Delicate Gun Control

The irregularly (but inevitable) scheduled mass shooting we’re so seemingly fond of has once again sparked the usual gun control debate. I know. What’s new?

Even The New York Times issued a front-page editorial advocating tighter gun control. The last NYTimes front-page editorial was in 1920 — opposing Warren G. Harding. Or so I read in the Washington Post today.

The WaPo article itself is good, but it also reminds one of how many other issues come with the implementation of gun control — and how many solutions we can come up with to combat illegal gun (ab)use, which includes any death caused by a bullet ripping through someone’s body fired from a pistol, rifle or other such delivery platform — and the obstacles to achieving that goal without violating or nullifying the 2nd Amendment.

As an aside, I’d love to see the male lead — a Revolutionary War hero who was tight with Washington, was somehow transported to our time and who often comments on the perversions we’ve made of the Constitution on the television show Sleepy Hollow. “Bloody hell! We were using muskets, cannon at best. It’s a marvel,” he say, “and completely unacceptable and unconscionable. This is not quite what we had in mind.”

One begins to realize the issues and obstacles just pile up as you readthe article and pay attention. The immediate political discussion — because the status quo seems to be the current order for days — makes it seem pointless to continue discussing the subject through this lens. Instead, I want to demonstrate how this single article brings such seemingly disparate disciplines to bear on the issue of gun violence and control.

Politics does need to be taken into account, of course. Legislators have already inserted themselves and, thus, the government, into the issue. For example, regulating the kind and type of weapon that can be sold to civilians. Any further such regulations would need to be narrow enough to ban only weapons designed with the singular goal of killing another human being from civilian use but broad enough that it discourages “innovators” from creating ways to get around to just barely skirt the law. (The NYTimes says there’s an easy way to define such weapons. I’m not so sure.)

As the NYTimes editorial reads,

It is a moral outrage and a national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency. These are weapons of war, barely modified and deliberately marketed as tools of macho vigilantism and even insurrection. America’s elected leaders offer prayers for gun victims and then, callously and without fear of consequence, reject the most basic restrictions on weapons of mass killing, as they did on Thursday. They distract us with arguments about the word terrorism. Let’s be clear: These spree killings are all, in their own ways, acts of terrorism.

Well, these last two paragraphs from the Washington Post story explains most of what I was going to state here at further length:

[T]here were seven homicides by firearms for every 100,000 Americans in 1993, according to a Pew analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. By 2013, that figure had fallen to 3.6 homicides by firearm for every 100,000 Americans.

Nobody knows quite why that happened, but theories involve more cops on the beat, more sophisticated use of technology by law enforcement, less excessive drinking, less lead poisoning, and a better economy.

While researchers are still investigating the question, it is intriguing — and somewhat reassuring — that one way to reduce gun violence in America is to reduce violence overall, by making sure people are living the healthy, stable and safe lives that, on an intuitive level, seem less likely to lead people to want to kill themselves or others.

See all those issues in those sentences? Criminology, policing, human services, cultural problems, health and human services and other things — other disciplines — enter into the gun violence problem — but, ultimately, rely upon government funds and regulation.

We know politically driven change likely isn’t in the cards; nor does the legislatively determined appropriations funding for adequate health care (including mental health services). But mass shootings only affect (most) legislators during moments of silence. One day, we’ll have a full day of silence.

So, beyond the political, what prevents us from reducing the number of innocent gun victims?

Can we make it profitable to make safer weapons? Clearly, with background checks required of some buyers, someone must be making a profit off the devices on which they run the checks. As, too, any contractors used on the government side in maintaining and storing that information. That’s, I’m certain, a hassle and a half. We need to find ways to build in safety measures that are unobtrusive to gun users. For this, we need an elegant solution. This is where NoUI comes in.

When the owner of a loaded weapon with the safety off pulls the trigger, he or she expects a bullet to fly out of the other end at a high velocity. That’s usually and hopefully the case, anyway. That user experience cannot be disrupted in designing these solutions. To achieve profitable weapons that provide automatic “gun control,” we can’t add steps to the current user experience. (Though there are times when the UI must override the smooth user experience. See below for issues surrounding this.)

There’s the obvious fingerprint trigger. That could be built in during manufacturing or added after-market by the gun seller. One’s fingerprints could be loaded onto the weapon at the same time as the background check occurs. Twofer.

We could encode clips with each authorized users’ fingerprints stored. But there are always the edge cases. What happens when the database (as all databases) isn’t regularly updated?

That gets us somewhere: only the owner of the gun can fire it. With gun crime low and gun deaths high, we may want to consider this a huge step in the right direction. No more three-year olds shooting themselves or someone else. Fewer suicides.

It isn’t perfect, of course. What if a police officer’s gun jams and he tries to use another officer’s? No use. Fingerprints don’t match.

So what do we do now? What’s our contingency for this? Is there even a way to do it without disrupting the UX and adding another step? Should there be another step (dual authorization, if you will) in all weapons during situations like the above? Would it be preferable to have an extra step in the event the criminal gets ahold of the officer’s weapon? This is a question that must be answered. Not the above, the real question of how we prevent gun users from abusing that right.

These are questions that need delicate solutions non-disruptive (except when needed) interfaces.

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