Special Report: IT Tools for Safer Communities

As policymakers grapple with gun violence, technology may offer nonpartisan options for improvement.

by / March 26, 2013 0

This report is based on the activities of the Digital Communities program, a network of public- and private-sector IT professionals who are working to improve local governments’ delivery of public service through the use of digital technology. The program — a partnership between Government Technology and e.Republic’s Center for Digital Government — consists of task forces that meet online and in person to exchange information on important issues facing local government IT professionals.

More than 1,000 government and industry members participate in Digital Communities task forces focused on digital infrastructure, law enforcement and big city/county leadership. The Digital Communities program also conducts the annual Digital Cities and Digital Counties surveys, which track technology trends and identify and promote best practices in local government.

Digital Communities quarterly reports appear in
Government Technology magazine in March, June, September and December.

We haven’t yet, as a society, come to terms with guns. The nation was born in a revolution fought with muskets, and the right to keep and bear arms is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Even Thomas Jefferson, that most cerebral of men, once said that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

But what if a madman shoots children, as happened recently in Connecticut? While crime as a whole is down — New York City even had a full day with no shootings or stabbings last fall — the fact remains that anyone who hears about a mass shooting wants to do something to prevent it from happening again. But treading a path between confiscation of all guns and open carry everywhere is not easy, and of the many ideas that have been offered, there are few workable solutions and many frustrating complexities.

Following the Sandy Hook school shooting, Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy exemplified the frustration and the impulse to do something — anything — to stop gun violence. “We don’t yet know the underlying cause behind this tragedy, and we probably never will,” he said. “But that can’t be an excuse for inaction.”

Many initiatives are circulating in Congress and numerous state legislatures, including proposals to restrict school visitors, increase taxes on gun sales, restrict clip sizes, outlaw semi-automatic weapons, and the latest twist: require gun owners to purchase liability insurance.

Most approaches to reducing gun violence — no one really expects to eliminate it altogether — focus on reducing access to firearms, either by decreasing the number and types of weapons in circulation, or by restricting access for individuals most likely to abuse firearms, such as convicted criminals, drug abusers and the mentally ill. Both approaches face significant obstacles.

Americans already own more than 300 million firearms of which more than 100 million are handguns, so limits on new firearms, ammunition, etc., could impact the annual sale of some 10,000 firearms, but will not touch the weapons already sitting in half the nation’s households. While the gun control debate heats up, the search continues for measures that are truly effective and that can reduce gun violence, which claims some 10,000 lives each year in the United States.

The 12-step motto — “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference” — might provide a practical approach for dealing with gun violence and the legislative efforts under way.

Some things we must live with, most notably guns in homes. The vast majority of those are used responsibly for hunting, target shooting or self-protection. But as long as there are firearms in the hands of people, there will be the violent actions of a few disturbed individuals. The things that can be changed are the subject of this special section, especially IT tools that can help prevent, mitigate and recover from gun violence.

Guns in Milwaukee

For a street-level look at gun violence in America’s cities, Government Technology talked with Milwaukee Police Chief Edward A. Flynn who commands an agency of 2,000 sworn officers and 700 civilians, serving a city of some 600,000 residents. At one time, Flynn served as secretary of public safety under former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Wisconsin is an open carry state, where those not prohibited from possessing a firearm may carry a weapon visibly on their person without a license, or carry a concealed weapon with a license except in schools, government buildings and a few other places. According to Flynn, that does not make policing any easier.

“Our challenge is to keep firearms out of the hands of those who should not have them,” said Flynn, “and that includes the criminal, the mentally ill and substance abusers. One of our problems is there are gaping loopholes in who’s required to be subjected to a background check. That has to change. There is much talk of individual rights when it comes to firearms, but every individual right in the Constitution has to be balanced against the rights of the community. And communities have a right to be free from firearm violence, particularly if it could have been prevented through prudent regulation.

“Unfortunately for our country,” he said, “all sanity and rationality seemed to go out the window as soon as one begins to confront a notion of rational regulation of firearms.”

Flynn doesn’t expect firearms to completely disappear, nor is he advocating that. “What we are saying is that when you have the levels of violence we have in this country, it’s our obligation to make sure that a lawful right to possess a deadly weapon is appropriately regulated by making sure that there are serious sanctions for illegally possessing a weapon and that there are serious application processes in place that protect all of us from the remorseless and the criminal and the irrational.”

