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Can Computer Professionals and Digital Technology Engineers Help Reduce Gun Violence?

handgun, illustration

Credit: Alicia Kubista / Andrij Borys Associates

Regardless of one's position on gun control, few of us consider it tolerable for mass-shootings like the recent ones in the Sandy Hook Elementary School, or in a Colorado movie theater, or in an Oregon shopping mall, or on a Texas Army base, or in a Norwegian youth camp, to continue to occur. The question is, what can we do about it? We can of course engage as citizens in political debates, political actions, and policymaking on gun legislation and policy. But I would like to ask if there is any way that ACM members, as computer scientists, engineers, and digital technology experts, can use our technical expertise to reduce the frequency and casualty count of shooting crimes.

This Viewpoint is an attempt to start us thinking about that.

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Eventually Everything Goes Digital

In the past several decades, many devices that were mechanical or analog electrical 50 years ago became digital: calculators, cash registers, watches, phones, cameras and photographs, movies, music players, musical instruments, washing machines, sewing machines, power supplies, roledexes, copiers, calendars, televisions, and others. As the trend continues, more objects and appliances are becoming digital: books, magazines, newspapers, metronomes, shavers, toasters, coffeemakers, cars, planes, trains, lighting systems, batteries, power grids, homes, and others.

When an object or appliance goes digital, capabilities emerge that the old pre-digital versions did not have. The object is transformed. Some devices, after undergoing a digital transformation, in turn transform our behavior and in some cases our society.

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When Guns Go Digital, What Becomes Possible?

Ignoring high-tech military weapons like Stinger missile launchers, guns are still stuck in the analog, physical world. What if, like so many devices and appliances, guns became digital? What might be possible?

What if, like so many devices and appliances, guns became digital? What might be possible?

In particular, as guns become digitaland they will, like so many devices before themhow can we as responsible computer and digital technology professionals help ensure they are safer and less useful in crimes?

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Ten Idea Seeds: If Guns Were Digital...

I will seed our thinking with some blue-sky ideas generating from brainstorming. The ideas get wilder as you read down the list, but none are magical; all are based on technology that exists today in some form. In the spirit of brainstorming, please suspend disbelief, suppress your internal critic, and read on with an open mind. Then engage your creativity and critical thinking to improve on or replace these idea seeds.

