Police Line Do Not Cross Tape draped across lit background outside at night

How Technology Can Help Put an End to America’s Plague of Mass Shootings

Do a search for “mass shootings” with virtually any search engine (Chrome, Google, Yahoo, etc.) and you will find the references at the top of the lists will be about mass shootings in the United States. Many Americans believe in “American exceptionalism.” And indeed America is exceptional in the rate that they turn guns on each other to settle personal grievances, but also, and horrifyingly, on total strangers with whom the shooter has never had any previous contact.

Why is this so? To my mind, there appear to be two fundamental reasons.

  • The right to bear arms is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
  • Deriving from this constitutional right (known as the Second Amendment), the belief has grown up in a large swathe of the population that without easy access to arms, America risks turning into a cruel, uncontrolled authoritarian state.

There are of course other proposed causes, which may be contributory, but don’t seem to be fundamental.

For example, some medical doctors believe the American diet is to blame. Americans, they say, eat too much sugar, processed foods, and trans fats. This revs up their systems into tense states. If we ate healthier diest, they say, we would all be much calmer, less emotionally trigger-happy, and more able to resolve our conflicts without violence.

A more likely contributing cause is America’s long-standing love affair with the gun as depicted in entertainment media, particularly the cinema. Going back to its very earliest days (black and white, without sound), Hollywood films depicted the so-called Wild West as a place where all males wore a gun and were ready to use it at the drop of a hat, or a cross-eyed look, or simply a misunderstood comment.

When sound and color were added, the depiction continued, and probably with more effect. At some point in cinema’s history, the cowboy with a gun became a police officer or private detective with a gun.

Radio and television were not spared this iconic image. One of the most popular radio programs in the 1950s and subsequently on TV in the 1960s was “Have Gun, Will Travel.” The idea was that a man named Paladin, headquartered in a first-class hotel in San Franciso, was willing to be hired and go anywhere in the west to settle disputes. He always tried to do so peacefully, but when he couldn’t, the gun went off.

Another popular radio and then TV show of the period was Gunsmoke, in which tall, soft-spoken Sherrif Matt Dillion kept the streets of Dodge City (Kansas) safe with a mixture of talk and persuasion, but often with gunfire.

Such images over generations seem to underly the mantra, “The only way to stop a bad man with a gun is with a good man with a gun,” which many people opposed to stricter gun control adduce as their end-all band be-all argument.

In more recent times, the picture of a good man with a gun has taken a serious swerve away from the image of a good man with a gun to a good man seeking revenge. Indeed, the man (it is almost always a man) who feels he has been grievously affronted acts to settle the score on his own. There is no longer any pretense of law and order, but getting even. Titles of these films typically include the word “revenge” or “vengeance” so there is no doubt about what they will recount. Examples of the genre are the Charles Bronson vigilante series of movies beginning with “Death Wish” in the 1970s and 1980s.

People who are moved by these and other factors to see gun violence as a way to solve problems frequently turn to constitutional arguments to justify their actions. This is why I have identified the key factors: 1) the belief that the right to bear arms is constitutionally sacrosanct, and 2) the nightmarish belief that virtually any limits on this right risks turning America into a cruel, uncontrolled authoritarian nation. 

However, research over many years tends to show that neither of these fundamental reasons is quite as clear-cut as they are presented in the ongoing political debate about them, which virtually always results in virtually no action to remedy the situation. The current political situation is dominated by distrust and ideology, with no room to compromise even if logical, rational reasons do so were advanced.

Arms and Authoritarianism

Statistics collected and analyzed from various sources do indeed confirm that death rates in many of the world’s countries due to armed violence are significantly higher than the death rate due to armed violence in the United States. However, this is a superficial and very misleading analysis. Virtually all of these countries with higher armed violence death rates are what most people might consider to be poor, developing countries, many already with authoritarian regimes or governments too weak (or corrupt) to put a stop to the carnage or prone to use violence to eliminate their enemies? However, comparing like with like (insofar as possible) paints a rather different picture.

Most Americans would consider Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, and United Kingdom as prosperous, freedom-loving democracies. Yet mass shootings in these countries come nowhere near the number of such tragedies in America. Over the past decade, mass shootings in the United States occurred on average more than at least once a day, i.e. at least 365 a year. In these other democracies, they are so rare that some of them have gone two years or more without a single such event at all.

