Police must commit to technology to save lives
America is bleeding; bleeding from gun violence which by all indicators is getting worse. According to the Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit that tracks shootings in the USA, 14,594 people were killed by firearms in the U.S. in 2018 (Gun Violence Archive, 2018). The number of deaths related to gun violence is becoming unavoidably evident to citizens, lawmakers and gun rights activists, many of whom say something must be done.
Each tragedy creates the cyclical response of finger pointing and promises of reform. Gun reform organizations like the Brady Campaign call on legislators to expand background checks, renew bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and also promote awareness for extreme risk gun laws. Pro-gun ownership organizations, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Gun Owners of America, seek to defend Second Amendment rights, lobbying Congress for gun rights legislation. So who is the ultimate change agent regarding gun control in this country? How can law enforcement become the solution to this crisis?
Gun control versus gun rights: Should law enforcement lead the debate?
As a social issue, gun control is a “second to none” controversy when discussed in any public forum. Supporters of gun ownership stand firmly with the Second Amendment, demanding their Constitutional right to bear arms will never be taken away by any group or government. Opponents to gun rights activists are those who contend that the Second Amendment is outdated and no longer satisfies the needs of a more modern and dangerous society. According to a 2016 Rolling Stones magazine article, “When the Second Amendment was adopted in 1791, there were no weapons remotely like the current semi-automatic handgun and the AR-15 assault rifle, and many of the advances of modern weaponry were long from being invented or popularized. Our Founders knew that the world evolved and that technology changed, but the weapons of today that are easily accessible are vastly different than anything that existed in 1791. The Founders didn’t have to weigh the risks of one man killing 49 and injuring 53 all by himself. Now we do, and the risk-benefit analysis of 1791 is flatly irrelevant to the risk-benefit analysis of today” (Cohen, 2016). For every person who might nod their head in agreement, though, another one will vigorously disagree.
As law enforcement professionals, we see the violent destruction to a human body these weapons inflict. The police risk their lives everyday across the U.S. when they run toward the gunfire at our local schools, churches, and businesses. They see the death created by these weapons upon their brothers, women and children. Law enforcement can have a strong voice to be heard in the contentious proceedings of the gun control argument, which will likely be a paradigm shift for law enforcement professionals.
Many police officers purchase guns every year; of course, they all wear them as a part of their daily routine. Who better than they to give their voice and experience to solutions to today’s carnage? With the emerging technology of smart guns, there is an opportunity to make a difference and give a credible voice to smart gun ownership and use. This isn’t about taking the liberty away from gun owners; it’s reaching a compromise to give the freedom back to all citizens who want to be safe in their communities.
With increasingly powerful weapons available to the everyday purchaser, doing nothing means the police will inevitably face persons armed with them. Before we think about what the police can do, it is important to consider the impetus to move to larger, more deadly weapons for general use.
The proliferation of assault rifles
The influence of modern weapons of the 20th century started with the military M-16 rifle supplied to the troops during the Vietnam War. The M-16 was a lightweight rifle with the capability of carrying almost three times the ammunition at the same weight as the M-14. Military leaders raved about the weapon. After leading his men into one of the most dramatic engagements of the war in Vietnam, the 1965 Battle of Ia Drang Valley, Lt. Col. Harold “Hal” Moore had nothing but praise for the rifle he and his men carried into the Ia Drang Valley: “Brave soldiers and the M16 brought this victory” said Moore. The M-16 rifle “cut down men so efficiently the Army considered it a force multiplier, helping a single soldier repel an enemy patrol. Troops carry M16-series weapons in combat zones today” (Morgan, 2017). Because of its lightweight frame, the M-16 caught the attention of hunters and sportsman, and the civilian AR-15 rifle was introduced.
