The answer to gun violence might just be a smartphone on a chip

The tragedy at Newtown and senseless criminal violence overall is personal and hits close to home for me as it does for so many. This is not typically the conversation we might undertake in this forum, but it is an important discussion to have.

I understand the right and want of individuals to have guns for protection or sport. I also believe that it is a fundamental right of all individuals to be kept safe from the devastation guns can bring. And as a disaster management and business continuity professional, I have given a tremendous amount of anguished thought to the active shooter scenario, so devastating because there is little that can be done to stop it.

The discussion of gun violence has focused on policy and culture. Policy is limited in what it can address and culture is difficult to change:

  • Background checks are critical, but it may not be the owner of the gun who uses it in acts of violence.
  • Restricting high powered weapons and large magazines limits casualties, but offers no consolation for the families of those attacked using conventional guns with a limited number of rounds. It only takes one bullet.
  • We are asking legitimate owners of high powered ‘military style’ weapons to give up a freedom they believe is constitutionally protected and that they enjoy today.

I have been a speaker and advocate for private sector partnership in support of law enforcement and public safety for a long time. Through my organization the Heroes Partnership I helped with the sponsorship of a law enforcement training exercise that simulated a crisis at a New York high school a few years back.  Law enforcement can bring tremendous capabilities in response to a crisis, and I have seen and have immense respect for the capabilities of the police. Unfortunately, faced with an active shooter, the role of the police is control and containment. It is a painful and frustrating response in the recognition that a devastating event has already occurred.

Security and Safety vs. Privacy and Freedom

Focus has turned to the gun. There have been several articles recently proposing technologies to make a smarter and safer gun. Some propose peripheral controls that need to be worn or carried for the gun to fire. One proposed developing Radio Frequency ID (RFID) tagged guns and deploying RFID proximity sensors at entrances to vulnerable locations so that tagged devices would be detected as they came near. Another responded to the risk to children using size recognition capabilities proposed to minimize gun accidents. All have their place.

Any solution proposed will be contentious to some in that to achieve security there is always some divestiture of  freedoms or privacy. It is a balance of community safety and the rights of the individual. We endured the naked body scans at the airport for safety in the skies. Fortunately, both for us, and I am sure very often for the monitor attendants, these unpopular scanners are on their way out. That said, their introduction and passive acceptance in the first place is an indication that fear has weighed in favor of security over privacy. 

Security is a slide switch. We can slide the switch all the way to the right and provide maximum security, but none of us would enjoy the impingement on the quiet enjoyment of our lives. We can slide it all the way to the left and we will all live in fear unable to enjoy our freedoms. It is finding that correct setting that sufficiently satisfies both that brings balance. Despite the fervor and name calling when these forces meet, in fact, when cool heads do prevail, it is clear that there is merit on both sides of the discussion. 

This is not the forum to discuss the politics, morality or civility of the question of guns or to weigh in for or against. It is however relevant that there are technologies available or contemplated that will reduce gun violence today and these can be improved upon with innovative approaches for tomorrow. Prudent steps, transformational thinking and innovation need to define our approach to guns and gun safety.

Is there is a role for technology in gun safety?

Technology can and does have a role in gun safety today, and perhaps effective use of technology will bring new approaches to gun safety and the mitigation of gun violence and increased law enforcement capabilities tomorrow. I will describe a few existing approaches, discuss what is already here, what is around the corner, and what I think is possible. I welcome thoughts and comments.

Biometric Locks

Today there are readily available conventional gun locks and also biometric trigger locks. These latter typically require finger print recognition of the registered owner to disengage the lock allowing the gun to be used. These are relatively inexpensive. They have benefits particularly for the recreational gun user in that only the registered owner’s biometrics could unlock the trigger to make the gun usable, children could not fire an unattended gun and if the gun were stolen it could not be used as long as the lock was engaged. It has limitations in that once the biometric lock is removed from the trigger anyone can fire the gun and other than the threat of penalties after the fact there is nothing to assure that the lock would be kept in place. Those who see the gun as a means of protection for home and family fear the delays of fumbling with any lock that needs to be removed before the gun can be used in self defense.

