People in the United States are 25 times more likely to die from gun homicide than those living in other industrialized nations. In a country where it is easier to be a gun owner than a car driver, it is clear that the current laws are not enough to ensure the safety of so many Americans living across the street from potential mass murderers. Because, hey, one-third of all mass shooters in the entire world are, indeed, Americans.
Back in November 2017, Professor Thomas Heston (no relation to former NRA president Charlton Heston) wrote a white paper detailing how blockchain technologies could be used to track firearms information. Would a transparent registry network help governments track and regulate gun or weapon ownership a little bit better? (Blockchain is having a big effect on industry. Learn more in How Blockchain Is Changing the Way You and I Do Business.)
Sizing Up the Current Issue
Why does America have the urgency to do more to control who can buy or access guns? Columbine. Sandy Hook. Parkland. San Bernardino. Virginia Tech. Las Vegas. Thousand Oaks. And, by the time you read this, probably others. The list is simply too long to mention them all, let alone to name all the thousands of victims.
According to some reports, a mass shooting occurs on average every day in the United States. Why? In a nutshell, because it's way too easy is to get an extremely lethal firearm even if you're a madman, a known killer or a babbling idiot. The stupidity of America's gun laws is sometimes just depressing. A potential terrorist on the FBI's watchlist cannot board a plane, for obvious reason. But that same person can easily buy a semi-automatic Ruger AR-15 modeled on the standard military issue.
In almost 90 percent of the cases, medical, school or legal authorities didn't note any sign of mental issues in the attacker before the mass murder. Needless to say, in states where no background checks are required, the chance of a mass killing occurring is significantly higher. And even where some form of control is in place, over 60 percent of the alleged nut cases were still able to possess a gun regardless of their prior felonies or crazy behaviors. According to the FBI, at least 3,000 people officially pass the NICS background check required to receive the license to carry a gun despite actually being prohibited from purchasing one under state or federal law. It seems such an obvious thing at this point that a blockchain-based registry may be more than just a good idea, but a necessity.
How Does this Registry Work?
In November 2017, a public health professor at Washington State University, Thomas Heston, published an interesting white paper suggesting a creative solution for tracking firearm information without changing current laws. The idea is relatively simple. Every operation regarding guns, including manufacturing, transferring, purchasing and owning will be tracked and monitored using a blockchain database. Using a digital "electronic gun safe" that is roughly comparable to a digital wallet used to store cryptocurrencies, every piece of information about a gun will be stored safely. This log would have to be “accurate, resistant to hacking, and easily accessible” to those who have the right to access it, such as owners, regulators and manufacturers.
All the information that identifies every individual gun, such as its ballistic fingerprinting or microstamping, will be transferred from vendors to owners every time a gun is sold. The most important part, however, is that the blockchain-based gun safe will also store information about the weapon owner, such as any prior history of mental health issues and/or past crimes. People who pass a background check may own a gun. Those who don't are prohibited from doing so, and since the system is fully automated, there's no room for mistakes. Also, as blockchain is decentralized, it is significantly less vulnerable to hacking as each transaction is verified by multiple people. (To learn more about blockchain, see Why Data Scientists Are Falling in Love with Blockchain Technology.)
Blockchain-Based Gun Control in Practice
Who is sponsoring this law and who is, instead, fighting it? What solutions are currently available on the market? A first solution comes from Blocksafe, a startup that provides blockchain-based supply chain solutions. Through a DApp installed in a third-party device, every gun can be tracked during both inventory and distribution. Mostly useful to check the journey of a weapon once it migrates into the hands of non-owners, the app provides instant notifications every time the weapon is used for unauthorized purposes. If a third-party device is installed, it could even instantly disable it. However, Blocksafe's app is only used to track the movements of the gun, without providing any info about the identity of the actual shooter.
And what about Heston's proposal? Frankly, its future doesn't seem too bright. Heston himself admitted that a considerable amount of money could be necessary to roll out such a register on a national level. And in a country that finds it hard to keep up with inflation year after year, it's quite possible that spending more money to track down guns may not appeal to any party. Legislators, on the other hand, seem to hate the idea to the point that some have already started working to prevent it from happening.
Challenges, Drawbacks and Resistance
Why do lawmakers seem to bitterly dislike the blockchain idea? Truth be told, it doesn't come without drawbacks. In Arizona and Missouri, legislators have already prepared bills to prevent any blockchain technology from being used to track firearms. Note that these laws exempt law enforcement officials, some sellers, and firearm owners who have provided written consent to have their weapons tracked on a ledger.
In other words, these are laws that apparently protect those who feel their privacy is being jeopardized. In fact, many gun owners feel that if information about those who own firearms is made public, criminals might target their homes in order to steal their weapons. But what legislators (and some people) really don't like is not the idea of the register itself – even worse, they loathe being spied on by an entity that controls how many shots they take at different points of time through some blockchain-based app.
Another long-standing worry that gun owners fear to face once a register is established, is to have their firearms confiscated. Although the electronic register seems to serve a completely different purpose, there are some precedents. In both England and Australia a national registration was enacted with the promise that a confiscation would never happen. However, shortly after the register was passed, both governments also passed laws banning firearms despite their previous promises.
There are certainly a lot of Americans who love to hear their good ol' guns go bang-bang once in a while. But as a European, let me tell you one thing, guys: That stuff is dangerous. Even if an agreement on why mass shootings occur or how firearm laws are involved cannot be found, everyone may agree that some solution has to be found to prevent deranged people from owning a weapon. This bloodshed must be stopped, and, who knows? Maybe blockchain can be the answer everybody has been waiting for.