Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on January 14, 2016. We have chosen to republish it now in light of the recent tragedy in Orlando. The loss of 49 lives this past weekend is a scar on family and community that will never heal. We feel, however, that it is prudent to take the opportunity to have a discussion about the role of guns in our society, no matter how stagnant those discussions have appeared in the past. One often-heard argument for gun ownership is that, in the worst-case scenarios, there currently exists no alternative for personal defense that is as effective as a gun. It’s difficult to argue against this line of thinking, especially in a gun-saturated nation, but the nature of any democracy is open discussion. While the following article pertains more to handgun violence than the more recent mass shooting (which involved a handgun and a semi-automatic rifle), we feel that it’s wise to consider the topic again, if only to hear one more perspective.
Not long ago, while conducting preliminary research for his startup self-defense company, SALT Supply Co., Adam Kennedy, 36, was standing in an Indiana gun store when a man came in with an interesting request. “He said to the man behind the counter, ‘I want a gun that I can shoot someone with, but I don’t want to kill him unless he’s really bad,'” recalled Kennedy. “The guy’s like, ‘What do you mean?’ And they had this honest conversation about, ‘What if it’s just his neighbor’s kid?'” said Kennedy. “Finally the clerk said, ‘But every gun is made to kill.'”
At 9 p.m. EST Tuesday night, 700 miles to the east of Kennedy’s home in Chicago, President Obama gave the annual State of the Union Address to a packed room, and one empty seat. In First Lady Michelle Obama’s box, a chair was left vacant to remember the victims of gun violence who can no longer have a voice. Obama’s address came just one week after he tearfully spoke in Washington about gun violence in this country, which he’s referred to as an “epidemic.” With the relatives of victims of mass shootings flanking him, he outlined a number of steps, taken as executive actions, to reduce the 33,636 who died from firearm injury in 2013, the latest year studied by the CDC. The fourth point on his list was to “boost gun safety technology.” In this regard, Kennedy hopes to offer a private-sector solution.
Until very recently, Kennedy worked for Samsung, the Korean tech manufacturer. In 2014, the job took him and his wife from Los Angeles to Chicago. Less than one week after moving into one of the up-and-coming neighborhoods, a boy was gunned down in the middle of the street in front of their home. Kennedy knew that in a short time his job would take him to Korea, as it often did, and he’d have to leave his wife home alone. Uncomfortable with this, given the recent shooting, he spoke with his next-door neighbor, Andy McIntosh, 41, who worked in security at Honeywell and shared his concern. One night, the duo sat down at a whiteboard and tried to find a solution. What they eventually came up with is called SALT (short for “Safer ALTernative”), a handheld, non-lethal home defense weapon sold online for $350 as “a Safer Gun for a Safer Home.” The black, oversized weapon uses compressed air, instead of smokeless powder, to fire balls filled with a proprietary powdered chemical that causes temporary blindness and lung constriction at a range of up to 200 feet. “So if I saw you, I could shoot you with it,” said Kennedy. “And if I don’t see you, I can shoot the staircase. It’ll leave a big veil of toxins in the air, and you can’t come through.”
A gun in the home is 22 times more likely to cause injury against those in the home, whether by domestic homicide, suicide or unintentional shooting, than for self-defense, according to the Brady Campaign.
To hear Kennedy explain SALT, from under a ball cap and behind thick framed glasses, is to hear someone intimately aware of their position, a surveyor carefully marking a spot for themselves in the middle of the most polarizing debate in America. For this reason, in explaining his vision for non-lethal home defense, he stabilizes himself atop basic truths before offering any solutions. He saves the “what” of SALT until after he’s convinced you of the “why.”
In their first meetings, Kennedy and McIntosh divided bodily safety measures (beyond alarms or guard dogs) into two basic categories: defensive or offensive. For Kennedy, firearms, of which there are predicted to be more than one per person in America, represent the offensive category. While effective, they come with noticeable drawbacks, namely user fear. (They were too loud and explosive for his wife to use, for instance.) A home defense measure you are too afraid to use doesn’t do anyone good. And more substantial, and a fact that Kennedy has told many news outlets, is that a gun in the home is 22 times more likely to cause injury against those in the home, whether by domestic homicide, suicide or unintentional shooting, than for self-defense, according to the Brady Campaign. “For the sake of argument, let’s say they are just twice as likely [to cause injury]. I like this analogy,” said Kennedy. “Think if airbags were twice as likely to kill you as to save you. You wouldn’t use them.”
