Even at age 15, his parents say, Ethan Song had big plans.

“He wanted to attend Rice University,” said his mother, Kristin Song. “He wanted to join the army. He wanted to marry and have seven children. He wanted his house to be full of laughter in music, like our house was.”

But on Jan. 31, 2018, the day he got his braces off, those dreams were extinguished. He and a friend were playing with a neighbor’s handgun when Ethan accidentally shot himself in the head. He survived about four minutes.

“Within an hour, I saw two police officers walking across my lawn,” Kristin Song said. “Never in our wildest imaginations did we think our child was dead.” 

Mike and Kristin Song with a picture of their son, Ethan Song, 15. Ethan died after he accidentally shot himself with a neighbor's handgun that was stored in a closet shoebox.
Mike and Kristin Song with a picture of their son, Ethan Song, 15. Ethan died after he accidentally shot himself with a neighbor's handgun that was stored in a closet shoebox.NBC News NOW

The Songs, of Guilford, Connecticut, have become advocates for so-called smart guns, which are designed to be fired only by an authorized user, employing fingerprint detection, bluetooth links and other technology that locks the gun to anyone else.

Companies have tried for years without success to bring such a product to market, but now at least two firms say they are close. The CEO of one of them, LodeStar Works, called the Songs a few months after Ethan's death.

“I was like, oh my God, that would have saved Ethan’s life,” Kristin Song said. 

LodeStar Works, based near Philadelphia, provided a demonstration of its current 9 mm handgun prototype at a firing range in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. The smart tech includes three ways to verify the user. It can be unlocked by a fingerprint, a pin pad code or a smartphone app that can be paired via Bluetooth with the firearm.

The owner chooses which of the three methods is the primary one. The company says its weapon will sell for around $900, compared with $600 for a typical pistol.

“The technology can work, and we’re making it work,” said LodeStar CEO Gareth Glaser. “Our authentication methods are reliable, they lock and unlock the firearm, and it shoots. Now, it’s still just a prototype, and it’s in development.  But that’s going to be the major proposition of our company, that this is a very reliable, trustworthy technology.”

Larry Keane, the top lobbyist for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said his group is not opposed to smart guns, but he is dubious they can work as promised. 

“If the battery fails, and you cannot use the firearm in a time of need, someone’s breaking into your house, to commit rape, murder, whatever, that’s a bad outcome if you have that firearm for self protection,” he said. 

“The technology isn’t there yet,” he added. “It isn’t commercialized at this point. And I have, over my career, heard the argument and claims by developers that within weeks, months, next year, they will be putting their product on the market. It has never happened as of now.”

Glaser said LodeStar’s gun can be set to fire if the battery fails.

“When I hear people say, 'I don’t trust technology,' I say why would you take a horse and buggy to work today? No, you drove a car, which is full of technology, right?” he said.  “Although it’s not perfect, it’s pretty darn reliable.”

Polls show many gun owners might be willing to pay a premium for more safety. According to a Morning Consult study released last month, 55 percent of gun owners and 39 percent of people who don’t own guns reported they would be comfortable using a smart gun. 

“My understanding of smart guns is it knows the owner’s fingerprint,” Mike Song said. “And Ethan would not have had that fingerprint, that gun would have simply frozen his hand. And that would have been an amazing moment.”

Glaser said he hopes LodeStar’s gun will be on the market in the spring of 2023. If that happens, it would be the end of a journey that began in the 1990s, when firearms manufacturer Smith & Wesson floated the idea of a smart gun as part of a legal settlement.

But a boycott by gun rights groups nearly took down the company. A German firm tried again a few years ago, but a hacker showed how the gun could easily be unlocked with magnets. 

The largest roadblock, experts said, was a 2002 New Jersey law that would have required all new guns sold in the state to be equipped with the technology. Backlash against that law stifled innovation and poisoned the political debate over smart guns, they said. The law has since been repealed. 

Glaser said the technology could hardly be more timely. Gun ownership surged during the pandemic and so did mishaps.  One firearms safety group, Everytown for Gun Safety, counted nearly 400 unintentional shootings by children last year alone, killing 163 people. 

On Sunday, a 3-year-old accidentally shot himself to death in Florida, and last week, a toddler was killed and another wounded in Louisiana when one of the children got ahold of a loaded gun.

But advocates for gun safety said waiting a year for smart guns to become available is too long. Kristin and Mike Song have been working to pass Ethan’s Law, a proposed bill in Congress that would require gun owners to safely store their guns or face criminal penalties. 

“I wanted to go in and sit with him and first of all, apologize, because I really felt like I let him down," Kristin Song said about Ethan. "I felt like my job was to protect my child, and I didn’t do that.”

Said Mike Song: “The impact of losing a child like this suddenly to gun violence is infinite. It’s a mountain of pain that just crushes you down. And then you cry a river of tears. And then you get up and do it again the next day.”