Let free markets and technology reduce gun violence
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