No magic bullets
The USA has a problem with firearms, but any attempt to control the sale of guns runs into the obstacle of the right to bear arms enshrined in the 220 year old second amendment of the US Constitution. Rather than attempt to control gun sales, researchers at the University of Delaware are proposing using technology to make guns safer. Only in America?
A recent paper by Marcos Portnoi and Chien-Chung Shen of the university's Department of Computer and Information Science proposes a technical method of gun control. They argue that if computers are powerful and reliable enough to fly aircraft and perform medical procedures then they should also be capable of providing a monitoring system to prevent terrorism, mass shootings and criminal use.
The idea appears to be that each gun would be fitted with a radio receiver and circuitry linked to the firing mechanism which gives the gun an identity. In civic centres, and around schools, hospitals, etc, radio transmitters would transmit a "No Shooting" signal to protect the area. Citizens could still take their guns into those areas but the gun would refuse to fire when it detected the inhibitor signal. However, if police or federal agents respond to calls in such a zone, their guns would still work because the signal would grant permission to that class of gun owner to fire their weapon.
This idea is so flawed, it is hard to believe it was ever published as an academic paper. There are approximately 250 million firearms in the United States, possibly many more which are unregistered and off the radar. One company alone sells 60,000 child-sized weapons each year under the brand "My First Rifle" through supermarkets for about $150, advertised alongside toys and styled in pink for girls and blue for boys, to appeal more to kids, but still firing real bullets, still just as lethal.
The cost of converting all those millions of guns to have built-in computer controlled triggers would be enormous, but that's not the real problem. The bigger problem is that you have to have converted all the guns in the country before the system becomes effective, so you have to trust all the nefarious characters holding guns for criminal purposes to meekly turn up at police stations to have their firearms converted so that they don't accidentally shoot someone next time they rob a bank in a no-shooting zone. Even if you are sure every gun has been converted, you also have to assume that people cannot bypass the system simply by taking the battery out of the gun.
Its easy to see why this idea just wouldn't work. There may have been academic merit in working out the technological side of a theoretical scenario, but it completely ignores the sociology and logistics of the problem in the real world. Other proposals for smart weapons include guns which will only fire if the shooter is wearing the correct watch transmitting a unique RFID identity signal, and a company called Biomac is developing a gun which looks for the owner's biometrics in his handprint when holding the gun. Smart as these weapons might sound, they are equally ineffective in preventing criminal intent, which is a social problem, not technological.
Firearm numbers are lower here in the UK, between 3 and 4 guns per hundred people as opposed to the 95 guns per hundred people in the USA, but that's still around 1.8 million guns in the British Isles. About three quarters of those are shotguns, and a quarter are handguns and other items, all regulated under the firearms legislation.
UK police forces have run a number of successful amnesties which helps get some of those guns out of circulation. However, police here have also considered how technology could help them combat gun crime. In 2010, West Midlands Police installed a system developed in the USA called ShotSpotter, from SST Inc. According to ShotSpotter's website, "The gun crime epidemic is overtaking our cities", and, "ShotSpotter helps law enforcement to save lives, and enhance the quality of life in our communities."
So what is ShotSpotter, and how does it work? Developed originally as a tool to help the military pinpoint enemy snipers, ShotSpotter uses a number of high-quality microphones mounted at secret locations around a city, at a density of approximately ten listening stations per square kilometre, monitoring the sounds of the city 24 hours a day. When a gun is fired, the microphones detect that noise and a computer analyses the sound waves and decides whether or not it corresponds to the sound of a gun being fired. If it concludes that it was a gunshot, it will report how many shots have been fired, how many different guns have likely been used, and it triangulates the signals from the various microphones to determine the location of the shooting so that despatchers can send a response team.
The system is installed in a number of US cities and, disturbingly, has just been installed at a school in Methuen, Massachusetts. SST's latest press release proclaims the success of ShotSpotter in generating 1,280 reports of gunshot fire over the past 35 months in one city alone, Wilmington (North Carolina). The busiest location in Wilmington was South 13th Street, which had 50 reports in that period, whilst three blocks away, South 10th Street came in second place with 42 gunfire incidents. Wilmington has a population of 106,000 people in the inner city and a total of 263,000 people including the surrounding suburbs which makes it slightly larger than Blackpool, and a tenth of the size of Birmingham.
When the West Midlands Police Force install ShotSpotter in the city of Birmingham in 2010, the Chief Superintendant announced it with the soundbite, "we are delighted to be the first city in the UK to secure this technology". It cost West Midlands Police £150,000 to install, and a further £21,000 per year in operational costs. After less than two years it was judged a failure. Over that period, it had generated 1,618 alerts, of which only two were confirmed as gunfire incidents, whilst it also missed four other incidents. SST Inc disputes that figure though, claiming that two of the four missed incidents were from air pistols, which the system is not designed to detect. Whatever the figures, West Midlands Police concluded that resources would be better spent in other areas, such as community policing, and anti-gun education programmes.
Technology can come up with some great solutions to problems, but you've got to be solving the right problem. There are no magic bullets.
26th November 2014
This article comes from the SKILLZONE email newsletter, published monthly since January 2008, and covering topics related to technology and the internet. All articles and artwork in the SKILLZONE newsletter are orignal content. If you would like to receive the newsletter direct to your inbox each month, please SUBSCRIBE here. It is free, and you don't get added to any other mailing lists. It uses best-practice confirmed opt-in only, and you may unsubscribe at any time.