It is horrible to say this, but the synagogue shooting in Poway, California which killed one worshiper and injured three others on 27 April is just another routine tragedy in America. In recent years, mass shootings have become very common in America. One would expect USA, the world’s most powerful country, to take swift action to curb the dangers its people live under, but all efforts towards this end are marred by a sharp political divide that has led to fierce debate between proponents and opponents of gun control.
There are two main solutions being proposed for America, restrict ownership of weapons among people or have people carry weapons with them to defend against potential shooters. Proponents of the two cannot find common ground. Most mass shootings are carried out with high-powered weapons. Gun rights activists tend to advocate for their legality while gun control activists don’t like the idea of people carrying weapons, even smaller handguns.
In the realm of disaster risk reduction (DRR), the two solutions, banning guns and carrying guns, fall on both sides of a spectrum. The former is an example of hazard mitigation, in which the focus is on getting rid of the danger at its source, and the latter is an example of vulnerability mitigation, with the focus on how potential victims can be enabled to deal with the danger.
Not only do we witness America suffering from a major hazard in the form of mass shootings, but every feasible solution it seeks sparks angry debates and stern opposition. It is very common for people dealing with serious social problems to be unable to find a solution that satisfies everyone – more so if heavy sentiment and serious conflicts of interest are involved. In America’s gun debate, those on the right say gun control is an infringement on rights and carrying guns makes people safer, while those on the left say legal gun ownership is the cause of the problem and curbing it will curb violence.
Hard to decide who is right. We cannot even turn to practical experience for guidance. Chicago, for instance, has stricter gun laws than the rest of the United States, yet more gun violence than anywhere else in the US, while the UK has gun control and low levels of gun violence. Meanwhile, gun violence is rampant in some countries with widespread gun ownership, like America in general, and minimal in other countries with similar patterns of gun ownership, like Switzerland. The same policy has different outcomes in different places. The issue is more complex than the political divide is telling us.
One thing that is clear is that gun violence is a phenomenon wherein the technological and the societal intersect. At the heart of the matter lies something that is not so complex, the tools, i.e., guns, but surrounding this is the attitudes of people, which are varied and can be overwhelming. This intersection can explain the evolution of the crisis. For much of America’s past, guns were not as deadly as they are now. Nobody could use a musket or a Kentucky Rifle to mow down crowds. Therefore the Second Amendment allowed Americans to freely own guns without much problem. But gun technology has advanced so much since then and certain social developments are making people more vulnerable to and/or more likely to perpetrate mass violence. In continuing with the Second Amendment in such circumstances, America carries on a tradition dear to its heart at great cost to its people.
The discourse on solving America’s gun violence problem is so far entirely focused on social policy. But the problem springs from presence of technology. We should therefore consider turning to technology itself for solutions. Modern technological ingenuity may be behind many of the problems the world suffers from, but it can also be deployed for solving such problems. Gun sellers sell high-powered weapons to ordinary Americans with the intention that these only be fired under certain, highly-restricted circumstances. This intention can be transformed into technology designed to ensure safety. Weapons can be designed so that they are only capable of being fired in safe situations. This can be done by integrating digital technology and artificial intelligence with firearms.
When Americans own weapons like the AR-15s, the main purpose is recreational. Such guns can be fired at designated firing ranges or in wilderness, but are not supposed to be discharged in populated areas upon hapless humans. Weapons manufacturers can, therefore, be mandated by law to design smart weapons that, when sold to ordinary consumers, are only able to fire based upon exposure to certain electronic signals. Each gun should come equipped with artificial intelligence that makes the decision of when not to fire. Guns could be designed to only be operable when exposed to signals emitted by certain transmitters set up at firing ranges or guns could be designed to be inoperable when exposed to signals emitted by transmitters set up all around populated areas like schools, market places, subways, places of worship and any place where large numbers of people collect. Even though the synagogue shooter carried a huge amount of ammunition, his rampage was cut short by his gun jamming, as a result of which, thankfully, the toll is so low. We can find a way to make that happen to every gun used for such a purpose.
I am calling for the gun manufacturers to start making smart guns that lunatics and terrorists can not use for their purposes. The US should enforce safety from gun violence through technological innovation instead of seeking it through transformation of values and attitudes of people. Serious investment in R&D for smart guns is need of the hour. If we can make smart cars equipped with artificial intelligence to avoid accidents, why cant we make smart guns? Every gun meant for sale to ordinary people should be equipped with artificial intelligence capable of deciding on the basis of signals/visuals when not to shoot, when to jam itself.
Human society is regulated more by the imperatives of technology it uses than by the imperatives of laws meant to manage people’s behavior. And necessity, indeed, is the mother of invention.