Photo: Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn enlists technology to help secure his city and its residents. Photo by David Kidd.

Federal Initiatives

At a press conference late last year, President Barack Obama launched an initiative to “not only deter mass shootings in the future, but reduce the epidemic of gun violence that plagues this country every single day.”

The president went on to say that even though no law or set of laws can prevent all gun violence, effective action must be taken to reduce it. “We’re going to need to work on making access to mental health care at least as easy as access to a gun,” Obama said. “We’re going to need to look more closely at a culture that all too often glorifies guns and violence.”

Then on Jan. 16, after receiving recommendations from Vice President Joe Biden’s task force on gun violence, Obama announced 23 executive actions and called for Congress to take action on those requiring congressional approval. Several of those actions address Flynn’s concerns, including calling on Congress to institute background checks for all firearms sales.

Several of the president’s actions were directed at encouraging development and implementation of new gun safety technologies, as well as higher standards for trigger locks and other methods of securing weapons in homes. Obama also directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research causes and prevention of gun violence, and is asking Congress for $10 million to research the effects of video games and media violence on children.

Both the administration and gun-rights groups appear to be preparing for a showdown in Congress. Obama’s tone was strident as he said the executive actions were not a substitute for action by Congress and appealed to the public to pressure elected officials. “What’s more important,” he said, “getting an A grade from the gun lobby that funds their campaign or giving parents some peace of mind when they drop their child off for first grade?”

The National Rifle Association (NRA) said it was disappointed in its meeting with Biden’s task force, suggested putting armed officers in schools and called for stronger requirements for the mentally ill to be put in a national background check database. In a statement on the NRA website, CEO Wayne LaPierre also advocated firearms training and other measures. “Proposing more gun control laws — while failing to enforce the thousands we already have — is not a serious solution to reducing crime,” he said in a prepared statement, adding that “Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals. Nor do we believe the government should dictate what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families.”

A Better Database

Obama’s first item on a list of 23 measures to reduce gun violence was: “Close background check loopholes to keep guns out of dangerous hands.” He proposed requiring all gun sales to go through the background check system, removing obstacles such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act privacy restrictions to allow simpler reporting of mentally ill individuals, and reviewing the laws prohibiting gun ownership to ensure that dangerous people don’t slip through the cracks. Of all proposals on gun control, improving background checks perhaps has the most bipartisan support and was also advocated at various times by the NRA.

After the Virginia Tech shootings, there was momentum to expand the database to include the identities of mentally unstable patients. President George W. Bush signed legislation in 2007 to strengthen the process.

“The problem has been the follow-through: getting all the states on board, in step and able to supply the information to the database that it needs,” said Josh Filler, a homeland security consultant. Filler — who provided oversight of the New York City Police and Fire departments, Office of Emergency Management and other agencies — served as the first director of the Office of State and Local Government Coordination for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Currently the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is run by the FBI. According to the FBI website, NICS provides full service to federally licensed firearms dealers in 30 states, five U.S. territories and the District of Columbia. Thirteen states, however, act as a point of contact, meaning NICS background checks in those states go through a state agency that can check against more restrictive state regulations as well as look for matches against the federal NICS standards and can assess a transaction fee. Several other states have a combination of some checks done directly through NICS and some through a state point of contact.

The checks can be done by telephone or via the Internet. But any database is only as good as the information it contains and under which circumstances it is applied. Both are subjects of contention. Today, federal requirements for background checks do not apply to private transactions or antique guns, and state standards vary considerably.

According to Mayors Against Illegal Guns, states also vary widely in their willingness or ability to provide data to the background check system, and as a result of “gaps in our broken background check system,” criminals and others slip through the background checks and buy firearms.

There are encouraging signs, however. According to a January article in The Salt Lake Tribune, Utah — which was one of about two dozen states that failed to share data on mentally ill residents with NICS — recently submitted some 10,000 such records. “Utah had kept its own list ‘for Utah eyes only,’” said the article, “to screen individuals wishing to purchase guns, but there was nothing to prevent a Utah resident with a history of mental illness from buying a firearm in another state.” About 4,000 of those records were rejected by NICS, however, because they lacked either a birth date or Social Security number.

