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

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  • 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.

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