In January 2016, the NRA’s blog ran an article headlined “Why the AR-15 Is America’s Most Popular Rifle.” It can be “wrapped in all different types of colors and patterns,” its “customizability allows for all types of stocks, barrel and carbine-lengths,” and “so, so, soooo many accessories,” the post gushed (Williams, 2017). The rifle’s growth in the consumer market received a boost from the Supreme Court in a 2008 5-4 decision where “the high court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller that an individual can own a weapon even without a military obligation — a conservative smackdown of the argument that the Second Amendment applies only to standing militias” (Williams, 2017). At the same time, the court also struck down as unconstitutional the Firearms Control Act of 1975, a Washington, D.C. law that banned residents from owning handguns, automatic firearms or high-capacity semi-automatic firearms (Williams, 2017). Of course, criminal homicide is not directly linked to a specific type of weapon, although the upward trend in homicides and increase in mass shootings is exacerbated by weapons with a greater capacity to kill.
Killings and mass shootings
Firearm homicides nationally had been in a decline from 1993 to 2011; however, they have increased steadily since then. According to a 2013 report submitted by the U.S. Department of Justice, firearm-related homicides declined from 18,253 in 1993 to 11,101 in 2011 (Planty & Truman, 2013). A report submitted and updated each day by the Gun Violence Archive reported the firearm related homicide for 2014 was 12,487, increasing each year to 13,539 in 2015, 15,110 in 2016, and 15,657 in 2017. With only a few days remaining in 2018, gun violence should reach 14,500 before the new year, a small decline from 2017.
2018 saw the highest number of mass shootings on record in the U.S. with 13; with 11 in 2017, and only six in 2016, according to Mother Jones (Follman, Aronsen, & Pan, 2018). There is, though, no standard definition of what constitutes a “mass shooting.” Media outlets, academic researchers, and law enforcement agencies frequently use different definitions when discussing mass shootings, leading to different assessments of how frequently mass shootings occur and whether they are more common now than they were a decade or two ago.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defined mass murderer as someone who “kills four or more people in a single incident (not including himself), typically in a single location” (Smart, 2017). The increase in frequency of mass shootings has certainly brought more attention to the research and development of smart gun technology. Government funding has also increased to create a better solution to keep people safe from mass shootings and similar crimes.
After the 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, the public became angry and frustrated towards the inaction of the Republican-dominated legislature in the U.S. on the wider issue of mass shootings and gun violence. This led to the founding of Never Again Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD), an organization formed by survivors and students of the shooting to demand legislative action on gun violence (Gun Control, 2018).
The New York Times reported on March 9, 2018, in Florida, one of the most gun-friendly states in America, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law an array of gun limits that included raising the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21 and extending the waiting period to three days. It was the most aggressive action on gun control taken in the state in decades, and the first time Governor Scott, who had an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association, had broken so significantly from the group. The legislation also established waiting periods and background checks for gun buyers. The NRA immediately filed a lawsuit that challenged the federal constitutionality of the age requirement clause (Mazzei 2018). This type of legislation, while deemed necessary by many, will only scratch the surface to improve safety. A broader step must be taken to limit the ability of people to steal, purchase and use firearms in public places for indiscriminant killings. Enter smart gun technology as the solution and compromise for gun control.
The world is an intelligent place. People, systems, and technology continue to advance making the impossible possible. One primary purpose for the use of technology is to make people safer in everyday life. Unmanned aircrafts, artificial intelligence, surgical robots, autonomous vehicles are all forms of technology that will greatly impact safety for people now and in the future. The most dangerous item possessed by Americans that has yet to be embraced for its technology is firearms, especially those that can help prevent violent crime.
Smart Firearms or Personalized Weapons are and have been in development for over 30 years. What is a Smart Firearm? According to “Smart Tech Foundation” (2018), Smart guns are firearms are equipped with technology that enables them to only be fired by an authorized user or users. These personalized firearms can be enabled by biometric or RFID technologies, which can either, be built into guns during manufacturing or retrofitted onto some of the 300 million existing guns in circulation. Corporations like Biofire, Amatrix, and iGun Technology Co., have been researching and developing smart gun technology for over 30 years. Yet, few Americans know about the potential possibilities that this type of technology could create to make our country a safer place from gun violence, or the pros and cons of their possible use.