The Smart Trigger

The technology also exists to have the electronics for biometric recognition built into a ‘smart trigger’, hand grip or other peripheral means of authentication in proximity to the gun that allows it to fire so that there is nothing to remove and the gun recognizes the shooter as legitimate. This has value and potential in that:

  • Police confronting violent situations or individuals defending their homes would no longer be at risk of having their own weapons used on them.
  • Stolen guns would be completely unusable and have no resale value on the street.
  • Newly manufactured guns could be mandated to support biometric ’smart triggers’
  • Ideally, after-market industries could develop the technologies to allow existing guns to be fitted with biometric ‘smart triggers’.

There are still limitations to the technology options we have now:

  • What if the shooter was disgruntled and crazed, but was the legitimate owner of the gun? Biometrics wouldn’t help in that case because it is the rightful and registered owner.
  • An active shooter may have multiple guns or there may be multiple shooters. If these guns can determine the identity of the shooter wouldn't it be valuable if that could rapidly be communicated to police to aid in identification, investigation and apprehension?

We could take this on

The President has called out technology as a principle element of his strategy for the control of gun violence.

I believe that this is correct, and in fact, it is the most ubiquitous of technologies available today, the smartphone, that may offer a potential answer, or at least a direction for advancing the gun safety options already in place or previously considered. It is a direction that may satisfy the legitimate recreational gun owner and those concerned with protecting homes and family. It may also be the best answer for providing safety to our communities and our public safety responders.

I have suggested that smartphone technology may offer a contemporary solution to the problem of gun violence. That is a bold statement and needs some explanation. The smartphone in this case is a smartphone embedded on a chip. Different in this case we will be asking the smartphone to provide many of the capabilities we depend on in our smartphone every day, but leveraged to manage the working behavior of a gun. This chip is installed and integrated to the biometric aware trigger mechanism of an automatic weapon. This is not what we refer to as a 'smart gun'. The introduction of digital logic and the ability to communicate are critical components of the formula for what I will call for this discussion a 'really smart gun'.

In a meeting with public safety officials a few years back I suggested the use of smartphone technologies as a component of a contaminant detection strategy. Given the nation's focus on gun violence I have again turned to the smartphone and see an opportunity for a solution to many of the issues of gun violence under discussion today. It is a solution that we could do, and we may do, in one form or another, if not today, in a not too distant tomorrow. There will be many that feel that a solution as I will describe impinges on their rights and freedoms. There is a cost for security and sometimes that cost is higher than some are willing to pay. I understand that and many have legitimate fears or concerns. The balance of rights, freedom, safety and security are part of a larger and needed discussion. The emergence of terrorism as a domestic reality has brought that sharply into focus.

Can the ‘Smart Gun' become the ‘Really Smart Gun’?

New thinking and the innovative use of technology can create a ‘really smart gun’. This approach can change the rules, provide transformative capabilities for law enforcement and create an environment much safer from gun violence. It would call on existing patented or marketed technologies including Biometric Recognition and Location Based Firearm Discharge Prevention. Other capabilities that would be needed exist in one form or another right now and we use them daily. They are in every smartphone. More would come from the Mobile Device Management Solutions deployed in most enterprises to remotely manage hundreds to thousands of deployed smartphones.

A gun equipped with a ‘smart trigger’ that uses 'biometric recognition' knows who you are. That technology has been implemented in varying ways with varying success, but can be effective. The gun equipped with a ‘really smart trigger’ would use 'location based firearm discharge prevention' and not only know who you are, but where you are, and whether it is permitted to discharge a gun at that location. This is not a new concept. This approach to the use of technology to solve gun violence has been defined under a patent in existence for a decade!

The Gun Free Zone (GFZ) at the core of this makes vulnerable locations safe by using technology to disable the discharge of guns.

For the purpose of this discussion I will take the liberty to apply easy to understand labels to the concepts I will describe. That which for this discussion I will call the "Gun Free Zone" is as noted above not a new concept, but is a component of location based firearm discharge prevention and the basic concept underlying an approach that transforms vulnerable locations into safe locations.

It uses very basic technology. It is a simple list that dictates locations where guns are free to fire or where through the use of technology they will be made incapable of firing. The Gun Free Zone file could contain the location of schools, churches, malls, transportation centers, sports arenas, entertainment facilities and any business or large assembly location that opted to register as a gun free zone.

Unlike in some of the RFID solutions proposed there is no need for sensor equipment or proximity to an entrance location where a sensor is typically installed. It would exist as an always present permission file that is continually updated and cached at the gun to maximize speed of access. 

