Published: Sept. 7, 2016 By

With a quarter-century of high-profile corporate sales experience, Margot Hirsch faces her biggest and most rewarding challenge yet

Margot Hirsch believes that Americans should be able to buy guns equipped with “smart-gun” technology—weapons that include a safety feature that allow them to fire only when activated by authorized users—and the CU Boulder alumna now leads a nonprofit organization dedicated to this free-market strategy.

The 1982 graduate, who holds a degree in classical antiquities, spent 25 years as a high-powered, corporate sales executive. But three years ago, she left that frenetic world and opted to devote her career to “making a difference in the world.”

She says she has no regrets and credits her time at the University of Colorado Boulder with widening her horizons and emboldening her to face new challenges. That’s good, because her latest job—president of the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation—has plenty of challenges.

Guns are safe if they are properly stored and kept out of the wrong hands. But the problem is that people are human. Guns are not always properly stored, and they are not always kept out of the wrong hands, especially children.”

The Smart Tech Challenges Foundation’s mission is to foster innovation in firearm safety and to raise awareness about the promise of smart gun technologies. The foundation, which favors a market-based, not a government-mandated approach to gun safety, has granted $1 million to “innovators” to hone commercially viable smart guns and gun safety solutions.

That might sound straightforward and non-controversial, but Hirsch quickly discovered it was neither.

“I totally underestimated how difficult this would be and the incredible hurdles that we would face,” Hirsch said. “Nevertheless, we’re making progress. We still have a ways to go but a future where we can prevent up to 20,000 injuries and deaths is possible, and that’s exciting.” 20,000 refers to the number of injuries and deaths each year from accidental shootings and teen suicides, all committed with a gun ending up in the wrong hands.

Hirsch cited two factors that she and her colleagues underestimated.

Margot Hirsch

Margot Hirsch is a 1982 graduate of CU Boulder who holds a degree in classical antiquities. Image courtesy of Margot Hirsch.

One is the “pushback from the NRA and the gun lobby.” As Hirsch noted, “We aren’t advocating to take guns away or to infringe on Second Amendment rights. In fact, gun owners are our primary audience: they want to keep their families safe, too. This is all about new technology that would make firearms safer and help keep them out of the wrong hands, especially children.”

Second, it’s been more difficult than anticipated to raise capital for “innovators who are trying to bring these technologies to market,” Hirsch said.

It’s not that the market is small. Americans own approximately 350 million guns and buy 10 million guns during “quiet” years. In years of widely publicized mass shootings, when public discourse focuses on gun-control measures, gun sales spike, Hirsch noted.

Investing in smart-gun technology should appeal to those who see an opportunity to make money while helping to make positive social change, she said, adding that smart gun innovations include after-market modifications that can make existing firearms safer.

But stimulating such investment would be easier if opponents of smart-gun technology characterized the issue accurately, Hirsch said. Opponents argue that manufacturing and selling smart guns is a step toward gun control.

“But it’s not,” Hirsch said. “That’s the grand irony. It isn’t.  It about giving gun owners another choice over the type of firearm they want to own.”

Opponents’ assertion that smart guns can be tracked and that the government could or would take away those guns “is false,” Hirsch said.

Tracking technologies are not “inherent in smart-gun designs,” she noted.

“This myth that the government could come in and take your guns is just another fear tactic employed by the gun lobby.”

Another obstacle is that many people simply do not know about the potential of smart-gun technology to “help prevent people getting injured and killed.”

smart gun

This is a prototype of a smart gun. Photo by Kai Kloepfer.

Here, Hirsch notes that the initial focus of smart guns is preventing accidental shooting injuries and deaths, especially among children, plus suicides. “What most people aren’t aware of is that of the 30,000-plus gun deaths per year, two thirds are suicides,” and many of those are suicides teens and young adults.

Many suicides involve using family members’ guns to kill themselves.

She addresses a counter-argument: that if a person is going to commit suicide and can’t get a gun, she or he will use another method. Research has shown that people actually won’t try again, Hirsch said.

“Ninety percent of the people who attempt suicide and survive never go on to attempt suicide again. For the most part, suicide is an impulsive act.  However, it’s about the lethality of the means of suicide, and guns are almost 90-percent lethal,” she said.

Opponents of smart-gun technology have argued that guns are already safe, a proposition Hirsch rejects. “If guns are so safe, then why have 430 kids this year alone been killed or injured with guns? Please tell me that.”

Hirsch continued: “Guns are safe if they are properly stored and kept out of the wrong hands. But the problem is that people are human. Guns are not always properly stored, and they are not always kept out of the wrong hands, especially children.”

“Nor do we always wear our seat belts like we know we should. And then we get in an accident and go flying out the window. Even though we know we are supposed to do things, we don’t always do them,” Hirsch said.

Although they are not on the market, the concept of smart guns has consumer support. Nearly 60 percent of Americans who are in the market for a handgun would be willing to purchase a smart gun, a survey by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found this year.

Also, 43 percent of gun owners said they’d buy a smart gun, the survey found.

These survey results show significantly more support for the technology than another survey found three years ago, Hirsch said. She attributed the change to increased public awareness of the technology.

Mass shootings also draw public attention to gun violence, and while smart-gun technology would not prevent mass killings, “they are a tangible solution to gun violence that bypasses the political gridlock. It starts what seems like an impossible conversation.”

Mass shootings are “completely horrific,” Hirsch noted, but they account for less than 2 percent of gun deaths annually.

She calls her job at the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation “the most professionally challenging and interesting thing I’ve ever done,” adding: “It’s been a wild ride, and it pushes me in all aspects. Maybe my experience at CU helped to nurture that aspect of my personality.”

Hirsch extols the value of a liberal-arts education, which some view as a bit of a luxury. A broad education imparts a “valuable skill set,” she said, listing “the ability to think and analyze information, employ effective communications skills, and have insights into culture and behavior.”

When she enrolled in CU Boulder, Hirsch, originally planned to get a pre-medical degree. She came to the university because it had an electron microscope and strong departments in the natural sciences.

She happened to take a course in Greek mythology. “The professor was so compelling, I took his class every semester…He made classics come alive.”

“In general, I had an incredible four years at CU. It was an amazing life experience. I loved that I met people from all over the country. I was fortunate enough to spend a semester abroad. The general environment at CU encouraged my desire to experience and try new things. It nurtured my sense of adventure and provided me with the ability to face challenges head-on.”

Click here for more on the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation. Follow the organization on Twitter @SmartTechFDN and on Facebook @SmartTechFoundation