In wake of the recent events in Parkland, Florida I feel compelled — not merely as a technologist, not even as an American, but as a human being — to speak up.
Because, frankly, we can all agree that this isn’t just about “recent events.”
Gun violence in America has consistently been a “recent event” for the past 10 years.
Back in November — in the wake of the mass shooting at a church in Sutherland, Texas, which killed 26 and injured 20 — I wrote an article discussing how we might use blockchain to improve public safety. I gave some pie in the sky ideas about how this new technology could help us track weapons, purchases, and enforce regulations.
And here I am again, after yet another mass shooting, writing about “how blockchain can be used to prevent gun violence.”
As if a technology alone could ever curb the rampant school shootings and police massacres in this country, endemic of a larger sociopolitical decline and the twilight of our democracy.
It’s not an all-powerful savior that will eliminate our problems without any socio-political, cultural, or regulatory changes on our part.
It’s facile to think that blockchain will save the day if we continue to ignore the great issues at hand.
But we have a tendency (in politics, in tech, in life in general) to talk about issues like gun control with limited language and polarizing terms. That’s why we need clear, issues-based terms that bring a broad array of potential solutions to the table.
There are a lot of ideas floating around in respect to how blockchain could be used for tracking guns and all the associated regulations. Similar to bitcoin, you can have anonymous users that have wallets for tracking the physical goods: guns and ammunition. Using smart contracts, you can do background checks and verify licenses, health records, and any certification associated with the requirements of owning the gun. These records and certification can then be customized by gun type and state.
Implementing universal background checks is one of the most popular ideas for gun reform, among experts and private citizens alike.
Right now, bills requiring universal background checks are languishing in the Senate. If they were to be signed into law, blockchain could certainly help facilitate a seamless process for background checks — while helping states and retailers share that data, or, conversely, helping individuals keep that data anonymous.
Tracking guns initially seems like a solution tailor-made for blockchain. But placing identifiers on guns doesn’t stop bad actors from removing them, replicating them, or finding other ways such as “ghost guns” to stop the tracking.
And of course, there are already millions of weapons in circulation around the country. In many states, private transactions of guns does not even require a permit.
So, how do we ensure everyone is participating? Especially absent any federal or state laws requiring them to do so. And even more importantly, how to we ensure we are protecting privacy?
Using a particular zero-knowledge proof cryptographic technology called a zk-SNARK, it is possible to register data, such as gun ownership records, to a blockchain without sacrificing privacy and keeping the details of those records (quantities or owners) anonymous.
The solution could be tracking gun and ammunition purchases, which is somewhat simpler. It doesn’t solve the problem of the massive amounts of guns already in circulation, but point of sale information on firearms could easily be registered on a blockchain. All the information would be in one place, accessible by the appropriate parties.
Recently, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island have banded together to create what appears to be a type of gun reform consortium. These states are sharing data with each other in an effort to curb gun violence.
Forming consortia is one of blockchain’s most valuable use cases. It’s a streamlined way to facilitate the sharing of data across state lines — as well as track movement of weapons or sales — without revealing too much or any data about retailers or the individuals who own the guns.
Keeping guns out of the hands of individuals deemed mentally unfit to own a weapon has become a prominent issue in recent years.
Patient records are protected by a number of laws, but a number of companies are already working on the creation of HIPAA-compliant blockchain networks to store patients’ medical records.
Once that happens, those records could then be cross-referenced with a gun ownership blockchain. This would provide accurate data to states and retailers about the mental health of individuals attempting to purchase guns.
In many cases, we can skip the complex twisting and turning of the above proposals through an all out ban — like in the case of AR-15s and other assault rifles. Those are weapons of war, they’re not designed for anything else.
All of these solutions, in one way or another, are objectionable to some Americans — even to many. They all bring up issues regarding privacy and constitutional rights.
That’s why it’s so important to remember the technology itself is not the answer.
What happens next depends on us. It depends on how we choose to use the data at our disposal.
These types of issues don’t require just one solution. There are many, many pieces to the puzzle. Advancements in technology, legislation, and the shifting sociocultural environment and populace all play a role.
We need a group to come together that comprises, federal and state legislators, private citizens, retailers, and gun manufacturers — a group that can work on implementing real solutions that don’t avoid the root of the problem.
If we focus on gun reform in this country, then it is reasonable to surmise that blockchain might play a small part in helping prevent gun violence.
But we must remember that it isn’t just about tracking guns. It isn’t about background checks or licensing.
It’s about a real socio-political, cultural, and regulatory paradigm shift. It’s about waking the hell up.
Blockchain is one tool in a a toolbox that we, as a country, need to build. The technology represents a movement — a shift from centralized to decentralized, from current powers to shared powers, from monopolies to collaboration.
The future has arrived and it’s time to problem solve collectively and legislate in the realm of the unpaved path.
Making excuses based on the failures of the past is not an option anymore. We have all the tools we need to discuss, legislate, and implement realistic gun reform now.
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