Computing Applications Viewpoint

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

Ten idea seeds.
  1. Introduction
  2. Eventually Everything Goes Digital
  3. When Guns Go Digital, What Becomes Possible?
  4. Ten Idea Seeds: If Guns Were Digital...
  5. Conclusion
  6. Author
handgun, illustration

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 digital—and they will, like so many devices before them—how 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 guns—let’s call them M160s, AR-1500s, and AK-47000s—be 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 restrictions—perhaps 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" (http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/09/opinion/shane-smarter-guns/index.html) 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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