Why Don't Tech Innovators Solve America's Gun Problems?

Maybe because what tech could do for gun violence would affect only a tiny portion of an overall falling public health problem.


Why haven't the big money and big brains of high-tech turned their power and wealth and cool, cool reason to stopping gun violence, wonders Scott Rosenberg at BackChannel in his article: "Why the Tech Industry Shuns America's Gun Problem: Silicon Valley's change-the-world-ism doesn't seem to apply to gun violence."

kengo via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Along with President Obama, Rosenberg wonders why we can't make all guns like we can apparently make smartphones: unusable without the right fingerprint, or otherwise personalized so only one owner can ever use it?

My own old school smartphone just has numerical code locks, but the point is: we can and usually do make it near impossible for anyone but us, and slightly hard and inconvenient even for us, to use our phones. Why not the same for our guns?

Rosenberg lays out his lament about such "gun safety" tech measures as if it is self-evident most actual owners of guns should want them: "If we can put a computer in everyone's pocket, why can't we do something about the 300,000 gun deaths in the U.S. over the last decade, or figure out how to make the 300 million guns at large in the country a little bit safer?"

As the rest of the article makes clear, Rosenberg is even on his own terms absurdly overselling what effect the sort of "smartgun" technologies his article is about could possibly have on that huge death number he tosses out.

As I wrote at the time Obama was prominently talking them up:

better gun safety technologies….may well be a great thing for those that want them. If gun owners overwhelmingly want better computerized trigger locks, child safety devices and the like, and perhaps they do, they will eventually have them, if they are willing to pay for them.

But people who want guns for instant emergency self defense might not want a weapon only as easy to use instantly as a locked iPhone. People who can't afford high-tech gadgets might want access to a self-defense weapon that is not an expensive high-tech gadget.

Tom Hartsfield at RealClearScience wrote in more detail about why a smart gun owner just might not want a smartgun, even if all the powers of Silicon Valley worked on developing them:

Gun technology changes very little over time. This isn't due to lack of scientific progress or some conspiracy. Quite simply, a reliable tool should be as simple as it can possibly be. A cleaned, oiled, mechanically sound gun is extremely simple. It doesn't suffer from unnecessary complications that risk failure at a crucial instant.

A gun should not be like a high-tech complex scientific tool or tech toy. If your iPhone crashes or drops a call you can simply wait for it to reboot or call back…

When the moment comes to use your firearm, you need it to work perfectly with no delay or fiddling. There is zero margin for error. A more complex gun, reliant on batteries and chips and special mechanisms, is simply a gun that is more likely to let you down in the moment when your life hangs in the balance.

Rosenberg's entire framing of the issue doesn't even really consider a gun owner's possible, even likely, desire for an uncomplicated, instant use weapon. (Though even some writers very dedicated to gun rights, such as RealClearPolitics's Robert VerBruggen, look forward to owning a good smartgun. The tradeoffs seem worthwhile to him.)

The fact that most guns can be easily and instantly used in the hands of both owner and nonowner can at times turn to tragedy, when, say, a child or someone else unused to weapons gets a hold of it. And it can lead to at least a big potential problems if it's stolen—gun thefts happen, probably, over 232,000 times a year.

But those situations are still but a tiny, tiny fraction of America's "gun violence problem." How many of those stolen guns are used to harm others by either killing them or otherwise being used in a crime, no one really knows, a spokesman for the FBI's crime statistics division says. We do know reasonably well that buying them legally is not how most criminals get their guns.

Stolen guns, then, are at least somewhat of a problem. But when assessing its nature as a public health or public policy concern, as opposed to just a problem for the person who had valuable property stolen from them, compare that 232,000 yearly stolen gun estimate to the 33,636 total firearm deaths (homicide, suicide, and accident) in 2013, the latest CDC figures. Every stolen gun does not lead to a public health tragedy, by any means. 

