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With blond hair cut high and tight and a bayonet-sharp jaw line, Kai Kloepfer bears a striking resemblance to Duke, the heroic (albeit fictional) G.I. Joe sergeant who spent the 1980s thwarting Cobra Commander’s plans for global domination. The backdrop for today’s Zoom call does little to quash the comparison.
Flanked by American and Colorado flags, Kloepfer sits in front of a solid blue wall with the name of his company, Biofire, stenciled across its surface. The effect is imposing—like he’s beaming in from the Pentagon. It’s also, however, a bit of a charade. Kloepfer rotates his computer to his left and, through a glass partition, reveals Biofire’s employee kitchen, which looks like your run-of-the-mill tech company’s break room. There is fancy coffee, a pod for private phone calls, and a set of comfortable leather chairs under another Biofire sign, this one set into a leafy plant wall. “Pretend you never saw that,” Kloepfer jokes.
If Biofire’s Broomfield headquarters feels like a movie set, that only makes sense. After all, a startup’s culture emanates from its founder, and this 26-year-old founder isn’t what he appears to be. Or, rather, he’s not only what he appears to be. Yes, Kloepfer’s firm makes pistols, but the Boulder-area native spent his formative years in a mostly gun-free household dreaming up science fair projects that were so sophisticated they sparked suspicions of undue parental influence. He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and peppers conversations with phrases such as, “so it was actually a very sophisticated seven-factor heterogeneous sensor fusion solution.” But he’s self-aware enough to follow that up with, “I feel like I just word-vomited a lot of things to you.”
While still in high school, Kloepfer turned his attention from science fairs to firearms after a man used a semiautomatic rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a .40-caliber pistol to kill 12 people and wound 58 more at an Aurora movie theater. Horrified, Kloepfer decided to address gun violence by inventing a pistol that uses biometric technology to ensure that only the weapon’s owner can fire the arm, creating what’s known as a smart gun. He founded Biofire as a teenager in 2016 and this year finally unveiled a 9 mm that purports to accomplish that mission.
But during the past decade, Kloepfer, who now owns more firearms than he’s comfortable admitting to a member of the media, learned it wouldn’t be enough to design a handgun so sophisticated it couldn’t be used by anyone except an authorized shooter. He’d have to figure out a way to sell the product to gun-control-wary people worried that the technology could be used by legislators to infringe upon their constitutional rights. For his life’s work to succeed, Kloepfer needed to be two things at once—inventor and salesman—because while winning a science fair is nice, Kloepfer says, “that’s not actually how you have a real impact in the world.”
Kloepfer did not dream up the concept of a smart gun. In the mid-1990s, the Judge Dredd comic book series introduced the Lawgiver, which recognizes its owner’s palm print (and self-destructs if anyone else tries to use it), while in 2012’s Skyfall, James Bond’s Walther PPK only activates for 007.
Science fiction became political reality in 2000, a year after the Columbine High School mass shooting. To avoid lawsuits stemming from the murders, gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson promised President Bill Clinton’s White House that it would, among other things, begin developing smart guns. The National Rifle Association (NRA) reacted by calling Smith & Wesson a “sellout.” Gun rights supporters organized a boycott of the company, forcing layoffs and the resignation of its CEO. The British conglomerate that owned Smith & Wesson sold the brand for 15 percent of what it had paid for it, and the new buyers quickly pulled out of the federal agreement, which President George W. Bush’s administration had no interest in enforcing anyway.
Firearm safety legislation didn’t work, either. In 2002, New Jersey’s Childhood Handgun Law mandated that once a functional smart gun became available in the United States, every pistol sold in the state had to be equipped with the technology. Intended to motivate the development of personalized firearms, the rule had the opposite effect: No gun-maker wanted to introduce a product that could ostensibly make its other weapons illegal. And when, in 2014, a German startup did debut a supposed smart gun, the Armatix iP1, the few retailers who agreed to sell the .22-caliber pistol were besieged by angry callers and emailers—some of whom allegedly issued death threats—and abandoned their plans.
Organizations such as the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the firearm industry’s trade association, oppose legislation that requires smart guns because they view such laws as violations of the Second Amendment. But they aren’t against the technology, per se. The problem, according to them, is that up until now, smart guns have been untrustworthy.
Take the Armatix iP1: Created by a veteran German weapons designer, the semiautomatic pistol connected wirelessly via radio frequency identification to a wristwatch that released a piece of metal that blocked the firing pin. If the gun wasn’t near the watch, it wouldn’t shoot. The Armatix was criticized by the gun community for being difficult to use. For example, according to an NRA review, the owner had to press seven buttons and wait 12 seconds before the gun could be fired, making the pistol impractical for home defense.