The criticism of smart gun technology is loud and frequent. Hackers have worked to defeat smart gun technology to prove it is no more reliable or capable of stopping a threat (Greenburg, 2017). The research is clear – although the future is promising, smart gun technology has a long way go and in need of an advocate. Without question, the U.S. market would be the biggest benefactor of future smart gun technology. U.S. gun manufacturers like Remington and Smith & Wesson have seen revenue drop by more than 100 million dollars between 2016 and 2017 (Nocera, 2018). Smart gun technology, however, can introduce a new market for gun companies. U.S. organizations like the NRA are also the biggest obstacle for smart gun developers and manufacturers. According to Joe Nocera a journalist for Bloomberg, “Why is the NRA so opposed to smart guns? Because it fears that if smart guns became popular, legislators would mandate that all guns be equipped with the technology” (Nocera, 2018). That does not mean there are not promising systems already in use across the globe that can save lives.
BIRDS, a Pakistani company, is working toward a smart gun solution. According to B.I.R.D.S. Brains for Innovation Research Development & Strategic Studies (2018), they developed a smart firearm in response to the December 16, 2014, Peshawar School massacre when six gunmen conducted a terrorist attack on the Army Public School. BIRDS Pakistan founder Noman Shah used past research and technology to make improvements on the idea of a safe and smart firearm. These safety features can prevent misuse, accidental shootings, gun thefts, and use of the weapon against the owner (BIRDS, 2018).
In August of 2018, BIRDS Pakistan showcased “APS1” a prototype smart firearm safety device. APS1 received a U.S. patent in March 2015, and seems to be the most promising smart gun technology in years (BIRDS, 2018). Features of the APS1 are:
- It can be designed for and installed on any kind of assault rifle, sub machine gun such as AK-47, MP5, G3, M4/M16;
- It has a Geo-Fencing function: Automatically locks the weapon on reaching/entering boundary/protected area, such as school, mosque, public office or building, urban area etc., can be programmed by Law Enforcement Agency/Licensing Authority at the time of purchase/installation;
- It has a Remote Kill Switch: Can be remotely locked/unlocked by Law Enforcement Agency, Licensing Authority, or Owner of weapon;
- It has a Shot Counter and Tamper-proof design; only an authorized gunsmith can remove/disconnect the device from weapon;
- If the battery/electronics/mechanics fails the firearm remains in the safe/locked position;
- It is equipped with a Firearm Location sensor;
- It has a Central Information Dashboard and safety indicator;
- It can only be locked/unlocked by fingerprint (BVS) of authorized owner only; or be locked/unlocked by Mobile Application remotely.
BIRDS Pakistan identified the United States as a major market, and gave a demo to an NRA instructor, who acknowledged it is the future of smart guns and much needed in the U.S. market (BIRDS, 2018). If APS1 and similar technology can be perfected and brought to the U.S. for further research and development, law enforcement would potentially be able to disable a firearm if it is being used in the commission of a crime. Or, they could keep the firearm from being able to be fired inside or near a school, religious building, government building, or any other location at risk for mass gun violence. Technology currently exists that precludes an individual from flying a drone into controlled airspace. Similar technologies could be placed into a firearm rendering it useless in certain areas (Fly Safe GEO Zone Map, 2018).
Smart guns have remained in the background of the gun control debate because of social, technological, and political obstacles. However, there has been discussion and a feeling of inevitability among the highest of law enforcement professionals. In 2015, then-San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr appeared on 60 Minutes, calling the smart gun technology a “no-brainer,” offering to pilot smart gun technology with his plainclothes officers. In a PoliceOne.com article, “5 things to know about smart guns” (2017) MetroIAF, a coalition of activists, says over a hundred police departments have signed a letter of interest in the technology, and that the IACP has said that there would be “plenty of agencies interested in beta testing.”
