Kai Kloepfer was only 15 when tragedy hit his home state: a man in Aurora, Col. gunned down a movie theater filled with people, killing 12, at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises.
With a high school science fair around the corner, the shooting spurred Kloepfer on a path of discovery: could technology solve gun violence?
An engineering autodidact, he scoured the Internet for research and design ideas, and stealthily worked on his project during high school classes.
Last week, Kloepfer, now 19, unveiled his creation: the world’s first working smart gun – a firearm that unlocks like an iPhone, detecting the owner via fingerprint recognition.
For someone who’s never taken a formal engineering class, Kloepfer and his arms-tech startup, Biofire, have received remarkable praise and buzz from the professional world. Silicon Valley “super angel” Roy Conway, famed for his early investments in Google and Facebook, has called Kloepfer the “Mark Zuckerberg of guns.” Geoffrey A. Fowler of the Wall Street Journal has predicted he’ll disrupt the gun industry as we know it.
“In a lot of ways, the firearm market is one that’s seen almost no change,” says Kloepfer. “One of the most common firearms sold today is a Colt M1911, which has remained unchanged since 1911. This is a market where a Model T is competitive with a Tesla.”
Biofire’s smart gun, then, could prove to be a much-needed catalyst for gun innovation – but it’s not the only hat in the ring.
In 2012 another millennial arms trailblazer, Cody Wilson, launched Defense Distributed, a non-profit that publishes open source gun designs that can be downloaded and created with a 3-D printer.
Whereas Kloepfer’s invention is meant to make gun use safer, Wilson – a libertarian anarchist and gun-rights activist – built his to circumvent gun restrictions and “defend the civil liberty of popular access to arms.”
Kloepfer, meanwhile, wants to keep Biofire apolitical.
“We think smart guns should be subject to all the rules and regulations that a normal firearm is subject to, and no more,” he says. “There shouldn’t be special requirements for [people to use] smart guns, but they also shouldn’t be exempt from any normal gun laws.”
Since he began his project four years ago, gun violence in the United States – and the heated bipartisan debate surrounding it – has only grown.
“Mass shootings have been something my generation has dealt with over the course of their entire lives, in a way unlike any generation before it,” he says.
Most of those shootings, Kloepfer notes, were perpetrated by people who own guns legally – meaning a fingerprint-locked gun can’t be the end-all solution to massacres like the one in Aurora.
“We need to start doing something to address gun violence in general, and it’s definitely not just one [solution],” he says. “It’s smart guns and a legislative approach, and it’s an education approach, and it’s an analytics and reporting approach. It’s a million-sided die that all has to fit together. But I hope to see a really big change and a push towards that, and I think it’s happening already.”