Updated: Wednesday, January 24, 2018, 11:31 AM
A Main Line start-up wants to manufacture America’s first-ever “smart gun,” a 9-millimeter pistol that uses radio-frequency ID technology to provide a layer of safety for police officers and eventually American consumers, the world’s biggest gun buyers.
For the last two months, LodeStar Firearms has been seeking to raise $5 million to design and make a product that its backers say could prevent thousands of shootings a year and sharply curtail gun thefts. It aims to sell more than a million guns annually in five to seven years.
That would be a huge achievement for the fledgling firm since no one has yet sold a single smart gun on these shores. Smart guns have faced enormous blowback from the National Rifle Association, which rejects the technology as costly, unreliable, and an expansion of government control over firearms. Opponents have blocked sales of smart guns, leading other start-ups like the German weapon-locks firm Armatix to go bankrupt trying.
LodeStar CEO Gareth Glaser didn’t start out as a gun guy. The former tax lawyer and University of Pennsylvania graduate worked in corporate America for most of his career at ExxonMobil and Alcon, the eye-care unit of Novartis. But in 2017, he took part in a Harvard graduate school project, encouraging experienced executives to take on social problems, and came to believe that “smart guns” represented an untapped business opportunity.
“I did some research and found that, like auto accidents, safety with guns can be increased by technology like seat belts and air bags in cars,” Glaser said at his Radnor home, which doubles as LodeStar’s headquarters. The firm is banking on consumers’ willingness to use “smart” recognition technology in their daily lives, including phones that open to your face, cars that start to a driver’s voice, and television remotes that search for movies from simple commands.
Invited to speak on a smart-gun technology panel in 2017, Glaser met the legendary German gun designer Ernst Mauch, chief designer for Heckler & Koch. Most aficionados recognize H&K as the premier weapons maker for police and the military. Mauch developed the MP-5 submachine gun and other guns widely used by SWAT teams, federal law enforcement, customs, and border patrol.
Mauch is retired, and still keen on designing a smart gun, so he became LodeStar’s chief gun designer. “He has the design background, and I had the business experience,” Glaser said, explaining LodeStar’s birth.
Mauch and his team of German engineers are working on a 9mm prototype to exacting specifications, with the hope that they will have a Glock-style weapon for sale sometime in late 2018 or early 2019. The price would be in the $700-to-$800 range, including two hours of training with a firearms instructor.
The firm wants to put smart-gun manufacturing in the U.S., Glaser said. “Smart guns are a small niche business right now, but there are really no competitors. If our smartphones can recognize our fingerprints or our faces, why can’t guns?”
Why? To date, traditional manufacturers have expressed distrust of the technology as have many gun owners, fearing that the guns could malfunction or fail to fire during a mud-filled confrontation.
Those views “will likely change, just as it has with Detroit and self-driving cars,” maintained Michael Farrell, a LodeStar board member and weapons trainer. Farrell founded Smart Firearms, a Tempe, Ariz.-based company training leading law enforcement agencies including the Phoenix, D.C. Metro, Boston, New York Police Departments and the New York Department of Corrections.
“When Ernst Mauch joined LodeStar, that sealed it for me,” said Farrell.
The U.S. firearms market totals $7 billion a year, or roughly 12 million guns. And Americans already own roughly 300 million out of the 650 million guns in circulation globally.
“We buy half of all the world’s guns, so the average American gun owner buys eight or nine weapons, and 40 percent of those people keep one gun loaded” in their house, said Glaser.
“We want the loaded gun to be our smart gun,” he said, describing the firm’s market. Today, a smart gun will compete with traditional handguns made by Glock, the maker of pistols used by over 65 percent of police departments in the U.S. Thirty years later, LodeStar wants to create “a safer, reliable handgun that can only be fired by the authorized user.”
Without the programmed ID token nearby, the LodeStar personalized handgun is always in the “OFF” position. When the gun and the chip are within a few inches of each other, the firearm immediately lights up green — and the gun fires. Battery life lasts up to 10 years. And the LodeStar gun promises to be hacker-proof, unlike an early prototype by Armatix.
John Diaz, former Seattle police chief, said he much prefers LodeStar’s RFID (radio frequency ID) technology, the same used on a remote car lock. He believes RFID works better than biometric or fingerprint recognition.
“Officers wear gloves, they’re down in the mud, and biometric isn’t reliable,” said Diaz, also a board member at LodeStar. “Our officers in Seattle switched to Glocks about 20 years ago, and some new calibers about seven or eight years ago. If police officers are ever to move to smart guns, their acceptance comes down to reliability.”
Accidental gun deaths are another reason why smart guns make sense for law enforcement and consumer buyers, Glaser said. With RFID technology, “as soon as the token or bracelet is out of range, the gun stops working.”
Police officers could program their weapons to be fired by their partners, if necessary, but not by anyone else, he added. So could parents with children in the house.
Smart-gun technology could also help stem the flood of stolen guns and accidental deaths: roughly 38,000 Americans are fatally shot each year, and an additional 80,000 people in accidents and suicides. Since the year 2000, “more than two million people have been shot accidentally, and 500,000 have died, more than all military killed since the Civil War.”
Glaser worked in-house as an attorney for ExxonMobil and then Alcon, which went public. “I’m the business guy,” he said. Mauch, on the other hand, is considered weapons royalty, as is Jonathan Mossberg, of the Mossberg rifle maker family, who also advises LodeStar.
LodeStar’s advisers and investors are pinning their hopes on New Jersey, where State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D., Teaneck) and Gov. Murphy have pledged support for smart guns.
In 2002, New Jersey became the first state in the nation to enact a law requiring that all handguns sold in the state be childproof once the technology became available and approved by the state. Gun lobbyists pushed back and threatened store owners, prompting them to back off from selling smart firearms.
In 2017, the New Jersey Legislature tried to repeal the 2002 mandate and instead require each firearm retailer in New Jersey to sell a personalized handgun model once they are available. Then-Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the bill, but Murphy has signaled he will sign any new law.
In an interview, Weinberg said she expects the New Jersey mandate will be repealed and replaced this year under Murphy.
“We are all in agreement that the mandate to purchase should be rolled back, while also protecting retailers who want to offer a childproof handgun,” she said.
Mauch, for his part, said he was moved to create a smart gun after having to testify in the case of a 6-year-old California boy who shot his best friend with his father’s handgun.
“I had to explain to the judge why that pistol shot this poor boy. … How should a dumb piece of metal know who is using it? The pistol must function in the hands of a policeman or soldier with NO COMPROMISE and should not function in the hands of that young boy,” he wrote in an email from Germany, where he’s based.
But the technology didn’t exist then. That event “pushed me to make that kind of product,” Mauch said. “A pistol that only functions in the hands of the official owner to make sure that nobody else can use that instrument for misuse.”