Apr 25, 2014 · 6 minutes

It’s 2:30 am and I’m on the red-eye toward Indianapolis, Indiana, staging ground for the biggest and baddest gun rights powwow in the known world -- aka the National Rifle Association’s annual convention. A guy next to me in an army camo sweater has passed out. His elbow is in my ribs. He’s wheezing deeply, a thick stench of mouth-rot wafting out of his mouth.

While most attendees will be salivating at seeing keynote speaker Ted Nugent, or lining up for panels with names like "Sheepdogs! The Bulletproof Mind for the Armed Citizen," I’m going there to hunt down the biggest next Internet of Things device in Silicon Valley: the "smart gun."

Ron Conway*, the godfather of Silicon Valley’s angel investors, recently launched a foundation and a $1 million competition to find the inventors who have the best idea for a gun technology that prevents unauthorized use of a firearm by tying it to a specific user/users.

The competition – the winners of which will be announced this summer – is open to all types of technologies: biometric grips, RFID bracelets, Bluetooth gun-pairing smartphone apps, and whatever else people come up with… Winners will be awarded with prizes of up to $200,000 to develop the technology to the point that they can get the first round of investors – one of whom may or may not be Ron himself.

Conway launched the challenge after Sandy Hook – he was appalled by the slaughter of innocents and a lack of action by pols in DC. Luckily, he saw a way to get around and past broken DC politics: free markets and technology.

The Smart Tech Challenges Foundation is organizing a series of challenges aimed at encouraging the creation of free-market solutions to reduce gun violence. We can speed up the discovery of innovative technologies to make America safer without encroaching upon our Second Amendment rights.
The solution is brilliant in its simplicity: gun violence is caused by a technological tool – namely, a gun. So what better way to solve the problem than with another technology. It’s like fighting fire with fire. Or taking an eye for an eye. And who better to light the fire or poke out an eye than Silicon Valley, which has been making the world a better place through tech and free markets for… well, for at least a decade or two.

“We’re going to be able to point to the Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page innovator for gun safety, who made their fame by inventing around gun safety,” Conway said at a press conference that announced the launch of the smart gun challenge.

The people at Smart Tech Foundation’s launch event stressed that smart guns technology isn’t about gun control. Jim Pitkow, Conway's partner in the foundation, said “We believe in the free market and the democratic process... This is about examining the current realities of gun violence and the systematic market failures in terms of innovation and active capital. This is not about gun control. In no way do our efforts challenge the right to bear arms."

Mr. Conway’s smart gun challenge might be all about making the world a better place and saving kids. But that doesn’t mean it can’t make a bit of money, too. It is a free market solution, after all. So there’s got to be a profit motive lurking around somewhere.

And sure enough, there’s already a massive captive market for smart gun technology for anyone who brings it to mass market first.

How massive? Well consider that the state of New Jersey already has a smart gun law on the books that mandates all guns sold in the state be equipped with smart gun technology – no later than three years after such technology becomes available on the consumer market.

The law was passed more than a decade ago.

Here is the New York Times reporting on it back in 2003:

After five years of debate, the state Assembly had passed the most significant gun legislation since the ban on assault rifles more than a decade ago. Then, a week before Christmas, the same measure – which urges the creation of a new type of handgun breezily labeled the ‘‘smart gun’’ – moved easily through the state Senate.

Governor McGreevey signed the legislation, the first of its kind in the nation, on Dec. 23, to the cheers of supporters and despite protests from gun owners and sellers alike.

…New Jersey’s law is novel in several respects. It directs that retail dealers of handguns sell only state-approved, child-proof pistols and revolvers as soon as smart gun technology comes on the open market. The National Rifle Association points out such high-tech guns have hardly reached the testing stage, and that the state law – which gives gun manufacturers five years to find a solution – is open-ended and legislates a product that does not even exist. Translation: If Ron Conway’s smart gun challenge produces a viable product, he’d automatically have a captive market — and an entire state.

Other states may be joining New Jersey. A similar law is winding its way through California, which would mandate smart gun tech be integrated into guns 1.5 years after such technology becomes available.

There’s also a federal push for smart gun tech as well.

Massachusetts Democratic Senator Edward Markey recently introduced the Handgun Trigger Safety Act of 2014. It’s unlikely that it’ll pass, but it’s serious about smart guns:

Beginning on the date that is 2 years after the date of enactment of this Act, no person may manufacture in the United States a handgun that is not a personalized handgun.
It also calls for putting up $2 million to fund private and state efforts to develop smart gun tech. $2 million might not be enough, but it seems to be just the beginning of a bigger federal push.

Just the other day, Attorney General Eric Holder budgeted $2 million as part of “the Administration’s challenge to the private sector to develop innovative and cost-effective gun safety technology."

The more I think about it, the more Ron Conway’s smart gun challenge looks like an investment cloaked as philanthropy. Then again, it doesn’t matter what I think. Because Conway freely admits it:

“We need the iPhone of guns,” Conway told the Washington Post. “The entrepreneur who does this right could be the Mark Zuckerberg of guns. Then the venture capitalists like me will dive in, give them capital, and we will build a multibillion-dollar gun company that makes safe, smart guns.”

A free market investment into a tech that will be required by law by the government. Brilliant. You can’t think of a better business climate.

Finding the next Zuckerberg who’ll make the iPhone of guns? Surely, Conway meant the next Steve Jobs to make the iPhone of guns. But then, Conway was an early investor in Facebook: Imagine how much richer he would have been if the government had laws forcing everyone on the Internet to use Facebook.

And so off I go to the NRA convention to see if I can track down the Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs of guns. With all the recent interest in smart gun tech, I'm assuming smart businessfolk have been rushing to get into the market. To be first and dominate. And I'm hoping there'll be rows and rows of gun-loving entrepreneurs innovating not just in smart gun tech, but pushing the frontier of the “Internet of Guns-Things.” Israel is already way ahead in the iPhone-of-guns arms race. America must close the gap!

To be continued...

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]