At Issue: Technology and Preventing Gun Violence

One decade-old technology offers some assistance in preventing gun violence, as well as in locating and responding to shootings very quickly.

by / January 7, 2013

At a press conference on Dec. 19, President Obama launched an initiative to "not only deter mass shootings in the future, but to 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 needs to be taken to reduce gun violence in the country. In addition, the president charged Vice President Biden with heading a group that is to come up with concrete proposals by the end of this month. "We’re going to need to work on making access to mental health care at least as easy as access to a gun," President Obama said. "We’re going to need to look more closely at a culture that all too often glorifies guns and violence."

The president also hinted at some of the possible recommendations, saying that "A majority of Americans support banning the sale of military-style assault weapons. A majority of Americans support banning the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips. A majority of Americans support laws requiring background checks before all gun purchases, so that criminals can’t take advantage of legal loopholes to buy a gun from somebody who won’t take the responsibility of doing a background check at all."

So the first approach will likely focus on the types of weapons and ammunition offered for sale, where they can be carried and whether they can be carried openly or concealed, loaded or empty. The second target will be gun owners and gun buyers, and whether they are at risk for violence -- if they have been convicted of violent crimes or have serious mental health issues, for instance. The third target might be violent movies, TV shows and video games.

While these measures may sound positive, they have serious shortcomings, and could result in no significant reduction in gun violence. First, half the households in America have one or more guns. Most likely, these guns are unregistered, and guns don't deterioriate -- but they can be stolen, and would become prime targets if new purchases were restricted. If a national database were instituted to preclude individuals from purchasing guns, "straw purchasers" would buy weapons for them, as is already the case. 

"Guns don't kill people, people do," as the saying goes. But predicting those who would commit violent acts is a "work in progress" as outlined in a recent Washington Post article, which states that few mentally ill are going to commit violent acts, and those at risk for doing so may slip beneath the radar. 

Some even feel that the mental health establishment is part of the problem, as psychiatrists dispense powerful medications that carry black box warnings for suicide and other mental upheavals. And ironically, it was a psychiatrist who killed 13 people and wounded 29 in the November 2009 Fort Hood shooting in Texas.

Following the Fort Hood shootings, the Department of Defense began a study and released a report last summer, titled Predicting Violent Behavior, which concluded, in part, that "there is no effective formula for predicting violent behavior with any degree of accuracy." 

Attempts to regulate weapons and weapons purchases, as well as attempts to find those who have a potential for violent behavior, are likely to heavily intrude into Americans' privacy and freedoms. 

President Obama mentioned that our culture "glorifies guns and violence." And he may be right. According to one study cited in a University of Michigan report, "An average American child will see 200,000 violent acts and 16,000 murders on TV by age 18." Possible connections between violent acts and exposure to violent movies, TV and video games will likely be investigated at length.

Information Technology for Prevention?

As President Obama said, nothing will prevent gun violence entirely. But one technology that has been around for a decade or more offers some assistance in preventing gun violence, as well as in locating and responding to shootings very quickly. The technology is called "gunshot location detection," and a number of U.S. cities now employ these systems. 

The idea is that a loud sound in a city is picked up on a series of microphones, triangulated to locate that sound, and the sound waves examined to see if it resulted from a gunshot or merely a firecracker or automobile backfire. If the sound is a gunshot, the exact location is sent to emergency services within a few seconds. And the newest addition to the system is facial recognition that instantly IDs shooters.

At first glance, it might seem that such a system would be useful for responding quickly to gun violence, but would not be of use in predicting it. But according to Rocky Mount, N.C., Police Sargeant Kevin Bern, weapons that have been stolen and are about to be sold, are fired to make sure they work. And gangs often fire weapons before they are about to engage in violence. These "confidence shots," as Bern called them, show up on the system and can be investigated. That is especially important since only about 20 percent of urban gunshots are reported by the public. In addition, illegal "celebratory gunfire" on New Years Eve or the Fourth of July can be located, and once people know the gunshot location system is in place, such gunfire diminishes.

The gunshot detection systems also can detect if a series of gunshots are moving -- as fired from a car -- and in which direction, and can after the fact, help locate shell casings and other evidence.

Since gunshot location systems were first developed, they have increased in accuracy, and are less expensive to obtain, with some available by subscription for $40,000-$60,000 per square mile of coverage, according to one estimate.

Other technologies are in development that are useful for forensics. One system could prevent anyone but the registered owner from firing a weapon. Another etches the firing pin with a serial number that is transferred to the shell casing each time it is fired. 

For more on this subject, read the March 2013 issue of Government Technology magazine.

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.

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