When Kai Kloepfer was 15, an event changed the course of his life. Then a student at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado, Kloepfer lived 30 minutes from a Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. That year, on July 20, 2012, a mass shooting during a midnight screening in Aurora of the film The Dark Knight Rises, killed 12 people and injured 70. Kloepfer, a science fair enthusiast who had created blimps, remote-control robots and other cool projects, suddenly felt moved toward a new engineering mission. How could he use his scientific expertise to tackle the frightening reality of gun violence and mass shootings in the U.S.?
Kloepfer dove into the research surrounding this issue and soon discovered a clearer path for his project to address: suicides and accidental deaths by firearm. “We basically have a mass shooting everyday in the U.S., but these shootings don’t happen all in one place,” notes Kloepfer, who is now 19 and a freshman at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “More people die from firearms in the U.S. than they do from auto accidents, and the majority of them are suicides. If we want to prevent these, we have to be proactive about securing firearms.”
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As a high school sophomore, Kloepfer set out to develop a better kind of smart-gun technology that, similar to unlocking our smart phones, could only be fired when it read its owner’s fingerprint. He went on to win his state’s 2013 Intel International Science & Engineering Fair in the Electrical and Mechanical Engineering category — and then admitted to being burned out from months of intense work. He put his “Biometric Electromechanical Firearm Safety” research on the back burner and resumed life as a teen.
Several months later, Kloepfer was on a summer vacation in Switzerland with his family when he received an email from the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, which funds people who are creating new firearm safety technology for the American marketplace. “I was looking up at this mountain and checking my email,” recalls Kloepfer, who had applied for a grant but never thought he would get it. “The president of Smart Tech Challenges sent me this message that said I had the grant and to please send them my work plan and budget within three days.”
And with that, Kloepfer began building the foundation for his company, Biofire Technologies. With the $50,000 Smart Tech Challenges grant, he was thrust into entrepreneurship, and his science fair passion transitioned from a project to a business startup. “I ended up raising the initial money in grants and donations, about $175,000, which I used to further develop the technology and build a prototype,” says Kloepfer.
The current proof-of-concept prototype, built from 3-D printed plastic, is a smart gun with a built in fingerprint sensor that knows who is firing it. It is considered the first major advancement in firearm safety in decades. Development of an advanced prototype on a live firearm is underway.
Kloepfer, recently named to the list of Forbes 30 Under 30 rising business stars, is now surrounded by a team of top lawyers, angel investors and Silicon Valley advisors. And he was recently featured in a front-page Wall Street Journal article. “It has been awesome,” notes Kloepfer, who has had to become schooled in the political and socio-economic factors that fuel the debate around gun ownership and restricted gun use. For a number of reasons, big gun manufacturers were turned off years ago to the idea of smart gun technology. The discussion over whether or not it is a good idea rages on. Still, Kloepfer remains an innovator and an advocate. “People seem really interested in what I’m doing. More than that, it’s a great platform to be a technology evangelist for smart guns and the dangers of gun violence.”
Kloepfer especially wants other teens to learn from his engineering-driven experience, which has opened many new pathways for him. He sums up his insights this way:
- Suicide is one of the leading causes of death among teens. “This is the reality,” says Kloepfer. “It seems that everyone knows someone who has committed suicide. Being there for friends can make a substantial difference. 90% of people who have one suicide attempt go on to get treatment and move on. All hope is not lost. Being there for someone is really important.”
- What people say is true is not always true. “I’ve had a lot of people over the course of this project tell me that building a smart gun is impossible. It is possible. I’ve built one,” says Kloepfer. “I admit that I jumped in without doing my due diligence. When I was working on the company, I was too far in to stop. I hadn’t done comprehensive market research and learned all the things that I needed to learn. Usually, that’s dumb. But on the other hand, I didn’t have people throwing up road blacks and telling me I couldn’t do it. The majority is not always right. The prevailing thought is not always right. Don’t be afraid to challenge things.”
- Don’t feel intimidated by what you don’t know. “I am a big advocate for learning new things and trying things outside your comfort zone,” notes Kloepfer. “Even when it came to my high school engineering projects and science fairs, I didn’t come from a family of scientists and engineers. About 99% of that knowledge and skill set came from me self-assigning myself projects. And when I won the grant, I had never been an entrepreneur. But it’s not that hard to look up how to write a budget. I asked friends and contacts. Each challenge isn’t that bad if you’re willing to do the work. I approach a lot of things in my life with the idea that if you don’t know how to do it, just start.”
- CBS: MIT Freshman Tries to Save Lives with Smart Guns
- Wall Street Journal: A 19-Year-Old Just Built the First Fingerprint-Reading Smart Gun
- Huffington Post: This 17-Year-Old’s Brilliant Invention May Lower Accidental Gun Deaths In America
- Smart Tech Challenges Foundation
- CNN: Colorado Theater Shooting Fast Facts
- New York Times: Why Not Smart Guns in this High Tech Era?