Opposite the offensive home defense methods are strictly defensive methods, last resorts represented by Tasers, pepper spray and mace. “You have to be in a six-to-seven-foot radius for any of those things to work,” said Kennedy. He continued to emphasize the pragmatic problems with using mace in the house, a problem which he thinks SALT has fixed, referring to his wife in that situation: “Someone’s in our room. The alarm’s going off and you’re waiting for someone to come in. And whatever you do, you do to yourself; it’s an aerosol. You’ll get it on them but you’ll get it on yourself and you’ll both be on the floor together.”
Kennedy wanted a weapon that was both defensive and offensive, a flexibility that his research indicated was needed. A study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that each year from 2003 through 2007, an average of 3.7 million household burglaries occurred, and about 7 percent involved violence against the residents. In the case of violent victimization, 65 percent was perpetrated by someone the residents knew, and 28 percent was a stranger. And furthermore, the bureau found that 61 percent of the intruders were unarmed, while 12 percent possessed a firearm. So in short, in the worst-case scenario of being present during a burglary or another type of household crime, the intruder may be a stranger with a gun willing to kill you, but, more likely, it could be your neighbor’s kid and his friends stealing jewelry, hoping you aren’t home, or a dementia patient who used to live in your house, making a grand reentrance in a bathrobe.
“I grew up very Southern,” said Kennedy. “I’m not against guns. But look at a hunting rifle, it’s made for specific purpose. A machine gun was made for war. A handgun was made for law enforcement — [for home defense], we are using that same type of gun. Self-defense is the largest use case in the US, but no one’s made a specific gun.” The need to solve the “goldilocks” problem, to be prepared but flexible, has been Kennedy’s number-one mission. “Pardon the pun, but we were shooting for the ability to stop a man but the inability to kill a child,” he said.
I think the idea that we can have an altercation and walk away and no one dies is a really interesting conversation…I think it’s worth the conversation.
To achieve this, Kennedy consulted with, and eventually hired, three chemists who worked on a non-lethal powder used by Homeland Security (and federal penitentiaries) so that they could develop a proprietary powder that uses an extract made from bhut jolokia, one of the hottest peppers in the world, to target the eyesight and breathing. To develop an accurate and reliable weapon, Kennedy approached Tippmann Sports, a leading paintball manufacturer. They developed essentially a rebranded version of the TiPX Pistol, with the ability to shoot the proprietary pellet with the kinetic energy of a 50 mph fastball. The pellet bursts on contact and creates a powder cloud, approximately four to five feet in diameter, that floats in the air (outside use is complicated by the wind) for about 15-30 minutes, creating a chemical barrier.
As he anticipated, Kennedy already has his critics. In the company’s first round of public funding, held on Indiegogo, they raised $30,000 in under 24 hours and were then promptly taken off the site after an onslaught of emails to Indiegogo that originated from an outspoken gun critic and his Twitter fan base. “I never thought I’d hear it from the anti-gun side,” said Kennedy. “The mission of the company is not to get into this fight with gun people or get into that fight with anti-gun people,” he said. “We just want to keep the people we love safe.”
Kennedy jokes about a future in which guns can be set to “stun mode,” like in campy sci-fi films. He’s aware that the adoption of SALT technology will take time, and the company is prepared to make updates as often as needed. For now, he’ll settle with facilitating discussion on the best way to reach this future. “Either you’re okay with killing everyone that comes through your front door, or we need another way,” said Kennedy. “People are violent, nothing is going to fix that. But I think the idea that we can have an altercation and walk away and no one dies is a really interesting conversation…I think it’s worth the conversation. The more we talk, the more I know the next iteration of what we want to build, and how to keep using technology to help keep answering these questions.”