How could it work? The GFZ entry would specify and thereby determine the ‘absolute’ and ‘in proximity’ coordinates it has registered as 'gun free' for a facility or location. For example the Gun Free Zone might dictate that use of a gun is restricted at a school or within a 300 yard perimeter of the school. Any gun attempting to discharge inside that perimeter would be prevented. The 'really smart gun' simply wouldn't fire.

If all guns were 'really smart' guns

  • When in a gun free zone they would not fire. 
  • It would not matter if the shooter had multiple guns or if there were other shooters. Any guns attempting to discharge in a GFZ location would be rendered useless.
  • Shooters standing across the school yard, but within shooting range would be frustrated as well. The GFZ could define not only the absolute location, but also a safe perimeter.

It doesn’t matter if it is a militarized assault rifle with a million rounds of ammunition. The location dictates the terms.

  • The threat of the mass shooter could be reduced.
  • Vulnerable targets would have been made resistant to guns.
  • This is a fundamental change in thinking. The focus is no longer on the gun, but the location..

How could the 'Really Smart Gun' work? 

  • Biometric awareness provides "who", a means for identifying the hand that is on the gun. If it does not recognize the hand it does not fire.
  • The smartphone provides location awareness or "where" by leverage of GPS, cell tower proximity and other means to determine location.
  • The GFZ described above would be a file that provides a list of vulnerable locations registered as Gun Free Zones. The GFZ determines what a firearm is permitted to do at a location.

This all takes a bit of brains. The embedded and integrated smartphone would provide processing power.

  • Now it is no longer just a gun. It is a gun and three pieces of information - who, where and what it is allowed to do. This will make the gun really smart.
  • With the three pieces of information (who is pulling the trigger, where it is and is it allowed to fire at this location) the really smart gun will have the information needed to determine whether to fire. An embedded app would then control the trigger mechanism. This could all be done in micro seconds invisibly.

How would 'Gun Free Zones' be managed?

The GFZ would need to be maintained and updated. There would need to be a process for adding, changing and removing a location from the list. I would envision it as a centrally administered list. It would need to be kept small and limited in the geography it covers for instant download. It would update as the gun moved beyond its home location and would check for updates frequently. This would be important. Police could temporarily add a residence to the GFZ list to mitigate a violent gun situation and respond more safely to a domestic threat. I don't know who should administer that list, but that is a detail for further discussion.

  • It might be managed centrally by the FBI, Homeland Security or some other federal government entity
  • It could be managed independently by municipalities that would manage the schools, churches, parks and registered businesses in their jurisdiction.
  • Private security and alarm companies could provide gun disability as a service to home owners concerned about gun violence or gun accidents in their home

How would this affect police?

  • Law enforcement of course would need and should have unrestricted use of their firearms. They could not be governed by Gun Free Zone limitations.
  • Biometric recognition would provide police a measure of safety assuring that only they could use their weapon and it could not be turned on them by an assailant.

Even more is possible. All of the above has been contemplated for more than a decade. Smartphone capabilities and Mobile Device Management (MDM) provide transformative capabilities that may not have been considered:

  • The 'really smart gun' can participate in a more effective police response by alerting police and providing details whenever there is an attempt to fire in a Gun Free Zone. An attempt to fire, even though unsuccessful, could prompt notification of authorities and transmission of the shooter's identity and gun configuration. Police responders would face a less dangerous situation when responding. They would arrive informed enabling them to more easily and safely bring the situation under control.
  • If there is a shooting in an area not designated as a Gun Free Zone, the police can immediately pull information from the gun identifying the shooter, the type of weapon, how many bullets it held, and how many were fired while en route in response.
  • Guns that were present in an area where an unreported shooting incident took place would have been logged as part of the frequent GFZ update process and could be subsequently interrogated remotely during the investigation process to see if they were fired, where and when
  • These really smart guns would be addressable, traceable, and manageable using MDM and even when fired outside of gun free zones in commission of a crime could be remotely disabled by law enforcement so that police can more quickly contain the situation and more safely engage the shooter.
  • An event log could tie biometric authentication to GPS location, time and device firing status as court admissible forensic evidence.
  • Smartphone like technology on a chip could be installed in the electronics of all newly manufactured guns governing the firing mechanism. It may be possible to retrofit existing guns through after-market kits in some cases.
  • The communications capability built into the trigger could be used to re-register the gun and verify the individual’s biometrics annually to assure the gun remains in the hands of the registered owner. The database of gun ownership would be more current, accurate and complete.
  • If lost or if the ownership or possession is in question, a gun could be remotely disabled using the MDM console just as we do in the management of other mobile devices.
  • If the chip is r  emoved the gun is rendered useless.
  • Safer and smarter guns would allow legitimate owners the right to quietly enjoy their guns in places where it is safe to do so.

