Let free markets and technology reduce gun violence

December 10, 2013

Ron Conway, an angel investor in some of the most successful startups of the past decade, from Google to Twitter, was holding a Christmas party in his San Francisco apartment overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge on Dec. 14. One of his guests that evening was former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.

What was supposed to be a festive occasion turned solemn as Conway convened a prayer for the families of Newtown, CT and exhorted the leading lights of technology and venture capital gathered in his home to ingeniously help tackle the problem of gun violence.

There may be a lot of problems that deep pockets and tech startup ingenuity can’t help solve, but the epidemic of senseless mass shootings needn’t be one of them.

When Apple introduced its latest iPhone in September, the company added a fingerprint identity sensor. The new feature, called Touch ID, makes it virtually impossible for a child to pick up a parent’s iPhone 5S and dial random contacts, play Minecraft or surf the treacherous shoals of the Internet. Imagine what this technology could do for the most lethal consumer products ever known to mankind: firearms.

It’s not an abstract concept. The proliferation of innovations like Apple’s biometric sensor in the gadget business makes it increasingly feasible to envision similar applications for all sorts of industries, including those where there is a real potential to save lives. It’s hard to imagine a better place to start than with the gun manufacturers.

In the five years through 2010, almost 3,800 Americans died from accidental shootings, and more than a third of them — some 1,300 victims — were under the age of 25, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. That’s the harrowing equivalent of 50 Sandy Hook School massacres.

Moreover, a recent New York Times review of hundreds of child firearms deaths – the second-leading cause of death for children between 10 and 19 years of age — showed that authorities in nearly half the cases studied did not record them as accidents. And then there are the 19,000 gun suicides every year, including a huge number committed by troubled individuals with weapons they do not own.

So many of these tragedies could have been prevented through the adoption of innovative advancements not unlike the biometrics now available on one of the most popular consumer items on Earth. Tens of millions of the new iPhones have been sold.

A year since Sandy Hook, the debate over how to reduce gun violence remains unsettled. Though legislation to strengthen gun regulation failed in the Senate, a majority of Americans support measures to ensure those who should not have firearms do not gain access to them. While it is not clear the legislative debate can be resolved in one political cycle, it is painfully obvious that technology and innovation move faster and more efficiently than Congress.

That’s where Conway comes in. His call for safer guns has morphed into the Smart Tech Foundation’s Firearms Challenge. The group, which takes its inspiration from Sandy Hook Promise, the non-profit I co-founded after the shootings in my hometown of Newtown, is putting up $1 million for the inventor who comes up with the best proposal to improve gun safety.

Entries in the competition, from which Sandy Hook Promise derives no financial benefit, are expected to include everything from biometrics and radio-frequency identification technology, to features that help identify friends from foes, make gun safes smarter or reduce the lethality of ammunition.

Conway’s efforts led him to Sandy Hook Promise, which in addition to finding ways to help the community heal, was established to give those most affected by what happened in Newtown a voice in the national discussion on gun violence.

With Conway’s help, in March the Sandy Hook Promise Innovation Initiative was launched, an effort to foster private, free-market solutions to gun violence by connecting entrepreneurs in the mental health, firearms, big data and community safety fields with potential investors. The Smart Tech Foundation is the next iteration of this effort.

So what’s not to like about technological innovation in the gun business? For starters, gun owners — of which I am one — are a suspicious bunch. While not exactly Luddites, they won’t be early adopters of newfangled inventions if they fear they won’t work. To wit, one commenter on The Truth about Guns, a blog for gun enthusiasts, wrote the Smart Tech Challenge will produce “firearms that only unicorns can use.”

Lawrence G. Keane, the general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a trade association for the gun and ammunitions industry, says there “are good reasons to be wary of technology as a way of enhancing public safety.” For instance, a weapon whose technology fails when a homeowner or store owner needs it to defend his life or that of others from a criminal, would lead to a tragedy of a different variety.

Some gun owners fear that biometrics will act as a back door toward gun registration. And then there’s the small matter of the 300 million guns extant in the United States. Retrofitting them with new technology would be costly and difficult.

Though logical, none of these arguments are reason to hamper efforts to bring the firearms business into the modern era. In fact, the industry’s slow pace in spearheading safety innovation efforts beyond features like trigger locks, which have been around for years, can be viewed as an abject failure of capitalistic imagination.

After all, gunmakers are extraordinary marketers. They regularly tout improvements in accuracy and velocity. And they successfully ginned up sales after Sandy Hook by stoking fears of confiscatory legislation that never materialized. A record 21 million background checks — a proxy for actual sales — were conducted in the 12 months that ended in November, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Like any business, gunsmiths are always looking for reasons to sell people more guns. Why not make the safety of their products — from accidental deaths, suicides or theft — their unique selling point? They might even be able to charge premium prices, as Volvo and Mercedes have done with cars.

Surely anything that enhances the bottom line would be something the manufacturers and trade associations, like the NSSF, can get behind. And if anyone should understand the human cost firsthand, it’s the NSSF: it is based in Newtown.

(Rob Cox is the co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise, a non-profit dedicated to reducing gun violence; and the global editor in chief of Breakingviews, the commentary arm of Thomson Reuters.)

