We often think technology is a silver bullet — it solves problems. Bored on the bus? Done. Need help to quit smoking? Done, too. How about medical breakthroughs? One size fits all. But what about mass shootings? The tragedy in Newton, Conn., the latest in a string of incidents, highlights the complexities of the problem.
Law enforcement and legislators, community members and advocacy groups, are all debating legal remedies, but tech has yet to play a role in the conversation. Nobody expects innovation to curb the mass shootings. But it can help to prevent and solve some aspects of the problem. President Obama, in his State of the Union address, touched on “common sense initiatives,” so we looked at some tech advances that offer a glimmer of promise to improving public safety, if not the way we think about it in the future.
The Future of Smart Guns
In mass shootings, shooters aren’t often the licensed owners of the guns they use. One solution would be to develop “smart guns” that only fire when literally in the hands of its owner. The idea dates back to 1994, when the Justice Department looked at developing a gun for the police that criminals can’t use during a struggle. That idea expanded to keep guns from firing in the hands of children. Early prototypes used biometric measurements — like your fingerprints or grasp — to authenticate you. But models today embed Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, chips that activate when a special ring or wristband is nearby.
But gun safety groups, as well as advocates, claim approving and mandating that innovation would be difficult to pass, changing the exploratory discussion into a contentious debate. Meanwhile, opponents allege the technology doesn’t always read correctly, and batteries needed to power the sensors can run out. In addition, during a home invasion, for example, a wife wouldn’t be able to use her husband’s biometrically-matched weapon. And if you lost the RFID chip, or it was out of range, that weapon would become an expensive paperweight.
Even the gun control groups had issues with smart guns. The Violence Policy Center, also opposed the research, warning smart guns may create the impression that firearms are safe, expanding their acceptance and use in society. In fact, by 2000, several opposing agencies boycotted gun-makers who even voiced consideration of smart guns. As a result, federal funding that went into research quickly trickled away. And today, just a handful of companies, like Ireland’s TriggerSmart, are developing the technology.
Scouring Social Media for Killers
Law enforcement agencies also use social media to find mass shooters before they go on the rampage. In December, New York City Police Department officials outlined a plan to mine online clues to spot the next gunman. According to the New York Times, the police are analyzing searches, terminology and communications of known mass shooters to help them detect and thwart dangerous plots. The algorithm scours for “apolitical or deranged killers before they become active shooters,” NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, added.
The tactics resemble strategies used to detect terrorists. Officers are in Newton and other scenes to collect data from past suspects to look for patterns to help identify future shooters. Think Minority Report — but without the creepy psychics. Social media, like Facebook and Twitter, is emerging as the DNA of the digital age, and police are integrating these tools in their investigations. But the approach raises questions about privacy, unreasonable search and where to draw the line in the name of public safety.
A Place for Sensors
Some solutions put technology in your hands, while others focus on the space around you. Barbecan Security Systems, for example, developed “linear revolving” doors that can stop armed intruders in their tracks. As you walk into the chamber, scanners look for weapons and explosives. Meanwhile, sensors on the floor measure your walking pace and match your speed, so you don’t have to stop. If a threat is found, the system encloses you in the chamber. If nothing is found, you walk through unimpeded, preventing hold-ups and long lines.
Barbecan created the system with schools, movie theaters and airports in mind, but there are limits to its use. It’s expensive to carry out, and sensors need fixed boundaries to confine people and scan them. In addition, it can only protect the entrance into and out of enclosed areas, so if you’re in an open space — like public parks and sprawling campuses — it won’t do you much good.
Building a Better Database
When you buy a gun at a store, licensed dealers must run a background check against a FBI database to make sure you aren’t a felon or mentally unfit under federal law. Meanwhile, unlicensed and private sellers, many who sell at gun shows and online, aren’t required to follow the same strict rules. While the issues surrounding gun control are polarizing, nine-in-ten Americans favor widening background checks to all potential gun buyers, according to a CBS News poll.
“If you want to buy a gun — whether it’s from a licensed dealer or a private seller — you should at least have to show you are not a felon or somebody legally prohibited from buying one,” Obama said in a speech on proposals to reduce gun violence, highlighting that “as many as 40 percent of all gun purchases are conducted without a background check.”
For that, tech can make quickest impact with integrated databases. Big data, which already helps to coordinate the human genome project, weather forecasting, health epidemics and even detect stock market dips, can manipulate and combine data for even greater usefulness. For example, some argue that databases should expand to include mental health alerts. States could connect their background check systems to healthcare databases to flag those who have a history of mental instability. But debate would also mire any solution, as lawmakers debate what to include in the checks, as well as when to conduct them, among other questions. Until both sides come to a greater consensus, political and ideological bickering dwarfs the promise of a better database.
The Dangers of Technology
As the dialogue over mass shooting rages on, technology is also presenting problems. The online community, for example, offers 3D-printing — the process of making three-dimensional solid objects — blueprints of handguns, so anyone with a 3D-printer can download the designs and create their own firearms.
Last fall, University of Texas law student Cody Wilson founded “Defense Distributed” a group that develops and shares “make-it-yourself” schematics of guns and gun parts. It successfully printed and tested plastic a 30-round magazine for an AR-15, one of the most popular rifles, it calls the “Cuomo,” after New York’s governor, who championed a ban of magazines that hold more than seven rounds. Others have printed stocks, grips and triggers, but chambers and barrels have been a challenge, so far.
Home-made firearms sound illegal, but making it for personal use is neither new, nor outside the law. But regulators are debating whether to ban plastic gun parts. Regardless of the outcome, legislation can’t stop the spread of blueprints on the Internet, and the skills required to fashion your own handgun, once largely outside the reach of teens, are growing more accessible as the cost of 3D-printers drop.
Technology will create the next danger: those that have the curiosity, but lack the responsibility, to make their own firearms. The political battle shows no signs of slowing down, and any resolution will need a mosaic of solutions, of which technology will play a part. But as the fight on Capitol Hill rages on, innovation will advance, and create challenges faster than we can solve. ♦