  1. What if switching a gun out of safety mode (in which it will not fire) required a combination or key? Actually, many guns already have this. What if all guns did? What if unlocking the safety required the holder to say a code? What if guns had a secret second safety in addition to the primary safety? What if the secret safety were invisible (that is, internally located) and digital, requiring touching the gun to an unlocking device, like the anti-theft tags on many retail products that are deactivated at checkout? What if unlocking the safety required simultaneous operation by two people, one with the gun and one elsewhere, just as arming a nuclear missile requires at least two people working separately? What if a gun's safety mode was not controlled by a switch that stays in the ON position, but rather required a continuous data-feed from somewhere to remain ON, for example, the gun owner's repeated signals of consent or his or her vital signs?
  2. What if operating a gun required authentication, so it would function only for an authorized user? What if gun owners had to login to their guns or otherwise (for example, biometrically) identify themselves to their guns, before the gun would fire or perform any function? This would make stealing guns useless. It would prevent a person's own guns from being used against them or other persons. For example, if Nancy Lanza's guns would work only for her, not for her son Adam, it would have been more difficult for him to shoot her and then carry out the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
  3. What if guns could raise alarms if stolen? Small "bugs" are available today that can be attached to objects or people and raise an alert if removed from a specified zone. Such "bugs" can already be attached to guns. What if there were special gun "bugs" that could be programmed to permanently disable the gun if it were not returned to the home zone within a short grace period?
  4. What if every gun could be easily and accurately located? Consumers today can buy key-fobs and stick-on tags that can be attached to often-lost items (such as keys, glasses, pets, children) and, on demand, emit sounds or radio signals that allow them to be found quickly (for example, ClickNDig, EZ-Find, Loc8tor). What if each consumer gun, when signaled, would emit a sound or signal that allowed the gun's location to be pin-pointed? People attempting to carry such guns through security checkpoints could be easily spotted without the need for intrusive pat-downs.
  5. What if a gun would not fire if it detected alcohol in the breath of its holder? Some of today's cars "sniff" the driver for alcohol breath and lock the steering wheel or will not start if they detect it. Guns could do something similar. Even gun-rights advocates admit that drunkenness is a significant factor in many shooting crimes.
  6. What if all guns inside a specified zone could be blocked from firing? Cellular phone service in an area or a building can be jammed or blocked, rendering cellphones in that area useless. Movie theaters, shopping malls, and schools, for example, could block guns from firing on their premises. What if all guns had a chip that classified then as "consumer," "law enforcement," "military," and so forth. Law enforcement officials entering an area where a shooter was at large could temporarily render all nearby guns, or all "consumer" guns, inoperative. What if the firing mechanism in guns could be fused by a high-powered electronic pulse, just as such pulses can fuse critical parts in car engines and electric motors?
  7. What if each individual gun could be shut off or rendered inoperative remotely? Smart phones and laptop computers can be tracked (for example, Apple's "Find my iPhone" service) and even shut down remotely if they are on line. For decades, people have been able to open and lock their cars from a short distance away using remote control key-fobs. Many new cars have digital monitor-and-control boxes connected to GPS and cellular services that allow car owners to remotely monitor their car's location and speed and even shut them down remotely (for example, Autonet Mobile, Mavizon, OnStar, and TiWi). Some of today's homes allow their residents to monitor or control certain household functions by phone or Internet when away. What if every gun contained a cellular chip that allowed the gun's owner (or law enforcement if the gun owner delegates control to them) to block the gun from firing? What if guns could be jammed by purposefully infecting them with a digital virus or worm?
  8. What if guns would not fire if aimed at a person? Many new cameras have limited face-recognition capability to help focus the camera on the subject's face. Could consumer gun sights use similar technology to engage the safety lock when aimed at a person rather than a soda can, bird, or bear? Could guns provide auto-safety settings to allow their owners to specify what types of targets are valid or invalid?
  9. What if a gun could refuse to fire if something "felt wrong" about how it was being used? Some military weapons, such as surface-to-air missile batteries, already contain artificial intelligence software that uses sensors and human input to build and analyze complex situation profiles to decide quickly whether approaching objects are threats or not (for example, Israel's "Iron Dome" missile defense system). Some military weapons systems can actually abort if their analysis suggests firing was in error or is likely to cause unintended casualties or damage, and other safety-critical systems can self-monitor and take action to prevent accidents or limit damage (see Nancy Leveson's books, Safeware and Engineering a Safer World). Could similar technology be made less expensive and built into guns? Could future gunslet's call them M160s, AR-1500s, and AK-47000sbe programmed to shut down if their sensory analysis suggested they were being handled by a child or used in a crime?
  10. What if shooting were digitized? What if digital guns only operated in the "cloud," that is, in virtual worlds? What if arguments that escalated to violence could take place only in the Metaverse (see Neil Stephenson's novel Snow Crash) or the Matrix (see the movie by the Wachowski brothers)? What if the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution were interpreted to apply only online, in gamelike environments: in cyberspace you can have all the guns you want and do all the shooting you want, but in meatspace there are serious restrictionsperhaps no guns at all. What if nations, if they failed to resolve their conflicts in negotiations, fought things out only in World of Warcraft cyberscapes, rather than in real cities and landscapes where people, including civilians, suffer and die and valuable property is destroyed?

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These ideas may seem like wishful thinking; they may seem impossible; they may even seem crazy or undesirable. Indeed, they may be impossible, crazy, or undesirable. But they are only "seeds" I am planting to start creative minds in the computer and digital products industry thinking, to see if there is any way we as computer and digital technology professionals can use our technical expertise to help reduce the ever-rising casualty count. Furthermore, since submitting the original version of this Viewpoint, I learned that others are thinking along similar lines: Jeremy Shane, a former U.S. Justice Department official during the George H.W. Bush administration, wrote an article for CNN: "Make Guns Smart" ( that offers similar suggestions.

Engage your creativity and critical thinking to improve on or replace these idea seeds.

Of course, applying our digital technology expertise to the problem of gun violence does not preclude us from also engaging as citizens in debate and political action. Gun violence, especially in the U.S., is a highly charged issue that must be addressed in many different ways. I am engaged politically on this issue, and I hope you are too or in the aftermath of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School will become so.

But I also hope that now you have digested the seed ideas I have listed, you can engage your critical mind and your creativity and help to grow the seeds into viable ideas or replace them with better ideas.

Let's not just wait for others to solve the problem of gun violence in our society. It is too important.

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Jeff Johnson ( is a principal at two usability consulting firms: UI Wizards, Inc. and Wiser Usability, Inc. He was formerly Chair of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility and currently serves on ACM SIGCHI's U.S. Public Policy Committee. He is the author of GUI Bloopers, GUI Bloopers 2.0, Web Bloopers, Designing With the Mind in Mind, and (co-authored with Austin Henderson) Conceptual Models.