Switzerland and the United Kingdom present an intriguing contrast. Nearly every adult in Switzerland owns a gun (to be ready for military service), but there are virtually no mass shootings. In the United Kingdom, most law enforcement officers are not armed because they do not expect anyone to ever point a gun at them. Northern Ireland—part of the U.K. along with England, Scotland, and Wales—is the exception due to severe strains between its Catholic and Protestant citizens and political squabbling over whether Northern Ireland should be reunited with the Irish Republic. 

Arms and the Constitution

The right to bear arms is enshrined in the United States Constitution, and to many people, it is the foundation on which all the other American freedoms rest. However, people who hold this unshakable position don’t fully understand how the U.S. Constitution really works and especially this vaunted provision of the right to bear arms, commonly referred to as the Second Amendment.

We will look at this controversial amendment in detail. But first a bit of background.

The Constitution of the United States of America is often praised for being so concise. Its 4,400 words make it perhaps the shortest constitution in the world. This is both a blessing and a curse.

It is a blessing because it means it can be easily read in a reasonable amount of time by anyone so inclined to do so. Reading the much more voluminous constitutions of many other countries (not all countries have constitutions) can be quite an arduous chore, so few people ever do.

It is a curse because it means that much of what it says—and what it means by what it says—is open to interpretation.

Structurally, the Constitution has two main parts. One part describes the three branches of the federal government: executive (president, vice president), legislative (House of Representatives, Senate), and judiciary (federal counts). Here, the language can be very precise, even punctilious. The other part is more a statement of principles.

A prime example of this contentious imprecision is the ever-controversial Second Amendment. It states:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Anyone who has paid any attention to American history knows this text has been reviewed by the courts and the object of rancorous public debates decade after decade since it was adopted in 1791. And still, the controversy continues.

Such interpretable passages occur elsewhere in the Constitution. They can be and have been the subject of endless legal confrontations. The necessity of interpreting certain key passages of the Constitution has given rise to two philosophical camps. Roughly speaking:

  • “Strict constructionists” argue legal rulings should reflect as closely as possible the intent of the original framers (writers) of the Constitution. Thus, they contend that the right of Americans to bear arms is virtually absolute and that any attempt to regulate the right to bear arms should be considered unconstitutional.
  • “Liberal constructionists” argue such interpretable passages of the Constitution must evolve, or otherwise become freakishly and detrimentally out of date. Thus, they contend that the right to bear arms as conceived in 1791 meant things such as single-shot pistols and muzzle-loading muskets, not the rapid-fire automatic pistols and machine guns we know today. Had they been available when the amendment was written, such arms probably would have been specifically excluded.

Looking more closely at the Second Amendment reveals a number of important points of linguistic imprecision. It will be useful to put the discussion into historical context.

The Amendment starts off with the phrase “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, . . . .” But why? 

“Militia” does not refer only to the armed forces of the United States as a country. When the Constitution was drafted, each American state was considered to be semi-sovereign, so they also had the right (but not the obligation) to organize and maintain a militia. They still are. Currently, 22 states have recognized state militias; the others may form such bodies at any time they wish.

” . . . the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” these 14 words of the second part of the Amendment permit conflicting interpretations.

First, what arms are meant by the amendment? Most likely, things such as rifles, handguns, and perhaps even swords, because these were the only arms available to individuals at the time. But what would be considered to be arms today? Certainly still rifles, pistols, and swords, but what about semi-automatic assault rifles (AK-15) with firepower way beyond anything the framers of the Constitution could have imagined. And what about hand grenades, gas canisters, flamethrowers, etc., i.e. virtually anything an individual could carry that would be capable of incapacitating or killing an enemy?

There is also a problem with the meaning of  “infringe.” Virtually all dictionaries define infringe to mean something like “to encroach upon in a way that violates the law or the rights of another.” But what does it mean to infringe one’s constitutional right to bear arms?

Certainly few (or hopefully no one) would argue that any and all regulation on the possession of arms would be a violation of the Constitution. For example, who would support the right of a seven-year-old child to parade around with a loaded AK-15? Or the right of a felon serving a jail sentence to possess an arm inside a prison? Or the right of a seriously mentally ill person to circulate in public while carrying a flame thrower?

Clearly “shall not be infringed” does not, cannot mean “shall not be regulated.” Hence, the constant, and often bitter arguments in the United States about what regulations do and do not infringe on this sacrosanct right.

If these hypothetical examples sound outrageously absurd, just listen to the extreme positions some people stake out on the issue depending on how they choose to interpret it.

