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

Michaela Rehle / Reuters

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.

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