From the toll of bells at St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown, Conn., on Saturday to the candlelit White House vigil in Washington, D.C., reports continue to paint a national portrait of people and communities honoring Newtown’s 20 children and 6 adults killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting last year.
For the city of San Francisco and its tech community, the anniversary of the shooting — a result of 20-year-old shooter Adam Lanza entering the elementary and firing on both teachers and students after previously shooting his mother — was used for somber reflection and as a call to action: City officials, mental health experts and developers met at IT communications company Twilio to investigate how technology can prevent gun violence.
“A year ago we all faced a huge tragedy in this country, and I don’t know about you, but this morning all I have in my mind are the faces of those kids … we all struggle with what we can do, it’s a personal thing,” San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said at the event, hosted by civic minded tech group the HighGround Hackers.
In his remarks, Lee said the year since the tragedy had been one of both local successes and national disappointments in the way of gun legislation. On Nov. 8, Lee signed legislation to ban magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition, a victory for gun control advocates that prompted the National Rifle Association to file a lawsuit against the city of San Francisco.
Statewide, the mayor praised California Gov. Jerry Brown for passing gun legislation that tightened regulations with bills that, among other requirements, raised the bar for gun ownership through strict background checks, written safety tests and bans against gun parts that convert guns into assault-class weaponry.
Conversely, Lee denounced the lack of support from congress to pass any type of federal legislation on gun control since the Sandy Hook shooting.
Lee said he now sought technology solutions to gun violence that could be offered to mayors nationwide as part of his role as chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors Task Force of Technology and Innovation. Possible tech solutions he envisioned include apps, crime data communication platforms, tech that leverages community assets and tech ventures that may offer jobs to struggling youths.
Sharing the spotlight as one of the event’s keynote speakers was Ron Conway, a tech investor known for his early investments in Google and PayPal, in addition to his role as founder of the San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation, or “sf.citi.” Conway said the tech community is confronting gun violence on two fronts, technological innovation and dollar-for-dollar lobbying against gun rights groups such as the NRA.
“The Tech community, a year and a day ago, really wasn’t involved with gun safety at all," he said, "and the tragedy at Sandy basically mobilized the tech community."
Immediately following the Newtown tragedy, Conway explained he was inspired by former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords to harness the tech community for gun reform.
At a 2012 Christmas party he’d hosted at his home, Conway said Giffords was in attendance, and as he was recognizing her for her miraculous rehabilitation from her near fatal shooting in 2011, he felt prompted to organize.
“As I was introducing Gabby, I basically had an epiphany that the tech community had to get involved in gun safety,” Conway said.
This epiphany translated into massive tech funding for Sandy Hook Promise, a gun violence prevention organization led by family members of Sandy Hook victims, and “super charged” funding for the Americans for Responsible Solutions, a new lobbying Super PAC led by Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly, which Conway said is now on track to match NRA lobbying efforts dollar for dollar, with the goal being $20 million by November 2014.
“We’re going to have to take people out of office and put people into office who are at least in favor of background checks,” Conway said. “And the only way you fight with the NRA is if you raise dollar for dollar, and we’ve done that now.”
Ron Conway, founder of the San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation (sf.citi) and SV Angel Advisor. Photo by Jason Shueh
Movement on the second front of gun safety -- tech innovation -- is also actively engaged in the effort. Conway said investors associated with his investment group SV Angels are currently funding and investigating financial opportunities with ventures that could influence the sector of gun safety.
“On March 14th [at a Sandy Hook Promise fundraising event], we announced that 40 top-tier venture capital firms were going to prioritize investment opportunities in gun safety, mental health and brain health,” he said.
“The gun industry is a huge multibillion dollar industry, and there is no reason why we shouldn’t disrupt it in the same way we’ve disrupted many other sectors of the economy,” he added, urging attending developers and entrepreneurs.
A headlining example of one such disruptor was Ian Johnstone, the co-founder of Gun by Gun, a crowdsourced gun buyback platform started this year. Johnstone said he’d lost his father to an attempted robbery in San Francisco at the age of 10, and has since committed himself to a lifelong fight against gun violence.
Showcasing some of the demand for curbing gun violence, Johnstone said that during a brief gun buyback campaign launched for only three weeks in the cities of San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, Gun by Gun generated $40,000 to purchase and destroy guns on the street.
“The reason were getting all those donations from all those people is because people are really frustrated about gun violence," he said. "They want to do something about guns in their community, but haven’t been able to."
Conway said his fellow investors intend to work with multiple tech groups such as Code for America and other civic development outfits as investment plans go forward.
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.