How Technology Can Reduce Fatalities from Gun Violence

Background

The debate over gun rights has been re-sparked this month after the deadliest mass shooting in American history. Gunman Stephen Paddock opened fire on a crowd of 22,000 fans at a Las Vegas music festival from the 32nd floor of a nearby hotel, using a rapid-fire weapon. 59 people were killed and 527 were injured. 23 guns were found at the scene and 19 more were at the gunman’s home.

According to The San Jose Mercury News, the shooting is “redefining America’s gun debate.” The newspaper interviewed some of the country music fans that were at the Las Vegas festival that night, noting a tone of compromise in what is normally a partisan issue. Part of why the gun debate is so intense is because it’s not really about guns, but what they represent: a constitutional right and a freedom on political correctness. As a result, Congress has been “utterly gridlocked” despite “one mass shooting after another,” but now compromise is in the air.

In this post, I hope to give readers a different perspective. The carnage of mass shootings make big waives in the news, but are trivial when compared to the scale and scope of a nation. The United States contains 323 million people, carrying an estimated 265 million guns. About 35,500 people die from gun violence in the United States each year. If we combined the fatalities from every high-profile mass shooting over the last twelve months, they would still account for less than one percent of annual gun fatalities. In practice, data from the CDC shows that 60% of gun fatalities are from suicides and more than 30% are from gang violence. About 2-3% are from gun accidents.

The gun rights debate since the Las Vegas shooting has largely been about whether to make bump stocks illegal. A bump stock rapidly pushes a gun back and forth against a trigger-finger, allowing a rapid-fire nearly equivalent to a fully automatic weapon. However, the constant jostling of the gun from the bump stock makes the gun difficult to control or aim.

Should the bump stock be illegal? Probably. Due to the inability to aim well with a bump stock equipped, it is not useful for hunting or self-defense. However, it is also not useful for gang violence or suicide either, which are the circumstances of most gun-related fatalities. The bump stock is only useful for sport or for firing into a massive crowd, where the shooter doesn’t care who they hit. Legislation to outlaw bump stocks may be called for, but it would only make a tiny dent, if any, on gun-related deaths on a national scale. Whether it would have saved any lives from Paddock is questionable, since he also had bomb-making materials that could have caused the same number of fatalities. Outlawing the bump stock has no foreseeable impact on the other 99% of gun-related fatalities.

How Technology Can Help

There are many potential solutions to gun violence. Much has been said about background checks, required training courses, and blacklists on one hand, and reducing licensing fees and bureaucratic red tape to obtain guns on the other.

There is tension between the rights of gun violence victims, versus the rights of innocent gun owners. Technology can play a substantial role in reducing fatalities from gun violence, with a minimal impact on gun rights.

First, fingerprint activation. Our smartphones prevent unauthorized use through a thumbprint and allow us to deactivate the phone remotely if stolen. Our cars prevent unauthorized use with keys. In comparison, guns have very little protection from unauthorized use. About 250,000 guns are stolen each year and these stolen guns are a prominent source of weapons used to commit crimes. A gun owner’s weapons are more likely to be stolen and used for crimes if they carry the gun frequently or do not store it safely. Imagine if the grip of the gun recognized the owner’s fingerprint, much like a smartphone does, and released the safety instantly when the owner picked up the gun. If the gun was stolen, it would become useless to the criminal that cannot activate it without the owner’s fingerprint. This would protect the gun from misuse by a person besides the owner, even if it is not stored safely or is carried often.

Second, artificial intelligence. The latest iPhone can recognize its owner’s face, yet guns at a similar price-point have no real digital technology to prevent misuse. The gun does not know the distance of the target or the nature of what it is pointing at. What if the gun owner could flip a setting to “hunting,” at which point a safety would go on if the target in front of it looks human. When the gun recognizes an unmoving face within inches of the barrel, the safety can switch on, preventing suicide. Or the gun could do none of these things, if the gun owner wants to make sure they can shoot an intruder, but technology could at least give the owner the option to implement additional safety settings.

Third, remote disarming. If a gun is stolen, but can only be activated by the owner’s fingerprint, this could encourage thieves to murder the gun owner and take their fingers. However, if you could disarm the gun remotely, then the gun could be disarmed any time it is stolen, regardless of whether the gun owner is alive or dead, removing motivation to kill them.

Conclusion

Technology isn’t the only solution to gun violence. Gangs, depression, and other social issues are major contributors. However, technology can make it more difficult to steal and misuse guns, increase security, and provide additional safeties. Some gun owners may not want to be able to disarm their gun remotely, for fear of the government tracking the gun’s location. Some may not want artificial intelligence to potentially prevent them from shooting a human intruder. Whether such technology should be required by statute is a complex constitutional and public policy issue. But shouldn’t gun owners at least have the choice? Government subsidies could reduce the price of these technologies, while saving the lives of its citizens in the process. Most gun owners care about being safe with their firearms and even a voluntary program could more substantially reduce gun-related fatalities than outlawing bump stocks.