The entire Second Amendment contains only 27 words. As Polonius in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet (act 2, scene 2) reminds us, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” However, with regard to the Constitution of the United States, brevity has also long been the source of never-ending division and conflict.

Was this intentional?

Many historians say the framers of the Constitution were wise to keep it brief and certain parts limited to statements of principle. They knew times would change and they wanted to enshrine and protect the principles. They gave the courts a lot of independence so that the differing opinions of what the principles meant in the current context could be sorted out without sacrificing the principles.

However if this was the framers’ intention, they should have made their intention unequivocally explicit. Why? Because as we have seen, rather than encouraging rational discussion and debate, it has divided the country into two virtually irreconcilable camps, the strict constructionists and the liberal constructionists.

The framers of the Constitution provided for a judiciary to mediate disputes over the interpretation of laws Congress and the states might pass and even the meaning of passages in the Constitution itself. However, it took over a century for the courts to become prominent in this way. According to the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union):

“Thus, although the power of judicial review was established in 1803, more than a century would pass before the Supreme Court even had many opportunities to protect individual rights.

For 130 years after ratification, the most notable thing about the Bill of Rights was its almost total lack of implementation by the courts. By the beginning of the 20th century, racial segregation was legal and pervaded all aspects of American society. Sex discrimination was firmly institutionalized and workers were arrested for labor union activities. Legal immigrants were deported for their political views, the police used physical coercion to extract confessions from criminal suspects, and members of minority religions were victims of persecution. As late as 1920, the U.S. Supreme Court had never once struck down any law or governmental action on First Amendment grounds.”

The deep cleavage between strict constructionists and liberal constructionist exists not only at the level of legal professionals but also at the level of the general public. For many voters, a key issue (if not the key issue) of the 2016 general election was a burning desire to replace liberal constructionist judges with strict construction judges at all levels of the judiciary system. The current make-up of the United States Supreme Court and many, many lower courts is a direct outcome of the 2016 election, and will significantly influence American jurisprudence for decades, and even generations to come. 

For other oddities and false ideas about the United States Constitution read: The Constitution of the United States of America—Extraordinary Ordinary Thiings.

Can Technology Be Used to Stop Mass Shootings?

No effective political solution to the problem seems to be on the horizon, even in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting. And why should we expect a political solution in the wake of the Uvalde horror (21 killed) when none was forthcoming after the Columbine horror (1999, 13 killed), Sandy Hook horror (2012, 26 killed), the Parkland horror (2018, 17 killed)? These are school mass shootings. They grab the headlines and hold public attention largely because they involve the deaths of innocent children.

However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Mass shootings occur in the United States virtually every single day without gaining general public attention at all.

A mass shooting is generally defined as any shooting incident in which at least four people (excluding the shooter) are wounded or killed. Under this definition, in 2019 there were 417 mass shootings; in 2020, there were 611; and in 2021, there were 693. In other words, on average more than one a day, and in 2021 nearly two a day. But how many people know this? Reputable news outlets almost always report these sad statistics to the public during their coverage of headline-grabbing shooting events such as Uvalde. However, they are only a minute part of the wall-to-wall coverage of other aspects of the event, and they quickly drop from sight once the news cycle moves on. So whatever momentary effect they may have on moving the political needle also disappears, leaving the same political deadlock.

With no political solution in sight (will this time be different?), numerous private companies are working on advances in firearms and other technologies that might save lives.

Remote-controlled guns

Commenting on a mass shooting in San Bernadino, California, in 2015 (not a school shooting), President Barak Obama asked, “If we can set it up so you can’t unlock your phone unless you’ve got the right fingerprint, why can’t we do the same thing for our guns?”  A good question. And, in fact, the answer is, we can.

Entrepreneurs began developing smart guns in the 1990s. A “smart gun” can be fired only by authorized users, not just anyone who happens to have it in their hand. However, due to low demand and fierce opposition from the National Rifle Association (NRA), the first smart gun reached the U.S. market only in January 2022.

If smart guns are taken up in America, they could quickly evolve into weapons that could be shut down from a distance. According to William Tang, an engineering professor at the University of California at Irvine, the technologies to remotely disable a gun already exist. It’s just a matter of market demand putting them into the hands of conscientious gun owners.

Would such a gun have changed the outcome of the Ulvade massacre? Probably not. It is unlikely that anyone determined to carefully plan and commit mass murder would use such a gun. However, it could be useful for stopping someone suddenly going on a spontaneous rampage. Not a total solution, but perhaps a useful step forward. However, given the number of guns currently in the United States—there are more guns than people—it would be only a long-term solution with at least a decade or two before showing any significant effect.

