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Gun Safety at your Fingertips

Did you know every 30 minutes in the U.S., a child dies or is injured by a gun? Determined to make a dent in these statistics, Kai Kloepfer, Intel International Science and Engineering Fair1 (Intel ISEF) 2013 Grand Award winner, developed a biometric gun safety that requires an authorized fingerprint to work.

In the wake of mass shootings at Columbine and Aurora, Coloradans have seen more than their share of lives cut short due to gun violence. Kai Kloepfer, a 16-year-old from Boulder—less than an hour’s drive from Columbine and Aurora—grew up hearing these stories, made all the more poignant because they hit so close to home. What’s more, these were not isolated events. Across the country, people were dying as a result of mass and accidental shootings, often as a result of firearms landing in the wrong hands. Hundreds of children are wounded or die each year in the U.S. as a result of accidental shootings, most often when they “play” with a gun they have found in their own or a friend’s home.

To Kloepfer, a budding engineer with a desire to use his talents for good, the death of innocents was unacceptable.

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Observing that many of these incidents involved someone other than the owner of the gun, Kloepfer—winner of the Intel ISEF 2013 Grand Award—investigated how to create a lock that would prevent unauthorized users from pulling the trigger. His solution: the Biometric Electromechanical Firearm Safety, a device that identifies the fingerprints of a user and either grants or denies access to operation.

Kloepfer’s design uses a built-in, high-quality scanner that charts the ridges and valleys of a fingerprint while the user is holding the gun in the natural shooting position and compares it to the fingerprint scans of authorized users. If the fingerprint is a match, the mechanical lock is released and the gun can be fired. If the fingerprint isn’t a match, the gun remains locked and inoperable. Furthermore, Kloepfer’s high-tech lock is extremely accurate: 99.99 percent, even with partial prints.

As a result, home safety could be vastly improved, preventing unauthorized users, such as children, from firing weapons they might find. Additionally, because the lock can be programmed for up to 999 users per gun, it could have applications in law enforcement and military settings. The fingerprints of all officers in a precinct or soldiers in a unit could be stored in a database embedded in each weapon, allowing all approved parties access to the weapons for their team. At the same time, criminals and enemy combatants would be prevented from firing these weapons if in their possession.

Kloepfer has given considerable thought to how to prevent hacking or fooling the database. To tamper with the embedded database of the device in a privately-owned gun, one would have to gain physical access, and such tampering would be clearly evident. In settings where weapons can be used by multiple users, the system could be vulnerable to attack if the guns are connected (via USB cable) to a computer network. Some of this risk could be mitigated by never connecting the control computer to the network or by enhancing network security features. Finally, though the severed finger of a registered user could currently be used to fool the device, specialized technology exists that could allow only a living, attached finger to activate the sensor.

Kloepfer is currently in the process of patenting his design, after which he intends to approach gun manufacturers and defense contractors to license or sell his design.

ISEF winners

Intel International Science and Engineering Fair

A program of Society for Science and the Public, Intel ISEF is the world’s largest pre-college science competition with over USD 4 million in awards.

Woman at computer

Parents Against Gun Violence

Parents Against Gun Violence is a nonpartisan group advocating for better prevention of gun violence2.

Gary Slutkin

TED Talk: Treating Violence as a Contagious Disease

TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. In this video, physician Gary Slutkin compares gun violence to a contagious disease.2:

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1. Un programma della Society for Science & the Public.

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