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How An Idea To Develop A Safer, Smart Gun Backfired

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

If you have a smartphone, maybe you unlock it with your fingerprint. And if we can do that for a phone, some people wonder why can't we use digital locks on guns too? Well, one company tried it - tried to give its customers a safer kind of gun. As Joel Rose of our Planet Money podcast explains, it paid a steep price.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: That company was Colt. It made the first successful revolver back before the Civil War. One of its advertising slogans was God created man, Samuel Colt made them equal. But by the early 1990s, Colt had fallen on hard times. That's when Donald Zilkha bought the company with a plan to get it back on its feet.

DONALD ZILKHA: I was doing something that I thought was innovative in an industry that hadn't done too much innovation in a long time. It was going to improve things in this business.

ROSE: Donald Zilkha didn't even own a gun. He was an investment banker from Manhattan, wears nice suits, cufflinks. What attracted him to Colt was its iconic role in American history. And he thought he saw another historic opportunity, a smart gun - a gun that will only fire for an authorized user like its owner.

Zilkha figured everybody will love this - police because the bad guys can't steal your gun and use it against you and regular gun owners or parents because it would cut down on accidents. Millions of new customers for Colt.

ZILKHA: Initially, I thought this would be something that could be adapted over 20-30 years and everybody would say, wow, this is a good way to own a handgun.

ROSE: But almost right away, Zilkha discovered that the customers he imagined were not as enthusiastic as he was. Let's start with police. Stephen Albanese is a retired New York City police officer.

For 20 years, it was his job to make sure the department's guns worked like they were supposed to. Albanese says he and other officers weren't sure they could trust smart guns to fire every time.

STEPHEN ALBANESE: I've had cops tell me that their worst nightmare is getting involved in a situation, pulling out that gun, pulling the trigger and hearing it go click.

ROSE: So the technical problems were real. Colt's engineers were confident they could solve them. But owner Donald Zilkha had another problem - a people problem.

ZILKHA: I hadn't totally fully understood the culture.

ROSE: Remember, he's a New Yorker - doesn't own a gun. Zilkha started hearing from gun owners who hated this idea. They figure that once a smart gun was on the market, it was only a matter of time before the government said all guns had to be smart guns. That's why people like Alan Rice at the New Hampshire Firearms Coalition rallied against the smart gun.

ALAN RICE: It was a bunch of people who were just fed up. They felt that this company that had been around for over a hundred years was betraying their customers.

ROSE: Rice says there was so much anger about Colt's smart gun research that some gun owners actually boycotted the gun company. So before Zilkha could reach those millions of new customers, he had to win over the police and skeptical gun owners. And Colt bet big that showing off their state-of-the-art smart gun prototype would help. The company invited a reporter from The Wall Street Journal in for a demonstration.

VANESSA O'CONNELL: They were feeling really confident that they had finally got this technology down.

ROSE: Vanessa O'Connell was that reporter. She went up to Connecticut to interview the CEO at the time, the guy Donald Zilkha had hired to run Colt. An engineer brought out the smart gun, and he explained that it was only supposed to fire if the shooter was wearing a special wristband with a little radio frequency transmitter inside. The CEO put on the wristband and went to pull the trigger.

O'CONNELL: And it didn't shoot. Just silence. You can imagine what was going through my mind at the time. If you have a gun that is supposed to shoot when you need it to shoot and it's not going to shoot, you have a big problem.

ROSE: The timing was awful. Just when Colt needed to convince potential customers they could trust this new smart gun, here's a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal saying they can't. Not long after, Colt pulled the plug on smart gun research. Seventeen years later, no American gun company wants to pick up where Colt left off. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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