Schools as fortresses

High-tech, high-volume body scanners and bullet-resistant automatically locking doors are already on the market. Gunfire detectors have also already made their appearance in classrooms, playgrounds, and cafeterias. One such detector uses an auditory gunfire-detection system that maps the layout of a school and sends the precise location of a mass shooting to security guards and emergency responders.

Statistically, an average mass shooting lasts no more than 15 minutes, so time is of the essence. Typically, 3–5 minutes pass before the first calls begin streaming to the emergency response telephone number (911 in the U.S.). An app-based service has been developed that allows personnel within a school to press a digital “panic button” that instantaneously sends an alert to the phone of every police officer within a defined radius of the school.

Another system automatically locks every door (reinforced with steel and bulletproof glass) within seconds of an alarm being sounded. A computer terminal at the local police department then allows law-enforcement officers to take control of the school. Drawing data from cameras and motion detectors, officers can track a gunman’s movements in real-time. They can also influence the shooter’s movements by releasing smoke from canisters installed at strategic points in the ceiling, thus potentially pushing the shooter to a location where they can more easily be apprehended.

Sounds good, right? But things are seldom as good as simple as they seem when first presented. This one has two significant potential drawbacks.

  • This is only a partial solution. Imagine the controversies over this. Parents would almost certainly scream that with automatically locking doors, their kids could not escape and would be easier targets for the shooter. If tear gas were automatically released, many kids would be injured by the gas. And what if the system failed during a fire, locking all the doors, thus preventing the children to escape.
  • Fitting out all of America’s thousands upon thousands of primary and second schools with such systems would cost a fortune, and do nothing to prevent mass shootings elsewhere such as churches, supermarkets, and even country music festivals. The fact is, school mass shootings represent only the tip of the iceberg, an almost minuscule tip compared to the problem in other domains. The fact is, since 2015 less than a hundred deaths have occurred due to school mass shootings, including the one at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Each such loss must be deeply deplored. However, they hardly compare to the thousands and thousands of Americans who have died in mass shootings elsewhere.

Staying on the sad subject of deaths among children, you might be surprised to learn (I know I was) that the leading cause of death among children and adolescents in the U.S. is motor vehicle accidents at about 20%. However, the second leading cause of death in this age group is firearms at 15% and seems destined to climb to number one in the very near future. Granted, these are not the result of mass shootings; hardly any of them are. However they are all the result of firearms going off and bullets ripping through these precious young bodies.

The Role of Artificial Intelligence

In this age of artificial intelligence (AI), many lay people seem to believe computers can do virtually anything. Professionals in the field are rather more circumspect, saying AI can solve problems that were previously considered beyond the computer’s reach.

Unquestionably AI is changing life as we know it; however, like everything else in our imperfect world, it has its limitations. Nevertheless, it represents a step-change in computing and computer science, and perhaps nowhere more than in the field of physical and personal security.

In a June 2021 article titled “Can Artificial Intelligence Stop Mass Shootings?” author Erica Evans set the scene with the following description:

“A young man parks outside a sprawling warehouse around 11 p.m. on April 15. Weary employees shuffle in and out through circles of yellow lamplight, changing shifts or taking breaks. He used to work here, too, among hundreds of people who sort parcels at the FedEx facility in Indianapolis, until he got fired. Now, he pulls up his hoodie and reaches for two assault rifles.

“For eight victims—four shot dead in the parking lot, four inside — it’s already too late. But imagine there was a security system that could instantly detect those guns and lock the shooter out of the building. Imagine it could automatically alert the police and send them live footage, so they’d know where to find the shooter and the people who’d been hit. Could a system like that save lives?

“For some proponents of artificial intelligence, that is the hope.”

It still is a hope, but is it achievable? The answer is both yes and no. 

By simplest definition, AI is the branch of computer science focused on designing and building machines that can perform tasks normally considered to be human cognitive tasks. It is already usefully deployed in education, health care, transportation, and numerous other sectors of society where, as Ms. Evans so picturesquely puts it, AI is “quietly restitching the fabric of our lives.” AI can transcribe audio recordings more accurately than humans and detect cancer better than doctors. It could soon deliver goods in trucks more safely and efficiently than practiced drivers.

Tech superstars such as Elon Musk have hailed the technology’s potential to solve some of humanity’s most intractable problems. But how suitable is it, or can it be made, to solve the seemingly intractable heart-wrenching problem of mass shootings?

