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Q & A

Want to Hack a Smart Gun? You’ll Need a Giant Magnet, Says Industry Pioneer

Ernst Mauch talks with The Trace about the future of high-tech firearms.

Smart gun technology has had a rough time making it to market, but that hasn’t deterred Ernst Mauch. The gun industry lifer is the brains behind the world’s best-known smart gun, and he’s doubling down on what he still believes is the firearm of the future.

Mauch cut his teeth at the arms manufacturer Heckler & Koch (H&K) in his native Germany, rising through the ranks from intern to CEO. Mauch left the company in 2005 to join Armatix, another German company, where he led the team that designed the iP1 pistol. The gun will only discharge if the person pulling the trigger is wearing a wristwatch implanted with a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip, making it difficult for anyone besides an authorized user to fire a round.

The iP1 was heralded as a breakthrough for gun safety. Gun violence prevention advocates feel widespread use of smart guns could lead to a tangible reduction in accidental shootings, especially those involving children. But it was hobbled by a high price, small caliber (it shoots .22 rounds), and an infamously counterproductive New Jersey law that stipulates that once any smart gun enters the U.S. market, smart guns can be the only type of firearm sold in the state. The threat of triggering the mandate sparked a severe backlash among hardcore gun advocates that has scared off any dealers from stocking the product.

As a result, Armatix floundered, and Mauch left the company in May of last year. He’s now touring America to talk about the technology and drum up investment in a new company with the same engineering team from Armatix. On Thursday, the genial mustachioed German and his guide through America, Ralph Fascitelli of Washington state’s Ceasefire, sat down for a talk with The Trace.

You spent nearly three decades at Heckler & Koch working on conventional firearms. When did you start looking at smart guns as viable technology?

My motivation came more from a very bad incident. A six-year-old in California shot a friend with an H&K pistol. I had to answer a lot of questions in court and on the phone. “Why is it that the dumb gun will fire in the hands of this kid?” Because, in the hands of a cop, it has to fire. So that’s why I got involved.

I just wanted to know, is it realistic to build an intelligent gun? During my last three years at the company, I started a study on whether it was possible to implement smart components into a handgun. It went well, and gave me the power and enthusiasm to start an R&D program on the technology. I believe we started in 2003. We knew how to design a gun, but the integration of electronics was another story.

Did you encounter significant engineering challenges in the process?

The engineering problems were not so difficult. But you have to test it to death. We started with RFID, not with biometrics like fingerprint readers, because you have to deal with wet hands, blood, mud, and many special forces or police operate with gloves. They also often operate in teams, so you have to make sure a pistol can be used by a whole team.

We started with a .22-caliber because we wanted to make sure the technology could be integrated in the smallest size of a pistol. We wanted to learn our lessons before developing 9mm or .40-caliber models.

The backlash to the gun you developed is well known. Were you at all surprised by the reaction?

No, I was not surprised. What I’m surprised at a bit was some real freaks attacked the gun stores in California and Maryland that considered stocking the gun, sending them death threats. But other than that, it’s a matter of education and communication. I guarantee you, when the first police unit tests a smart gun and trusts the technology, it will be followed by many others. But without getting police involved, it won’t succeed.

Why do you think smart guns have been greeted with skepticism since they were first seriously discussed in the 1990s?

Some people just don’t want to see them brought to market. Some are skeptical about batteries in their guns, but these days everything is powered like that. There are different arguments, but time will show you can really rely on the technology. Otherwise I would never bring a product to market — I was known as the man who made no compromises at H&K. We tested our products in Alaska, in Panama, in the Yuma desert, in all different climates.

What about people who think hacking is a serious risk?

Hacking is not possible. Disabling an RFID smart gun is only possible with a magnet this size [he holds his hands about shoulder width apart]. Is an attacker going to carry around a huge magnet just in case they run into someone with a smart gun? It doesn’t make sense.

One route to market could be licensing smart gun technology to larger companies like Smith & Wesson. But those companies seem reluctant. What would be necessary to get the larger manufacturers over their aversion?

FASCITELLI: The Smith & Wessons of the world are selling so many guns. They’re seeing record profits. They’re not the most innovative when they’re happy. They’re not going to rock the boat. But it’s not just inventing the technology — it’s the testing. The biggest fear would be if they get made but they’re not reliable. That would be the death of smart guns.

MAUCH: These kinds of products don’t allow you to make any compromises. It’s life or death — it has to be perfect.

[Photo: Armatix]