The recent spate of mass shootings has spurred action in Congress and in interest groups large and small. Gun violence is now recognized as a pervasive and growing problem in a country with patchwork regulations and 25% more guns than people. High-profile events like those in Uvalde, Buffalo, Parkland, Charleston, Newtown, and the long sad list that might follow, belie the fact that mass shootings account for a tragic but infinitesimal percentage of all gun deaths. More than 45,000 people died from guns in 2020, according to CDC data. 79 of them were killed in mass shootings.
Such a deep rooted, high risk and complicated problem requires creative solutions from all corners. As a recent podcast series put it, approaches to reducing gun violence fall into three categories: education, enforcement, and technology. Many individuals and organizations are dedicated to addressing the first two. Proposed policy solutions include expanded background checks, improved licensing requirements, raising the minimum age to purchase a gun, introducing a waiting period, limiting the number of guns and ammunition that can be purchased at one time, and more. How could engineers, computer scientists and technologists participate more actively in finding a solution? Or to contain the damage caused by tools we’ve designed for more benign purposes?
3D printer: In addition to printing toys and tools, 3D printers can also create ghost weapons and parts. The technology and materials aren’t yet sufficient to pose a real threat, but the proof-of-concept has alerted lawmakers and law enforcement enough to take action. Although the regulations for such guns have been mired in legal and legislative wrangling for years, such computer aided designs (CAD) and instructions for assembling DIY guns and printing ammunition are readily available online. Social media platforms that strike a balance between their users’ claims to freedom of expression and corporate social responsibility goals could limit the distribution of this material. For example, Facebook bans advertisements for firearms but makes no mention of CAD designs for printing such guns. It should update its terms of service to ban such advertising. A new federal ruling requires “privately manufactured firearms” to be marked with a serial number or other identifying mark, and California’s AB 2156 would require anyone making more than three guns with 3D printers to obtain a license to manufacture obtain firearms. Last but not least, these and similar measures should be encouraged by 3D printing companies themselves to avoid reputational damage if their devices are eventually used for violent purposes.
Selling guns online: “Commercial firearms posts” by individuals are banned on most social media sites, but as a recent Washington Post article revealed, Facebook allows 10 infractions (!) before gun sellers are penalized. Most payment platforms similarly prohibit transactions to buy or sell firearms. Though that might deter some sales, alternative transaction sites have stepped in: website GunTab outlines the policies of various online platforms and positions itself as the marketplace of choice. Taking it a step further, credit card companies or ACH providers could ban the sale of certain types of guns through their services, whether online or in person. While this may limit the traceability of such purchases, it could also reduce impulse purchases that result in loss of life.
Social media is gradually taking action to remove hate speech and expressions of violent extremism from their platforms. These efforts could be expanded to prevent users who engage in such behavior from arming themselves through online gun purchases. Effective AI algorithms could identify users with risk protection orders against them (“red flags”) and alert law enforcement when they search for guns online.
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image recognition: The same technology that learns to distinguish stop signs from party balloons is used to detect guns. Several companies have commercialized the technology and it has been used in settings such as airports, banks and government trade shows. Although safeguards should be put in place to avoid pairing this application with facial recognition, given the proven shortcomings and biases inherent in these systems to date, focusing on the presence of weapons seems a promising approach to alert law enforcement and speed up response to threats in high-security areas. traffic areas.
Smart Weapons: Weapons that use fingerprint recognition or other biometrics are gradually coming onto the market for both civilians and law enforcement agencies. From 2015 to 2020, 573 children died from accidental firearm firing and thousands more died from firearm suicide, often from guns not in the hands of their owners; Implementing security similar to unlocking a cell phone could prevent tragic accidents and limit unauthorized use. This technology could also reduce the impact of gun theft and the crimes often committed with stolen guns.
Electronic Records: Although modernizing its databases and IT systems would improve efficiency in serving public safety, the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Bureau (ATF) has its hands tied. Contrary to the specters raised by gun advocates, there is no national registry of gun ownership. In fact, such a searchable database is forbidden under federal law. (Six states and Washington, DC have their own registers for specific types of guns.) The ATF maintains fragmented records, including sales records of gun dealers who have gone out of business. Many of these records are still kept on paper; According to the ATF Enforcement Office, it “processed” more than 50 million such records in fiscal year 2021: 887,000 electronically and 53.8 million on paper! Even if records are kept digitally and the servers of dealers that no longer exist are handed over to ATF, such records may not be merged. The Government Accounting Office forced the ATF to delete 252 million records from servers collected between 2000 and 2016 after it was determined that collecting such information violated federal law. The ATF may scan and digitize the files, but may not use character recognition software or any other technology that would create searchable data.
Over the years, intense lobbying by the NRA has limited the Department of Justice’s ability to modernize ATF systems and expand its budget to meet current operational needs. Gun safety advocates could encourage lawmakers to improve this mundane but essential piece of federal infrastructure. At the same time, attention may turn to states that have not yet banned the creation of their own gun registries (eight have such bans, similar to federal restrictions) and urge state officials to establish registries with modern technology.
It is clear that technological solutions alone will be ineffective in reducing gun violence without the accompanying measures to make them possible. A lasting remedy for the loss of lives and livelihoods from guns requires a “whole of society” approach: changing attitudes towards gun ownership, increased regulation by government and private companies, and the will to enforce it. But technologists and engineers can play a role, using their ingenuity and drive to innovate to fight this epidemic.
Crossposted from the Berkeley Blog