PHOTO: People hold signs memorializing Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 26 children and adults were killed in a mass shooting in December, as they participate in the March on Washington for Gun Control on the National Mall in Washington, January 26, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

3 comments

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The author neglected to mention one important detail. If a fingerprint sensor on a smartphone, tablet, or laptop is balky, the user can adjust his finger, restart the device, check the batteries, clean the pad, etc. It is no problem if the user concentrates 100% on his balky device, unless he is driving which is another matter entirely.

With a firearm intended for personal defense, however, the user might be dead before debugging is complete. Technology must be 100% reliable for use on a firearm — and when was the last time you saw an electronic device which met that description?

The idea would be acceptable for firearms which are only used for hunting and target shooting.

As to the author’s proposal to “reduce the lethality of ammunition” — the entire point of shooting a miscreant is to severely disable or kill him. Regular ammunition is sometimes blocked by heavy leather coats, so reduced lethality ammunition would be that much less reliable.

Posted by pmuwgumycuas | Report as abusive

Nice idea.

But the NRA does not want anything to do with improving gun safety or responsibility. Though it has nothing to do with access to guns.

This is recently evident in the renewal of the plastic gun law, in which an amendment to make these guns permanently detectable was rejected.

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

On March 27, 2013 I sent the following to the Newtown Bee. Another way at looking at gun control.

I was in Newtown yesterday and saw your paper on my sister-in-law’s table. She works in the Newtown school system and had been in lock-down.

I sent a version of the following to the National Shooting Sports Foundation in Newtown, soon after the tragedy. I subsequently sent it prominent gun control advocates in the U.S. House (legislative aide) and Senate. I sent it to the Newtown Bee. I never received a response. It may not be the answer, but it is an unexplored path. Maybe your paper could summarize this approach for your readers and start a dialogue.

I have an alternative approach to control of assault type weapons with large clips that would not require a ban, nor affect 2nd Amendment rights.Gun owners have hand guns for protection should they feel the need. My proposal does not affect hand guns. Gun owners want assault type weapons for hunting and target practice. My approach aligns with this interest. My approach is to have such weapons stored and used only at gun ranges, hunt clubs and events managed by either, provided such gun ranges are licensed and insured, with established best practices for safety and security. My approach recognizes that rural areas are different from suburban and urban areas. It would permit hunt clubs to be more readily established in rural areas, as one might establish a social club, so long as the club was licensed, insured and established best practices test. My approach would remove such weapons from the home, car, work; where children or the mentally ill people could access them. This needs to be done on a national level, particularly as respects registering purchase and sale of all such weapons, with interstate tracking. It could obviate background checks beyond the licensed gun range and hunt club owner and personnel, as the guns could only be used onsite.

Too much discussion has been had about the cause of gun violence. It is irrelevant as the type of catastrophic events will not be completely stopped. The point is to reduce the probability by controlling access, recognizing that the problem with these weapons is the means to exact inordinate amount of injury/death within seconds. My approach is consistent with Supreme Court cases as the gun ranges, hunt clubs are bailees for the owner. The Supreme Court has recognized that there are places where these weapons cannot be carried. Manufacturers/distributors/retailers still can sell the weapons as they would not be banned. Most gun owners are very responsible, but mistakes happen. Newtown is an example why having such weapons in the home can sometimes be a problem. If those weapons had been stored and restricted to a local gun range or hunt club all the children and adults at my sister-in-law’s school would be alive today. I think this is a fair middle ground that respects differences between rural and suburban/urban environments and culture.

· Permit the possession and usage of semi-automatic rifles only at licensed gun ranges; licensed gun/hunt clubs; and at sanctioned events controlled by such ranges or clubs using best practices.

· Only individuals with permits (or being instructed by instructors qualified in such weapons) can shoot such weapons on premises of the licensed gun ranges/clubs and at their sanctioned events. Exceptions for law enforcement; licensed gun repairers; and manufacturers.

· Permitted individual retains ownership of such weapon with the ranges and clubs being bailees. Individual has no right to possess weapon outside of licensed range/club or sanctioned event unless it is making one time physical transfer of an owned or possessed weapon to the licensed range/club.

· This would require licensing of such ranges and clubs by each state with random annual inspections to be sure of their safety and licensing program compliance.

· Guns would be registered with such ranges and clubs, with the owner’s name, model, serial number and other verified contact information.

· Upon purchase or gift, the gun would need to be directly transported by permitted common carrier to a licensed range/club on a national registry that would provide the dealer/seller/donor with a receipt.

· Those who presently own or possess such a weapon would need to transfer possession to the licensed range/club in the same manner as a seller or donor, when it is not personally delivered to such range/club.

· Transfer of the weapon by reason of sale, gift or otherwise shall only occur through licensed range/club to another licensed range/club, with each licensed range/club keeping records of the parties, permit and contact information and nature of the transfer.

· To assure compliance with these rules, an individual who owns or possesses such a weapon off premise of the licensed range/club and not during a licensed range/club controlled event, would be subject to both criminal and civil liability.
· In the event that anyone is injured or killed using such weapon unsanctioned and off premise, when not in actual self-defense, the seller, donor, owner ( his/her/its intermediary) and possessor of that weapon will be strictly liable without indemnity. The gun will be appropriated by law enforcement without restitution.

Best regards,

Brooks White

Posted by phoenix17 | Report as abusive