Copyright held by author.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2013 ACM, Inc.


Jeffrey Johnson

NPR had an article on the same topic:

Katherine Haramundanis

This is a sterling article with a forward-looking perspective that should give us all a great deal to consider. What if some of these ideas could become part of our world? Would this not be better than a world where so many of our often blossoming young are cut down before they have even lived a life? Guns in any form are dangerous, just as an automobile is dangerous. That is why we have strict laws about driver training, licensing, insurance and accountability for those who drive. Guns are no different, in spite of claims about the Second Amendment. Apparently ignored often is the actual wording of the Second Amendment which is: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a Free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." We already have a well regulated militia, and that is the National Guard, established by the founding fathers. Making guns virtual is an intriguing and potentially valuable avenue and I applaud the author for his creative and thoughtful ideas.

Axel Schubert

Yet another seed idea:
What if switching a gun out of safety mode would start it to record and transmit its location and any shots fired with it?

The assumptions would be

- each gun has a unique id (included in transmitted data items)
- each gun has a GPS module
- while out of safety mode, each gun records a location track with time stamps,
- each gun records each shot it fires (id, location, time, plus orientation of the gun, if such sensors are feasible)
- once switched out of safety mode, each gun transmits and keeps transmitting above data to a central repository till receipt of data has been confirmed.

Obviously, such transparency cannot hinder misuse of a gun. But chances to shoot and remain anonymous would be greatly reduced. Police could designate areas where legal shooting is plausible (e.g. hunting forest, shooting range) and where it is not plausible (e.g. urban areas) and trigger alarm in real time when a gun is taken out of safety mode in an area where legal shooting is not plausible.

A more severe variant of this idea would be to render the gun inoperable when data transmission is not possible (e.g. due to coverage inside strong buildings where GPS signals and / or cell phone signals don't penetrate).

Jeffrey Johnson

Two related articles were recently published by the SF Chronicle:
- Sandy Hook parents turn to tech for help:
- Personalized guns touted as safety check:

Jeff Johnson

Warren Young

I don't think a single one of the ideas presented in this opinion piece is practical. I've written up my reasons why on Google+:

(Sorry, don't want to re-post here. Way too much material for a comments box. But, I'll answer comments here if someone prefers to answer my criticisms here rather than on Google+.)

Don't get me wrong, I'm about as big a gadget geek as anyone: offer me a working technological solution for a real problem in my life, for a reasonable price, and I'll be right there in line to buy it. But it has to work.

I've also read all of the other articles referenced here, and what I see is mostly weak, hand-wringing journalism rather than facts and ideas. Journalism doesn't trump physics.

The SFGate articles are basically worthless.

The NPR article at least points to a few actual attempts at solving the technical problems here, but if you dig into them, the solutions are full of problems.

iGun? Go to their web site. It looks at first glance like they have an actual product, but do you see a link to a PDF manual? A dealer locator? A price? A list of replacement parts? The address of a service depot? Smells like vaporware to me.

On top of that, the only product iGun Technology Corp even pretend to offer is a shotgun, presumably because they need the space inside the stock for their technology. Only about 5% of gun violence is committed with long guns, and at best, such technologies will prevent only a small fraction of attempts with the small fraction of weapons fitted with it, which of course will be a small fraction of those available on the open market for decades to come. If this solution gets any more dilute, we'll have to call it homeopathic.

ITC themselves don't believe their tech will solve these problems. They've laid it all out in their position paper:

So what about the TriggerSmart technologies, then? Well, what about them? I mean, their web site ( reads like it was populated from the first page of each section of their business plan. You can't buy anything from them except the company or a technology license, and there are no technical details offered for those like us to evaluate. I've emailed them a series of about a dozen questions, several of which are multi-part. We'll see if they bother to answer, and whether those answers actually satisfy.

Warren Young

I've gotten some answers back from TriggerSmart, and the answers only partially satisfy me.

The basic idea behind their tech is an RFID token sensed by a microcontroller, which drives a tiny solenoid which somehow blocks the gun's firing pin. All this really is is a fancy way of doing what most guns already do with regards to internal safeties. It is similar in mechanical function to, say, a magazine disconnector. (

The neat bit, of course, is tying a mechanical safety together with RF control by interposing a bit of electronics. That allows entry of software, that magical glue whose virtues I do not need to extol to the members of this forum.

The USPTO thought this idea worth awarding patent 8,127,482. If you go read it, you won't find much of technical substance. In the standard way of patents, it's written broadly on purpose, so that it might cover many different realizations.