A handful of mainly startup companies are currently trying to invoke AI to prevent such tragedies (or at least reduce their impact) with products that can detect firearms, lock doors, and warn security guards or police, all without human intervention.

A major goal of AI is to enhance or even replace human decision-making with computers that can perceive their environment and learn to solve problems. For example, people applying AI to gun violence centered around video analytics have developed programs to scan security footage in real-time to detect firearms or other signs of a threat such as someone wearing a ski mask, a helmet, body armor, etc.

Currently, gun detection represents only a modest subset of the $5 billion video analytics market centered on predicting and preventing crime.  Using strategically placed microphones, video analytics products already exist that can tell when someone is jumping a fence, entering an unauthorized area, shoplifting, loitering, starting a fight, or even slipping and falling. With the aid of microwave and infrared cameras, some companies are also developing systems for detecting weapons hidden in bags or concealed in jackets.

AI computer systems can be trained to do a wide range of useful things. However, perfection is not of this world. No matter how good a system is, lighting, obstructions, camera angles, etc. can compromise accuracy. Therefore, the quality of the data fed into the system can make the difference between spotting a genuine shooter or mistakenly sounding the alarm on an innocent maintenance worker holding a drill.  An occasional gaffe like this would of course be annoying, but probably well worth the inconvenience.

Of the various technological ideas for mitigating gun violence in schools, AI has the greatest potential for acceptance because it can avoid draconian actions like locking all doors of a school. Properly designed, it can detect specific individuals who pose threats and prevent them from accessing the school. But herein lies a potential controversy.

Americans are fiercely protective of their “right of privacy.” Although not written anywhere in the Constitution, or even hinted at, this is very much part of the American psyche. The idea of machines making decisions for them is an anathema. “I know what is best for me and my family. I don’t need government, certainly not so-called thinking machines, to intrude on this God-given right.”  In this case, it’s less an issue of machines making decisions for them (bureaucracies already do that) and more an aversion to surveillance.

It is true that Americans, like virtually everyone else on the planet, have become used to being perpetually observed and having their actions recorded by CCTV (closed-circuit television) cameras on almost every street corner and in virtually every business establishment they enter. However, allowing a machine to make decisions about where they can go and what they can do may very well be a step very much too far. It might be acceptable if it could be argued that the AI system is designed to detect only persons who are carrying guns.

To paraphrase the famous Frank Sinatra song, “Mistakes, I’ve had a few. But then again too few to mention.” By contrast, concerning mass shootings in the United States, the mistakes are many. Many, many. And deserving of persistent discussion. And who knows, perhaps someday even effective action. Other advanced countries have learned to control (and virtually eliminate) mass shootings. Why not the U.S.?

Post Scriptum

As I was writing this blog, I heard someone make a proposal that could potentially help turn the tide.

I think one of the reasons that gun safety reform keeps hitting a brick wall is that most Americans are not properly informed about the continuing nature of the problem.  Spectacular events such as in Buffalo and Uvalde hit the headlines, at which time the news media frequently present data to show that these events are only the tip of the iceberg, that mass shootings in the United States happen literally every day. Unfortunately, when the news cycle moves on from such an event, this mind-boggling data disappears and people forget that they were ever exposed to it.  

May I make a modest proposal? To keep these horrors constantly in the public's mind, key broadcast and cable news outlets should consider continually updating  the mass shooting data for their audiences, i.e. institute a regular 10-minute feature on "Mass Shootings This Week" to help keep the problem at the top of their viewers' and listeners' minds. Newspapers could do the same thing by printing a weekly roundup of the latest mass shootings, preferably on the front page where readers couldn't miss it. 

If leading news media presented a weekly roundup of mass shootings across America,  perhaps hardened opinions on gun control would soften, making political discussion more fruitful.

This approach, of course, would not be an instant solution. However, if millions and millions of Americans continue to consider the problem as a whole only when one of these spectacularly gruesome events grabs the headlines, it seems unlikely that any comprehensively effective solution will ever be possible.

It could be argued publishing a weekly mass shooting list might trigger some potential mass shooter into action, motivated by a narcissistic desire to get noticed by appearing on the list. Ineed it could. However, if publishing the list ultimately results in the development, implementation—and rigorous enforcement—of policies and practices that would sharply reduce the overall number of mass shootings, currently running at nearly 700 a year, it would seem to be a risk well worth taking.