What is required of the ‘really smart gun' as we would define it today?

  • It needs the biometric recognition of current smart trigger technology. Numerous patented technologies and approaches exist for this.
  • It needs location awareness, a technology anticipated in an existing patent.
  • It needs access and updates to the Gun Free Zone file that would likely be locally cached, again, anticipated for over a decade.
  • It needs to be tightly integrated with the firing mechanism of the gun

This is where the smartphone, O/S and software contributions would be differentiators:

  • It needs the ability to run an onboard app that manages decisions and logic
  • It needs to be remotely addressable and have a unique Identifier
  • It needs the ability to communicate and provide identity, configuration, capacity, status and coordinates to law enforcement if queried
  • It needs to be remotely traceable as to location if lost, MDM manageable and capable of being disabled administratively from a remote console

There are barriers that would need to be overcome.

This is not a solution that many will find popular today, but it a discussion that is worth having. A small group of friends and colleagues including several attorneys, a forensic specialist, law enforcement personnel, gun owners, some strongly anti-gun thinkers and an engineer provided feedback that I have presented in summary:

  • There were concerns regarding the privacy issues which some described as Orwellian Big Brother and the futuristic use of technology as Demolition Man. Fortunately for me I love tacos.
  • Security and privacy are often at odds and we are in a privacy focused culture. I am reminded that you can make out the check to pay for your kids college tuition, but despite being the one who pays, you don’t have the right to see their grades! Privacy would be a major challenge. The payback however would be considerable in security and transformation of law enforcement capabilities.
  • Some said that if you shut down the guns, lunatics would just turn to bombs, knives and arson. I agree with that and accept that a gun violence solution is not necessarily a solution to violence.
  • Some gun owners would rightly say that their gun activities could be monitored and their guns could be shut down by government in violation of their constitutional rights.
  • There was also concern about trusting complex technology. There was a concern that if the technology was not flawless the gun could fail at a time when the gun was needed for protection. 
  • Another concern would be exposing our gun 'infrastructure' to malware and cyber crime. Once on the grid, like smartphones, they would be exposed.
  • There are millions of legacy guns on the street today. Legitimate gun owners might comply with the new standard, but if we cannot successfully get the old guns off the street the problems of gun violence would continue. Existing guns would need to be replaced with 'really smart guns'. This would require all of the approaches in legislative discussion today including  mandates, buy-back or trade-in programs, license fees or other combinations of stick and carrot mechanisms to maximize adoption and replacement.
  • Not everyone will be able to trade in their guns. Collectors may have valuable guns, antiques, heirlooms, guns with family significance, etc.. Provisions would need to be made for these.
  • And of course the bad guys won’t worry about mandated locks or established policies and so finding and eliminating illegal guns remains a core issue. Perhaps a pricing model for ammunition sold to anyone without an officially issued "I have a really smart trigger, I have been retrofitted, or I have a dumb gun but its OK" card  could make acquiring legacy ammunition prohibitively expensive.
  • If we could get the old style guns manufactured in the United States off the street by any of these means we would still need to deal with black market introduction of conventional and assault style weapons manufactured elsewhere.

Why hasn't  anyone thought of this before?

Using sets of technology in this manner is powerful and an idea that may be right for our time. Why hasn't anyone thought of this before? Well, again, in large part they have.

I provided a link to an article by Lucas Mearian that describes the technologies behind biometric recognition. It will provide relevant background. I performed a patent search on the term 'smart gun' and found a US public patent filing (Bates et al #6,415,542) from 2002 for Location-based firearm discharge prevention . I was very surprised to see that this technology has been anticipated so long ago. Granted they developed this idea before the smartphone era, but the approaches to the use of technologies are addressed in their filing. I wouldn't begin to traverse the patent filings for mobile devices and mobile device management, but as is obvious, the technology needed to make those pieces work are widely available and implementable today.

I don't know if any of the technologies I have described above have envisioned the uses or capabilities that would provide the feedback to police, forensic evidentiary value of  the logged data, and the remote gun management and remote disable proposed here, but these are all now possible with exactly that mix of tools. It is also, I might add, these remote management and control features that will be the most contentious if ever deployed, but could be transformative to law enforcement.