In later correspondence, it became clear to me that this is in line with TriggerSmart's plans. The patented idea isn't firing pin blocking, it is the interfacing of RF-controlled electronics to interfere with *any* mechanical linkage within the gun to prevent it from firing. In this way, a great many different gun designs could be retrofitted with the patented tech.

If you write to them, they may send you the same 2-page technical paper they sent me, which is of more use in evaluating the utility of this technology.

During the email exchange, TriggerSmart's representative answered about 3/4 of my questions, leaving the toughest unanswered.

What we do know:

- Their system is powered from lithium coin cells. (e.g. CR2032, though they didn't specify that.) This puts pretty severe limits on what it is able to do. You can't draw more than a few milliamps continuously from such a small cell without doing a lot of damage to its running time.

- The electronics fit into the grip panels and backstrap of a handgun. It doesn't intrude into the magazine well, and it is possible at least in principle to modify existing guns with this tech. Their initial prototyping was done in part with a SIG Sauer P226, a full-size service type pistol along the same lines as the more familiar M1911. ( Their rep wouldn't say whether it could be fitted to much smaller weapons. There is certainly a lower limit, which means a great many guns couldn't be retrofitted with this tech even if it were mandated.

- The most straightforward way to implement their stated tech requires enough power that it should drain the coin cell(s) in something on the order of 200 hours by my calculation if used continuously. That's only about a week, so it prompted me to make a couple of guesses about ways they could have improved battery life. All their representative would tell me is that I was "missing something" and that they couldn't tell me more for "confidentiality reasons". That's a bit of an odd position for a company with a patent. It tells me their battery management strategy isn't patent-worthy, or they haven't yet received one.

That in turn brings me to one of my biggest problems with this tech. If their battery management strategy really is aggressive enough that RFID communications doesn't drain the cell in a week, it hints at weaknesses in the security of the implementation. While their processor is asleep, not actively monitoring and reacting, it's blind. That blindness must be exploitable. There's no way around that.

TriggerSmart ignored most of my questions about physical security:

- What stops you from doing a field strip on the gun -- which a competent person can do in about a minute with most guns -- and tying up the solenoid with a piece of fishing line?

- What stops you from simply removing the solenoid?

- If there is some electrical contact that closes while the gun is held which turns on power to the electronics only while it matters, why can't it be broken, defeated, or misused? (I don't need to tell this forum about buttons that must be pressed and weren't, or shouldn't be pressed and were.)

- Does the lock fail open or closed? That is, if the token is within RF range when I pull the battery, is the gun left disabled? If not, that suggests many ways to defeat the system, not just by removing the battery.

TriggerSmart's answer to this last criticism seems to be that their purpose is really about child-proofing guns and preventing them from being used immediately by home intruders. You could also imagine it being a useful solution to police gun snatchings.

The thing is, that doesn't solve the main problem Dr. Johnson is aiming at. At best, it appears the TriggerSmart technology could solve a minority of a few of the lesser contributors to gun violence.

The TriggerSmart tech won't solve any of the single biggest slice of the gun violence problem, suicide, at approximately 60% of cases in the US. It hardly needs to be pointed out that these people are motivated and resourceful.

Having ruled out the major contributor and acknowledged that the tech may be of some help in some of the smallest contributors, what about the middle ground?

One of the SFGate articles talked about how many guns are stolen each year, and how that's a problem because it's how many criminals get their guns. One of the reasons I characterized that article as "worthless" is because the numbers don't add up. They talk about 100,000+ guns being stolen every year, but there are less than 10,000 non-suicide fatal shootings in the US each year. So where are all these guns going then? Clearly only a tiny fraction of these stolen guns are sticking in criminal hands. The rest must be getting sold. The average thief must value a gun only for what it can bring from a fence, not for its inherent utility.

In that way, the vast majority of these stolen guns likely make their way back into the legitimate economy, inasmuch as stolen property ever can. From a gun violence standpoint, the vast majority of stolen guns are neutral.

Dr. Johnson also talks about the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook above, and in private correspondence, referenced the ones in Arizona and Aurora. Pray tell how would the TriggerSmart tech have prevented any of these? In all cases, the guns were in some way authorized for use by the shooters. Even if they had somehow been taken without authorization, there was plenty of time for the shooter to disable any electromechanical firing disconnector.

Dr. Johnson and TriggerSmart also talk about blanketing an area with RF signals to disable guns. But again, how can this actually work when guns must be made to be disassembled in order to be cleaned regularly? I call this the DRM problem, since it's exactly the same sort of thing that makes DRM ineffective: you cannot prevent someone from breaking into a thing if you give them complete physical access to that thing.