Filler agrees with the necessity to provide names of mentally ill or unstable people to the NICS database. The Virginia Tech shooter had numerous complaints against him of threats and stalking, and he underwent mandated outpatient psychiatric treatment, Filler explained. Yet none of this information was added to the database, he said, because it was not required under Virginia law. Thus the shooter was allowed to purchase two firearms in preparation for his mass shooting that killed 32 people and wounded 17.

But several challenges await the move to add more information about the mentally ill to background check databases, said Filler. First, many threats aren’t reported to authorities. In addition, he said, definitions of mental illness are not coherent and many such records are on paper — sitting in courts and departments of mental health — and would require time and money to digitize, although some funding has been appropriated to do so.

“Basically what you are talking about,” Filler said, “is if somebody has been subjected to inpatient or outpatient treatment, voluntary or involuntary, information about that person would be supplied to the database and they’d be prohibited from purchasing a firearm.”

Privacy advocates, however, maintain that voluntary commitment should not be included in the background check information because that could deter mentally ill patients from seeking treatment.

The California Model

California has some of the strongest restrictions on firearm purchases and has been suggested as a model for the rest of the U.S. A January Web article by Bay Area News Group’s Josh Richman outlined California’s restrictions.

Buying a rifle or shotgun in California requires:

1.    state identification (a driver’s license, etc.);
2.    being at least 18 years of age;
3.    buying a trigger lock, cable lock, etc., for it;
4.    a background check run by a licensed firearms dealer; and
5.    a 10-day waiting period.

Handgun buyers must be 21 years old and in addition to the above five steps, must show:

1.    proof of residency;
2.    a California Handgun Safety Certificate; and
3.    demonstrate to a certified instructor that the applicant can safely handle a handgun or firearm of the same model.

Under California law, private sales of firearms must be done through a licensed firearms dealer that may charge $10 in addition to a $25 state transfer fee.

The California Department of Justice lists 18 factors that prohibit a person from obtaining firearms. Many of those conditions — such as court-ordered restraining orders, conditions of parole or commitment to a mental institution — have a good chance of winding up in a background check database. But others, like the requirement that a therapist must report a patient or client who communicates a threat “against a reasonably identifiable victim,” are subject to interpretation and require a breach of privileged information between therapist and client.

A Partial Solution?

Better databases and stronger background checks may have an impact, but there’s evidence to suggest that those moves are just part of the answer. As currently implemented, background checks for firearms are an imperfect safeguard.

Even with California’s tougher restrictions, for instance, few background checks result in a cancellation of the sale. According to the Bay Area News Group article, only 1 percent of California’s background checks lead to denials. “So the system barely reduces the number of guns out there,” Richman wrote. “But the national denial rate is 0.6 percent, so California’s checks are obviously much better at preventing people who can’t legally own guns from buying them.”

There also appear to be few consequences for failing a check. The New York Times reported that nearly 80,000 Americans attempted to buy a firearm in 2010 but failed the background check. It is a felony for a person who is legally prohibited from buying a firearm to attempt a purchase, but of those 80,000 attempts, only 44 individuals were prosecuted.

And some people avoid background checks by paying someone else to purchase guns for them. The convicted felon who shot five first responders in Webster, N.Y., on Christmas Eve 2012 had a neighbor buy his weapons. The neighbor was arrested afterward, but by then it was too late. In addition, people who are refused permission to buy a firearm are 28 percent likelier to commit gun violence after being refused than before, according to a study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. Clearly they continue to shop and obtain weapons where background checks are not required.

Another challenge for expanded background checks is the fact that mental health professionals often struggle to accurately spot which patients may act violently. In a 2012 report, called Predicting Violent Behavior, the Department of Defense concluded, in part, that “there is no effective formula for predicting violent behavior with any degree of accuracy.”

University of California, Davis professor of psychiatry Dr. Peter Yellowlees agrees. “Unfortunately the report is correct,” he said. “The only substantive predictor of future violence is a past history of violence — which of course doesn’t help at all in someone who has not previously been violent, which is where most of the concerns are.”

Promising Technologies and Strategies

So beyond better databases, where can technology help reduce gun violence? There are perhaps four initiatives now being explored that have potential, yet some have significant challenges and barriers.