Moreover, it wasn’t smart enough. “If you weren’t the authorized user but you stole the watch and the pistol,” reported weapons reviewer Ian McCollum on his Forgotten Weapons blog, which has more than 2.5 million YouTube subscribers, “you could still shoot the gun.” The New Jersey attorney general agreed, determining that the Armatix’s safeguards were not stringent enough to activate the Child Handgun Law. (In 2019, the Garden State watered down the legislation by ruling that, should smart guns ever function as intended, stores only had to carry one offering.)
In short, says Mark Oliva, managing director of public affairs for NSSF, Armatix and other so-called smart guns that have hit the market haven’t delivered on their promises, creating doubt among gun owners that the technology will ever work. “We’ve seen prototypes delivered,” Oliva says, “and we’ve seen them fail.”
The vagaries of firearm politics didn’t factor into the ambitions of an enterprising engineer still in high school when the Armatix debuted. Although the Aurora murders had originally inspired Kloepfer to focus on gun safety, he quickly came to see mass shootings as a complicated issue he couldn’t fix. By researching gun violence, however, he discovered a problem he thought could be mitigated through clever engineering.
Every year, firearms are involved in the deaths of thousands of young people, whether through suicides or accidental shootings. (In 2020, guns surpassed automobiles as the number one killer of children and adolescents in the United States, claiming the lives of more than 4,000 residents ages one to 19, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. In no other comparable country, based on wealth or size, do firearms rank in the top four.) Surely, Kloepfer thought, a device like the one James Bond used in Skyfall would make it more difficult for kids and teens to fire their parents’ weapons.
Kloepfer estimates he spent 1,500 hours during his sophomore year at Fairview High School experimenting with pistols that his mother bought for him, and he eventually developed a rough prototype that came with a fingerprint reader in the grip. The idea won a prize from the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and, later, a $50,000 grant from Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, a nonprofit that funds gun-safety innovations.
But if Kloepfer had grand visions of his creation being welcomed unreservedly by firearms fans, he was quickly disabused of that fantasy. Naturally, a teenage gun inventor became catnip for media outlets, who sometimes surprised Kloepfer—Jerry Springer–style—with gun enthusiasts eager to debate the merits of personalized technology. In one video, a gun store owner told Kloepfer, “Let’s face it, firearms have been used for many centuries, and [they’ve] worked perfectly,” and a former U.S. Marine maintained that smart guns would not have any military application because soldiers wear gloves. One exchange stands out in Kloepfer’s mind, though. “I swear they found the most surly guy they could find,” Kloepfer says. “His big thing was, ‘What if my hands are wet?’ ” When Kloepfer was at MIT, his friends found the video and started greeting him with, Hey, Kai. What if my hands are wet?
Rather than get discouraged, Kloepfer spent much of the next few years using those interactions to shape the evolution of his pistol. (After all, fingerprint scanners sometimes don’t register wet hands.) He dropped out of MIT in 2018 to focus on Biofire but remained in Boston until 2020, when the company moved to Colorado, a more gun-friendly state with a healthy supply of the kind of aerospace engineers Kloepfer wanted to hire. The company has raised more than $30 million in funding and now has 40 full-time employees, who continue to elicit feedback from gun owners. The respondents’ ideal smart gun is almost always the same. “There are no extra things they have to do, no extra steps,” says Bryan Rogers, Biofire’s lead designer. “They just pick it up. It works for them. They put it down, it doesn’t work.” A smart gun could be different, but it couldn’t act different.
After developing hundreds of prototypes, Biofire started taking orders for its production model, the aptly named Smart Gun, in April. To facilitate wet, dirty, or gloved hands, the firearm not only has a fingerprint reader but it also has face-recognition technology akin to an iPhone. Perhaps the gun’s most novel advancement is its guts. Traditional guns are mechanical. You pull the trigger, which drops the hammer, which hits the firing pin, which ignites the cartridge. Biofire’s 9 mm is electronic, meaning the trigger isn’t a trigger so much as a button, like on a microwave, that happens to launch a bullet. “This is more akin to an iPhone than it is to a Colt .45,” says retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Guy Swan, who serves on Biofire’s board of directors. Nevertheless, gun enthusiasts wanted the trigger to match what they were used to, so Kloepfer made the resistance feel as strong as a regular firearm’s.
