Obama pushes for smart guns - this NRA member may have the answer

By Colby Itkowitz

Omer Kiyani holds his smart technology lock for firearms. Photo / Omer Kiyani
Omer Kiyani holds his smart technology lock for firearms. Photo / Omer Kiyani

When President Barack Obama called for advanced research on "smart" gun technologies last week, Omer Kiyani thought, "I've already done that."

The Detroit-based engineer has a technological solution he believes will appease both sides of the contentious gun safety debate.

He should know. He has been on both sides.

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Kiyani survived a shooting when he was 16. An unknown gunman fired through the back window of the car Kiyani was in one night with friends and the bullet pierced through his left cheek. The sustained injury has inhibited him from eating on the left side of his mouth.

For Kiyani, improving gun safety is personal. But he's also a gun owner and a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association. He doesn't want to wade into the politics of it. He just feels passionately about developing a way for guns to be safer.

"I think gun violence is a problem. This is me doing my part," he said. "I'm not a politician. I'm none of that. I am an engineer solving a technical problem."

The general idea behind smart gun technologies is that only the owner of a firearm could unlock it. It's not unlike how smartphones can be fingerprint protected. Other technologies on the market have built smart technologies inside guns.

For example, one German company developed a smart gun with a chip inside that could be unlocked with a watch. But stores in California and Maryland that wanted to sell the guns faced death threats and protests so intense that they backed down.

The backlash is predicated on concerns that the technology will lead to the government mandating that only guns equipped with smart technologies be sold.

If a child can't open a bottle of aspirin, we should make sure they can't pull a trigger on a gun.
US President Barack Obama

That's why Kiyani believes he's found a middle ground - his technology doesn't require buying a new gun. He has created a lock that fits over the trigger of most existing firearms. It can be unlocked with the owner's fingerprint almost instantaneously.

"I have a device which is an accessory that allows any gun to become a smart gun," he said. "It doesn't mess with any of the internals of the gun."

He has had the idea in his head for many years, but after the shooting in Newtown, Conn., in 2012 that left 20 elementary school children and six adults dead, he felt as though no one was doing anything actionable to curb gun violence.

"Now is the time, no one else is doing it, so I have to do it myself," he said. "I have to do it because I felt helpless."

In an e-mailed statement, Amy Hunter, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action, the group's lobbying arm, said the NRA "is not opposed to smart technology."

"If manufacturers make it and people buy it, that's fine. We're not in the business of advocating for products - any products," Hunter said.

Omer Kiyani holds his smart technology lock for firearms. Photo / Washington Post
Omer Kiyani holds his smart technology lock for firearms. Photo / Washington Post

"We're opposed to government mandates that require consumers to purchase particular items. This became an issue in New Jersey when the state passed a bill that said, essentially, once smart gun technology is available, no one can buy any other kind of gun. We are absolutely opposed to that."

She said that she was not familiar with Kiyani's product, but that regardless, the answer would be the same.

Eddie Isler, who answered the phone at Gun Owners of America, said that the public should decide whether it wants the technology, but that he sees it as largely unnecessary. Most responsible people already lock their guns away, he said. He also worried what would happen if an intruder came in to your home and only your wife was there and her fingerprint didn't unlock it, or if the battery died.

Skeptics also worry that if the technology had a glitch, it could cost a life.

Kiyani said the lock can store up to nine fingerprints and has a battery life of several months. As for possible malfunctions, guns themselves are not 100 percent foolproof, he said. They can jam. Relying on any mechanical device for protection is a risk.

That one email I get that says you saved my life, that will make it all worth it.

He took his product, which costs $319, to the mega Consumer Electronics Show in Law Vegas last week. He couldn't demonstrate how it works, though, because he couldn't bring a gun inside.

A onetime developer of airbag safety technologies, Kiyani left that work last year to focus full time on his biometrics company, Identilock, after receiving a $100,000 grant from the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation to develop it. He said the response from gun owners so far has been positive.

At Obama's announcement of his executive actions on gun violence, and again at his town hall meeting last week, the president said his administration will work with the private sector on new smart gun technologies.

It's a goal he is likely to repeat during his State of the Union address on Tuesday, where one seat in the first lady's box will be empty as a tribute to all the Americans killed by guns.

A federal government study determined that 8 percent of unintentional gun-related deaths could have been prevented by a child safety lock. There were nearly 2,000 accidental gun deaths in 2015 and 59 in the first 10 days of 2016, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

"That one email I get that says you saved my life, that will make it all worth it," Kiyani said. "One life will be worth all this trouble and I know I will save more. Every time this product isn't out there, there's a life unsaved."

- Washington Post

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