Social Media Monitoring

According to Filler, about 120 planned mass school shootings were thwarted between 2000 and 2010. “Columbine showed that if you are the parents, the school or the police, you have to intervene when the information is presented to you. And students have to come forward. A lot of times, the students know what’s going on, and they know there’s a problem but nobody wants to rat on their fellow student, and don’t want to be seen as a tattletale, so you have to break down those cultural barriers.”

Since the Sandy Hook school shooting, parents, students and law enforcement have become much more alert to potential threats, and several individuals who threatened others have been arrested. In one situation, a student tried to recruit friends to help him trap and shoot other students. In another, a woman reported that her husband threatened to burn her and then kill students at the nearby school where she worked. Such reports are being treated more seriously now.

More law enforcement agencies are monitoring social media posts for warnings that violence may be imminent. In Tennessee, a Columbia teen was arrested for a Facebook post that said: “feel like goin on a rampage, kinda like the school shooting were [sic] that one guy killed some teachers and a bunch of students:D”. Officers searched his room and found guns, ammunition, a machete and drug paraphernalia. And in New York, gang members bragged about their illegal activities on Facebook and Instagram, resulting in the arrest of 10 suspects for conspiracy to commit murder, plus weapons and narcotics violations.

Gunshot Detection Systems

In the current discussions about reducing gun violence, the question arises: How can we keep guns out of the hands of felons and the mentally ill without infringing on the rights of law-abiding citizens? One answer revolves around better background checks for gun purchasers. But with millions of guns already in American closets and gun cabinets, another part of the answer may be in gunshot detection systems, which provide an exact location when a weapon is discharged.

SST Inc. makes gunshot detection systems that are used in many cities around the nation. The company monitors gunshot detection data for 29 cities from a control facility in Northern California. On a recent visit by Digital Communities to the facility — known as the Incident Review Center — an alert sounded, a screen popped up showing the city, a street view with the location of a potential gunshot and a sound graphic. The computer determined that the sound was an automobile backfire. The dispatcher watching the screen agreed and tagged it as such.

While the 29 U.S. cities monitored by the Incident Review Center were quiet at noon on a recent Tuesday, that is unfortunately not the case at night and on weekends. The facility has tracked thousands of incidents of gunfire, providing specific data on gunshot location, suspected type of weapon and other intelligence for first responders, investigators and crime analysts.

In one incident, 22 gunshots from three different weapons were fired from the center of a city intersection. In another incident, the system located a sniper on a rooftop who was apprehended while smoking a cigarette and waiting for the police to leave. His hiding place was revealed by a big red dot on the SST computer screens.

One California city’s shooting report shows a cluster of gunshots recorded on a high school athletic field. When alerted by the company, police discovered that the field was where thieves and gang members tested stolen firearms at night. Police officers used the system’s location and time of day information to catch the shooters and confiscate the weapons.

These systems also can be used when a police officer is involved. The location of each shooter and who shot first can be determined. According to SST’s James G. Beldock, such information has been used in court, and each incident thus far has corroborated the police officer’s version of the shooting.

In addition, gunshot detection systems tend to reveal much more firearm activity than is reported by citizens to 911. In areas with ShotSpotter installations, the system identifies and locates 80 percent more gunshots than are reported by residents, according to the company. Residents may be afraid to have a police officer come to their door, they may be accustomed to gunfire, or they may be uncertain if it’s a gunshot or someone setting off a firecracker. In any case, the data shows that only 20 percent of gunshots are reported by the public.

Gunshot detection technology also provides more accurate location information than people can provide. Gunshots may be heard up to a half mile or more away, and 911 calls reporting those shots may come from different locations. Where is the shooter or shooters? Are they moving or stationary? Are the firearms semi-automatic? The gunshot detection system can answer all those questions, while 911 callers usually have no idea. And in those cases, officers must canvas the reported locations looking for trouble or a body. With a detection system, even the direction of the gunshot can be determined by the strength of the sound as detected by various sensors, as the blast is loudest in the direction the muzzle is pointing.

Sgt. Kevin Bern, of the Rocky Mount, N.C., Police Department, told Government Technology last year that the city’s gunshot detection system not only directs police to the location of a gunshot and aids the collection of evidence, but it also can prevent violence by locating “confidence shots” by gang members planning an attack on another gang, or someone testing out a stolen weapon, as well as “celebratory shots” into the air on holidays.