You don't even need to modify a TriggerSmart equipped gun to defeat the tech that is billed as preventing guns from being used in a protected area. All you need is a Faraday cage. TriggerSmart's tech works at ~13 MHz, which makes the shielding task nearly trivial. Sure, RF blanketing tech could work against the ignorant for a short time, but eventually anyone who wanted to defeat the tech would be able to find out how.

If we try to make this sort of tech law, we'll just end up with some execrable law like the DMCA or SOPA, except applied to guns instead of software and movies.

If we don't require it by law, it simply won't happen. We'll have avoided a hugely expensive retrofit/buyback campaign, yet we won't be any worse off than we are now.

If you want a solution to the problems with guns in this country, fix our mental health system. That ~60% of gun violence from suicide is a mental health problem. These shootings at Sandy Hook, Aurora, Arizona? The only people arguing that the shooters weren't crazy are the lawyers, and that's again because this country doesn't deal well with the mentally ill.

About all that leaves are accidental shootings. Ideas like those of TriggerSmart and iGun could certainly help here, but they could only solve a small fraction of this minority. No tech can prevent all accidents.

Is fixing our mental health system a simple fix? No. Will it be effective? Yes, and compassionate, too.

Jeffrey Johnson

Here's another relevant article about smart guns, from NPR:

CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the June 2013 CACM (
--CACM Administrator

Massacre by shooting is uncommon. A movie theater showing a Batman movie, Columbine High School, Fort Hood, Sandy Hook Elementary School, and Olso, Norway, together claimed 240 casualties, dead and wounded. There are undoubtedly more, and I encourage you to find every relevant mass murder committed with a gun over the past 15 years and tally the casualties. Now find the annual deaths in the U.S. attributed to, say, bicycling, choking by children 14 and younger, food poisoning, drowning, or motorcycling. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains metrics for most of them ( Each year, any of these causes claims more lives than massacres involving guns. Tailoring specific solutions to these statistically insignificant occurrences is an ineffective expenditure of both resources and rights, regardless of how tragic the individual cases are. However, gun-related deaths in general are on par with total U.S. automobile-related deaths per year, ~30,000, suggesting we are able to make progress on the larger problem.

Suicide is a top cause of death in the U.S., with more than 38,000 per year, about half involving guns, accounting for two-thirds of annual gun-related deaths in the U.S. "Fixing" guns, as Jeff Johnson discussed in his Viewpoint "Can Computer Professionals and Digital Technology Engineers Help Reduce Gun Violence?" (Mar. 2013), will not fix suicide. There might be some improvement (guns are convenient and quick), but identifying and helping depressed people would be more effective.

The ~11,000 annual gun-related homicides in the U.S. (of ~16,000 homicides total) account for the final one-third of gun-related deaths. Note the CDC includes all homicides, criminal and noncriminal. The FBI provides numbers that help separate the "bad" incidents from the "good"; for example, it appears that ~5.6% of all justified homicides are noncriminal, and virtually all justifiable homicides turn out to involve guns. Justified shootings reflect a 60%/40% split between those committed by police and those by private citizens.

Good or bad, guns work as advertised as lethal weapons.

Attempting to use technology to reduce gun lethality is destined to follow the same path of failure as digital rights management technology, with law-abiding gun owners risking failure of their weapons in potentially life-threatening situations, while criminals jailbreak theirs to sidestep "safety restrictions" intended to prevent crime.

I have left out the 606 annual accidental deaths (2010) in the U.S. involving guns. Amazingly, more people die in bicycle accidents per year (~700 in the U.S.) than by accidental shooting, speaking well for the state of gun safety today.

Consider the following three suggestions for reducing violent deaths in the U.S. (including those involving guns): help medical professionals detect and/or treat underlying causes (such as depression); apply that knowledge to keep guns away from at-risk people; and eliminate the rock star ideal (nonstop work, hitting perpetually unreasonable deadlines, monotonic achievement) from hightech culture to reduce stress-induced depression and suicide.

Travis Snoozy
Seattle, WA



Comparing frequencies of intentional crimes and accidents is nonsensical. Injuries from fights in schools happen less often than injuries from playground accidents. Should we therefore allow fights? Bombings in the U.S. are rare compared to car accidents. Should we therefore accept bombings? We put effort where potential leverage is greatest, and we have more leverage over intentional crimes than over accidents. Keep guns away from "at-risk" people through universal background checks and waiting periods. Digital rights management technology has failed? That's news to me.

Jeff Johnson
San Francisco, CA

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