But Biofire’s unique contribution to the gun industry remains its promise of security. Milliseconds after both the face and fingerprint readers are inactivated, the firearm becomes an expensive paperweight. Drop the pistol and it’s disarmed by the time it hits the ground. The Armatix’s metal lock could be bypassed by placing cheap magnets alongside the gun, but that would be ineffective with Biofire’s model because, among other safeguards, it’s electronic. Its settings, including adding a new user, can only be changed when it’s in its dock, and that’s only accessible by the owner’s biometrics, which have to be approved at the beginning and end of the process. Although Biofire sells directly to consumers, the guns aren’t mailed to homes where they might be stolen by porch pirates; they are shipped to gun stores and handed off to the buyer. Theoretically, Kloepfer says, the Smart Gun could be broken apart and the security measures altered, but achieving the hostile takeover would be so complicated that a single unauthorized override would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
By studying the failures of other smart firearms and welcoming the feedback of the gun community, Kloepfer believes Biofire has built a product that will appeal to all of America. “A gun that only works exactly the way you want it to is kind of obvious and uncontroversial, in my opinion,” Kloepfer says. “The challenge is nobody has ever built a product that actually fulfills that promise. Until Biofire.”
As part of the April launch of its Smart Gun, Biofire invited Ian McCollum of Forgotten Weapons to Broomfield and asked him to evaluate the firearm. His biggest takeaway? “It shoots like a gun,” he says.
It’s an accolade meant to convey the product’s inherent gun-ness: It might be packed with as much computing power as a smart phone, but as long as the shooter is an authorized user, it can be picked up and fired like a traditional 9 mm. For once, gun control advocates agree with McCollum. Nick Suplina, senior vice president for law and policy at the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety, has also tested Biofire’s prototype. “I think that they’ve created a functional handgun that is good for home use and that seems to do precisely what they say it does,” Suplina says, “which is prevent unauthorized users from getting access.” Contrary to the New Jersey law’s original intent, McCollum doesn’t believe Kloepfer’s invention should replace all handguns, while Suplina knows it’s not a panacea to American’s gun violence problem. But both think it could prevent some of the more than 300 unintentional shootings each year by children, many of them accidentally injuring or killing themselves or a sibling or friend.
The gun lobby isn’t so sure. The NSSF’s Oliva has not yet fired the Smart Gun, and until it proves him wrong, the trade organization will continue recommending gun safes as the most secure way to store a handgun. He is also skeptical there will be much demand for the product. The U.S. government already requires all handguns to be sold with child-safety locks that, when used properly, should render pistols unfireable. Will gun owners want to pay $1,500 or more—three times the price of the average 9 mm—for Biofire’s additional security measures? Oliva’s not asserting a market won’t materialize, but he says “that’s something anyone building a better mousetrap needs to figure out.”
To Suplina, the gun industry’s tepid acceptance of Biofire is based on an existential concern: “The reason is the same reason why the automobile companies didn’t want to introduce a seatbelt for a couple of decades. It draws attention to the fact that there is risk associated with a firearm in the home. And by having a smart gun that can only be used by an authorized user, what you are reminding the public is that—if you don’t have this technology—anybody can get access to a gun in your home.”
Kloepfer seems to have insulated Biofire from many of the roadblocks the Armatix faced. Rather than rely on parts made by other arms manufacturers, the company builds each piece of the Smart Gun itself. By selling directly to consumers, it avoids retailers who could pull the product due to pressure from consumers and the industry. And Biofire’s lobbyists actively advocate against any legislation that might mandate its technology, thereby diffusing any fears regarding the Second Amendment. Kloepfer has done all he can to ensure neither the gun lobby nor legislators will decide Biofire’s fate. The market will.
According to Kloepfer: so far, so good. Within a day of taking preorders on April 13, Biofire had made the front page on Reddit and registered hundreds of millions of social media impressions. The company’s website crashed under the flood of traffic, “which was not my favorite moment,” Kloepfer says. By May 1, Biofire had, according to a spokesperson, already sold out of its Launch Edition ($1,899), which is expected to be delivered to customers in early 2024. (The spokesperson declined to release specific sales numbers but says Biofire has received thousands of preorders.)
Inside Biofire, there was debate among employees about who those early customers would be. Gun enthusiasts on staff thought firearm lovers would make up the majority of sales, while others believed first-time buyers would tip the scales. Instead, it’s been a mix, a nearly representative demographic slice of the American public from every state—just like Kloepfer predicted. “That was my thesis for the most part,” he says. “I think I won.”