According to the National Institute of Justice, homicides committed with firearms peaked in 1993 at 17,075, after which the figure steadily fell, leveling off in 1999 at 10,117. So even though in the United States there are 10,000 gunshot deaths per year, there are an estimated 10 times more shots fired — and following up on those instances may help police officers stop a problem before it starts.

Data-Driven and Predictive Policing

In Santa Cruz, Calif., crime data is pumped into a database and a complex computer algorithm predicts hot spots around the city where officers can expect illegal activity to occur. The Santa Cruz Police Department’s predictive policing program went into full operation in July 2012 after a pilot was credited with a 19 percent reduction in property theft. In addition to property theft, the system is now used to predict gang activity and street crimes for specialty units in the department.

When officers access the system, they can run predictive analyses in their specific area, which helps focus law enforcement efforts. Supervisors also log on to the system prior to briefings and print out a one-page sheet that lists the predicted crime locations for the day.

Photo: Analyzing crime data in conjunction with a gunshot detection system can increase public safety. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Police Department

Milwaukee Police Chief Flynn uses Compstat — a similar system of analyzing data on crime types, locations, time of day, etc. — in conjunction with a gunshot detection system to drill down into the locations and causes of violence. “One of the challenges for policing,” he said, “is identifying where gun violence is most likely to occur, and then another challenge for us is to deconstruct the dynamics of the cycle of violence. It’s up to the police to try to ascertain what specific types of criminality are driving firearms violence and to develop appropriate tactics to prevent it.”

Flynn said the city’s ShotSpotter system is integrated with the Compstat data. “It’s an important component of it,” he said. “We purchased two [square] miles worth of gunshot location system hardware, with a 2009 COPS technology grant, and got it implemented in December of 2010. It cost us about a half million dollars. And we … located this in the area that had generated the highest number of shooting complaints.

“In September of 2011, we got a grant from the FBI’s Save the Streets violence reduction grant program, and they gave us enough money to lease an additional square mile. So we own the technology for two square miles, and we’ve leased technology for a third square mile.

“What we found is that we identified 1,644 gunshot [incidents] in 2011, and 2,424 gunshot [incidents] in 2012, because we added that additional mile. It’s given us a much clearer sense of the level of firearms usage in the neighborhoods, which helps our officers respond more effectively but also allows us to have better predictive policing in that area and to get a better sense of what percentage of these incidents are in fact called in to the police.”

Flynn said numerous arrests have been made using the system, because gunshot reports go directly to patrol cars, rather than through a 911 dispatcher. “GPS tells them where it was fired. Several times en route to the location, we have caught offenders coming the other direction who haven’t yet disposed of their weapon. We’ve made numerous arrests because of it. We’ve also because of the GPS, been able to locate physical evidence more rapidly, that’s also helped us make cases.”

Emergency Alert Systems at Schools and Colleges

One suggestion to help school security — advocated by the NRA and Filler among others — is to provide armed security. About one-third of U.S. schools already have armed security officers, so it is not unprecedented. That said, schools and colleges have instituted a number of security measures and systems for alerting students or the police in the event of an active shooter or other emergency.

One wrinkle on a well established security technology is providing video surveillance cameras with eyelids that open during an emergency or at night, but stay closed during the day to provide privacy during normal activities. New York’s Port Washington Union Free School District on Long Island installed such a system in 2010. When the camera is in privacy mode, the eyelid is closed. But if a staff member with a key fob presses the button to open the camera’s eyelid, the local police station is alerted and officers can see the video feed.

University and college campuses, with many buildings spread out over a large area, are a more difficult security problem. Loyola University Chicago’s alert system — which was installed in 2008 after the mass shooting at Virginia Tech — provides emergency alerts through email, text messages and voicemail, as well as an outdoor public address system. According to the Loyola website, students and staff can opt in to the alert program and chose their preferred form of notification.

As elected officials struggle to come to terms with gun violence — and face intense pressure from gun-control and gun-rights activists — some of these technologies may offer a nonpartisan approach for improvement.

Well considered and practical policies must be at the heart of any attempt to reduce gun violence, and for a nation that’s divided on firearms issues, consensus won’t be easy to achieve. Still, these technologies may offer some tools to implement those policies once we figure them out.

Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.