Obstacles on the Road Ahead
As law enforcement professionals, we must embrace the technology and provide our experience and intelligence regarding assault weapons and the violent individuals who use them to do harm to our communities. When law enforcement speaks regarding weapons, people listen and follow. Technology used as a form of gun control, though, has received strong opposition. Second Amendment supporters cringe at the thought that the government could disable your firearm at the blink of an eye.
Researching this topic, I spoke to several gun owners in California; upon discussion of the technology available, many shared a concern that this type of technology could place the government in a much too powerful position. Two common points were brought up as to why they would be against this type of technology; first, many feel that the government is incapable of determining when appropriate to remove the ability to fire a weapon, and second, the government must show proper reason and authority to remove the right for a gun owner to protect themselves or their family.
The consensus of police officers interviewed for this article is that if the smart gun technology stood between them and owning a firearm, they would accept the smart gun technology begrudgingly. Each subject was asked to pause for a moment and consider the lives that could be saved, even the lives of their own children. If law enforcement held that type of technology in their hands, would they want to support that possibility to save lives? What might officers who responded to Sandy Hook Elementary, or Stoneman Douglas High School say? This option could be a compromise to keep firearms in homes and keep children and loved ones safe from gun violence.
Smart guns have a long way to go before they are proven to be reliable, and also that they will be accepted by a majority of the public. The proof will most effectively be shown through the experience and capable hands of law enforcement. The companies dedicated to this technology are in need of critics that can provide productive feedback. Law enforcement has the experience and ability to put smart guns to the test for the purpose of making it better and more reliable. Law enforcement executives must also be willing to break away from past beliefs and paradigms to explore the possibilities that this technology could provide. Deploying these firearms to officers and affording this technology the pilot program is a clear step toward eliminating the presence of illicit guns on our streets, and to truly changing the trend of gun violence. Smart weapons are a reality for the future of gun control if and only if the safety leaders in this country step up and offer assistance. Law enforcements’ failure to act to help this technology improve would be a mistake to the communities we are sworn to protect.
Smart gun technology is on the cusp of making our communities safer. Imagine the possibility of lives that could have been saved in Las Vegas or Thousand Oaks if the first responding officers had the ability to flip a switch to end the gunman’s ability to use his weapons. Law enforcement leaders today need to come together to support its development. Only they have the voice to help bridge the gap between smart gun technology and gun consumers and activists in the U.S. The police must reach out to organizations like B.I.R.D. and bring their technology to us and help with the research and development of these systems. Law enforcement leaders must start the conversation about where we as a country go from here. America is bleeding and by all indicators it’s getting worse. We are sworn to protect and serve not just in the present but in the future. It is time for law enforcement to step up and take the lead on this technology.
B.I.R.D.S. Brains for Innovation Research Development & Strategic Studies (2018). Retrieved from https://birdspakistan.org/projects/
5 things to know about smart guns. (2017, August). PoliceOne.com,3.Retrieved from https://www.policeone.com/police-products/firearms/articles/391099006-5-things-to-know-about-smart-guns/
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Smart, R. (2017). Mass Shootings: Definitions and Trends. RAND,. Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/research/gun-policy/analysis/supplementary/mass-shootings.html
Fly Safe Geo Zone Map (2018). Retrieved from https://www.dji.com/flysafe/geo-map
Nocera, J. (2018, February). Gun Companies Need This Gun-Control Measure. Bloomberg Opinion,. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-02-16/smart-guns-gun-control-that-s-good-for-the-gun-business
Follman, M., Aronsen, G., & Pan, D. (2018, November). US Mass Shootings, 1982-2018: Data From Mother Jones’ Investigation. Mother Jones,. Retrieved from https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/12/mass-shootings-mother-jones-full-data/
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Amy Watkins is a lieutenant with the Visalia Police Department (Central Valley, California). She is a member of California POST Command College, Class #64. She currently has 19 years of law enforcement experience and oversees the department’s Special Enforcement Bureau (Narcotic and Gang Units). She has worked patrol, youth services, and violent crimes investigations. She received her bachelor’s degree in business management and master’s degree in public administration.