So, if people have been thinking about these approaches, and if the ideas and tools are available and have been on the table for so long, this begs the larger question, why haven't we pursued an approach like this? Why is it not being discussed?

In Summary:

It is more than unfortunate that mass tragedy has brought us to weigh the rights of individuals against the community good. Both should be the same. We should cringe any time the rights of someone to peacefully do, buy, collect, use and own what they enjoy are challenged for whatever reason. It takes us down a slippery slope that none of us should want. I apologize in advance to any legitimate gun owner, sportsman or collector troubled by this discussion. In paraphrase of a quote from someone posting under the pseudonym of Boston T. Party "a gun should never be governed by any technology more complex than Newtonian physics".

With that said, absent any other move towards effective abatement of the potential for tragedy through policy or personal action, I do believe that before too long technology will be called upon to address the horror of mass shootings and other gun violence, perhaps not now, perhaps too far in the future to matter to any of us, but in the minds and hearts of many, something does need to be done. Most have passed fatigue and have exceeded all tolerance for mass shootings. Frustration will force action.

There are probably more than a few who at a minimum are rolling their eyes just about now.

How many remember the days when we put film into our cameras, dialed phones and waited for the bank to open to get cash? Is there anyone who doesn't believe that in twenty years GPS and databases will drive our cars and coordinate the safe flow of traffic? Technology moves forward. Innovation doesn't stop. Without a doubt, gun manufacturers already recognize that innovation is faster and cheaper in software than hardware. How long until a digital interface will allow the recreational shooter to change the rate of fire, burst patterns and even tactile and audible characteristics of the gun to increase enjoyment and personalize preferences? I haven't checked. Perhaps that is available already.

Let's recap what is on the table:

  • Egregious violent gun crime could be reduced
  • Mass shootings at schools, churches and the offices and factories where we work would be less a source of fear 
  • This could add to the capabilities of law enforcement providing better information, increased officer safety and more effective tools
  • The recreational shooter can enjoy guns safely and responsibly

On the other hand:

  • There will be a cost to the privacy and individual rights of law abiding citizens with whatever approach we take
  • Hearts and minds sufficiently confident in technology to entrust the safety and protection of home and family will be hard to find
  • The impossibility of getting several million conventional guns off the street may render this discussion academic   

In reality:

In a utopian world these solutions would address many of the issues of gun related violence in a significant way, but we don't live in a utopian world. Technology, no matter how well applied, cannot end gun violence, and in truth, all of this would only be a small step forward. The untouchable inventory of guns on the street remains an impasse. Policy is difficult to implement. A society and culture that produces people that take lives is inexplicable. If this were easy it would already have been addressed.

We will need to decide in policy, technology and the prudent choices we make whether we are going to begin and at least take the baby steps forward or resign to accept things as they are. There is really no other choice on the table. We need focus, commitment, new ideas and new ways to approach the problems of violence and guns. Without this there is no technology we can introduce, or policy we could put into place, or cultural change that will end the potential for further tragedy.

We can show that a technical solution is feasible and that it would foster more effective capabilities for law enforcement and ultimately a society a bit safer from guns. We know what is at stake. In the end it is for each of us to determine how much more gun enabled violence we can tolerate and for people, policy makers and professional law enforcement to whom this matters as a life and death issue to call for change. This will not be easy to do.

For law enforcement and others in public safety this discussion is not academic. As long as there are conventional weapons out there the assumption has always got to be made that along with every 'really smart gun' on the grid that we could manage, there is another conventional one that we cannot, and they will encounter on the street. That may be the reality forever. When I speak of transformative technologies for the police as of now that is at best a statement of direction. It is also a hope that as they put their lives on the line we can offer some contribution through technology or other that will help make their jobs safer as they protect us.

One quote from a friend in law enforcement captured it all:

"This is really good stuff. Well thought out and truly the wave of the future. I am glad I won't be around when this is fully implemented someday, because with my luck the technology will fail me at the moment of truth, when my gun fails to fire, and I need it to save my life or protect my loved ones."

There is technology that we can use. The realization that change will come is there. Fear of change and moving forward is also there as is distrust in the reliability of technology. We lean on and protect what we know. Politicians lean on policy, technical people technology, and those in law enforcement and others concerned with self protection, their guns. It is the perceptions of those to whom this does matter, prudent thinking and the concerns of an anxious society that will determine what we will do. It will have to be technology, along with culture and policy that will shape the answer in the end. We do need an answer.

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