As for the problem of someone other than the user getting hold of a gun and causing an accidental gun death, that is a subset of the total number of accidental gun deaths. And according to the CDC, accidental gun deaths have fallen as a problem since 1999.

That year that saw a total of 824 such deaths for a rate of 0.3 per 100,000. By 2014, that number had fallen to a total of 586, for a rate of 0.2. And the raw number of such accidental gun deaths has been below 650 a year every year since 2006. Accidental gun deaths are not a growing crisis. Neither in the past two decade have been gun murders, which have fallen by half. 

Nonfatal gun injuries are also a problem, though perhaps not one most people would consider so vital it requires all tech industry hands on deck. Even there, according to figures from the CDC, accidental nonfatal firearm injuries for those under 19 (most likely to harm themselves with someone else's gun) have been falling in both numbers and rates this century.

From 2001-2003 inclusive, for example, there were 12,838 such accidental nonfatal gun injuries for age 19s and under, for an age-adjusted rate of 5.21 per 100,000.

From 2011-2013 inclusive, America saw a raw number of just 8,696 such nonfatal accidental injuries for people 19 and under, for an age-adjusted rate of 3.45 per 100,000.

Given the general hardiness of a gun, even in a world where every new gun was a smartgun, the country would still be awash with more than one dumb gun for every person. They won't be disappearing or becoming useless anytime soon.

In light of all the above facts, the most likely explanation for a lack of concerted effort on the part of Silicon Valley powers toward "gun violence" is just an intelligent recognition of a problem not quite at crisis levels, and barely within their power to affect. One should be able to admit that's true regardless of how upsetting every gun death that might perhaps have been prevented by smartgun tech surely is.

That might be the most apt explanation for why the smartgun "concept might inspire moon-shot rhetoric, but right now the actual companies and organizations taking on this challenge feel closer in scale and impact to a backyard model-rocket launch." Getting government to demand such tech will do wonders for the businesses trying to make and sell them, which is what many in the gun control movement want. Rosenberg's article introduces you to some of the thinkers and industrialists who would benefit from such a legal demand.

Rosenberg makes much of the fact that on a National Rifle Association enemies list of sorts, "Among the nearly 300 Hollywood stars, musicians, movie producers, writers, business people and other notable personalities that appear on that list, you won't find a single prominent name from the technology or startup worlds" as if this should be a source of tech industry shame.

The Smart Tech Challenges Foundation Rosenberg talks about at length, which tries to do fresh work in the smartgun area, did, he writes, raise "about $3 million total in 2013 and 2014" from sources that include "a handful of people here in Silicon Valley" though those in the field consider "the amounts of money tech luminaries were putting behind smart guns dismissed as 'paltry' and insufficient." Well, they would.

So Rosenberg's three reasons for why the tech industry isn't solving the gun violence problem are, first, that "there's no data"—which isn't true, though I'm sure he would consider the abundant data there is "paltry and insufficient." As explained above, the data about the actual extent and trends of the problems solvable by smartgun tech in and of itself are a very good reason for it not to be high on anyone's list of moonshot projects.

I think that probably settles the matter. But Rosenberg also notes a second reason, correctly, that guns are a politically contentious issue in a world where in theory "Tech investors prefer to stand above the partisan fray, and even those who have more of a stomach for public policy debates might quail at the level of vitriol the gun issue triggers."

He also notes a third reason: that "There's just no natural constituency" since "Tech entrepreneurs and investors flock most avidly to ideas that meet their own needs" and "even if you're an investor with liberal leanings and friends, getting involved with smart guns means actually dealing with gun people, which could be, you know, awkward or unpleasant." (That last phrase explains so much about why Rosenberg felt that this poorly thought out article was worth writing.)

Smartgun tech is also a problem whose "solution" would require, to even dream of being at all effective, forcing lots of gun owners into a tech they likely don't want, to have a small effect on a problem that—again, however horrifying it is in those rare occasion when an unpersonalized gun is used to harm—would be very far down the list in any rational cost-benefit analysis for best place to look to increase the social good and public health in America today.