- Forbes 30 Under 30
- Biofire Technologies
What aspect of Kai Kloepfer’s story interests you the most? Is it suicides by firearm? Is it a love of technology? Is it the appeal of entrepreneurship? How do these themes connect with your own life? Discuss with a group what inspires you to learn more and why.
The story says that Kloepfer had to “become schooled in the political and socio-economic factors that fuel the debate around gun ownership and restricted gun use.” Using the related links, explore what some of these issues might be. Why would people protest the development of a technology that helps save lives? Debate this with a group or classroom.
Do you think Kloepfer’s advice to not be “afraid to challenge things” is valid? Can you think of a time when you challenged an idea or norm? How did it turn out? Was it hard to take that first step? Why is it sometimes so hard to go against prevailing beliefs? Share your story in the comments section of this article.
Kai Kloeper said that he is making a “smart/safe” gun, but how is it safe for those who are suicidal? i mean it has to read a fingerprint, but what if the person who killed him/herself had this gun. this wouldnt really help them, or any other people really. like the shooter, he could own his own gun. so how it this really a safer gun?
This is definitely a huge safety feature that will definitely decrease the amount of deaths. Maybe not the ones who are suicidal because if they have the gun it would allow their finger print to shoot the gun. What it will help is the accidental deaths that have taken place. There has been many times where little kids get curious about their dad’s gun and have gotten very hurt. This gun would stop all of that.
I feel that Kloepfer’s innovative idea of “smart guns” may benefit society, but only to a certain degree. For one, the use of a fingerprint lock on guns may be able to reduce the number of firearm-related child deaths in the US. This is because the fingerprint lock would prevent toddlers and teens from accessing their parent’s gun. Furthermore, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia states that in 2014 alone, 2549 children between ages 0-19 died from gunshot, while thousands more were injured. Thus, Kloepfer’s Biometric Electromechanical Firearm Safety idea could potentially save thousands of lives yearly.
However, this is where the benefits of Kloepfer’s ideas end. He states that his invention can prevent suicidal deaths in the US. Can it? The answer is not really. If a gun owner decides to take their own lives, Kloepfer’s technology would not be able to stop it. Since the suicidal individual has access to the fingerprint lock, nothing can be possibly done to prevent the suicide. Similarly, this innovative design of firearm safety may not be able to stop most mass shootings. NBC stated in late 2015 that 80% of mass shooters legally obtain their firearm. In other words, most of the time, the shooters legally own their weapons. Once again, Kloepfer’s fingerprint technology proves to be an ineffective technological accessory in this case.
Nonetheless, I believe that Kloepfer’s invention can be used more usefully. What I mean is that it should be issued to police officers and law enforcers across the country instead of the public. A repeat offender, in August 2016, used a gun he had stolen from a police officer to shoot and kill a deli employee in New York. Such deaths would be easily preventable with the use of Kloepfer’s invention. Moreover, no police officer would ever be worried about criminals stealing their gun in the heat of the moment, as the weapon would be rendered useless anyways. This is how I believe fingerprint safety on firearms should be applied, while I also commend Kai Kloepfer for investing his time and passion into this cause.
Hi Michael. I really like your thoughtful response to this article! Your argument comes up flawed for me, at least, in making the sweeping claim that his invention won’t prevent suicide. Many people, especially teens, are committing suicide with guns they do not own but instead have access to. A fingerprint lock would eliminate this as an option.
I really like your counterargument! I have to admit my sweeping claim that Kloepfer’s invention cannot prevent suicides is incorrect. It can prevent cases of suicide where people are using guns they do not own but have access to. However, going back to the article’s original point, does restricting the functions of a gun to its owner, such as a parent, really make the world a safer place? I don’t think so, since sometimes, firearms should be accessible to responsible non-gun owners for their own safety. Take the case of a 13 year old Charleston boy who defended himself against multiple armed burglars in a home invasion in 2015. He used his mother’s gun to fatally wound one of the burglars while scaring away the others, saving his own life in the process. Had the gun been using Kloepfer’s fingerprint lock, the young teen may have failed to defend himself as he so courageously did with the use of a gun he does not own but has access to. Furthermore, by not allowing people to use guns they do not own for self-harming purposes, like you said, just eliminates an option. It may prevent some cases of suicide, but it may not do much for others. Nonetheless, I believe that Kloepfer’s innovation can be beneficial to some degree, but again, going so far as to saying that it may prevent gun violence, suicides, and mass shootings is a bit of a stretch.
Thanks for your insight,
(The case of the Charleston boy I was referring to can be found here: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/south-carolina-boy-13-fatally-shoots-burglar-wounds-second-suspect-n462006)
This idea can definitely improve gun safety in many ways but there is always plenty of exceptions. It could be dangerous if someone’s family had to defend them selves and the owner was not present. Also this does not prevent the owner from shooting irresponsibly or at someone else and at themselves. This idea has many pros and many cons and i think that everyone should agree on that. The exception is that everyone will not agree on whether the idea has a positive or negative affect on gun owners.