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The Lede: When Old Debates Have Gotten Us Nowhere, We Have to Look for New Solutions: Tech Answers to the Gun Problem

The Lede, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018
By David Royse


Looking for solutions.

The gut-wrenching school shooting problem defies conventional efforts to quantify how bad the problem is. We can disagree statistically on whether it is “common” – there have been seven intentional shootings involving injury or death in schools in the United States so far this year in 45 calendar days.

But if you have children in school, if you leave them there hoping they’ll be safe, no math matters. The thought of school shootings makes parents feel so vulnerable because we’re not there and because they seem so random and without predictability, other than that one will, in all probability occur again somewhere soon, likely in the next seven days or so.

You’ll find plenty of debate elsewhere on the overarching issue of guns – but you’ll find little resolution, we haven’t yet despite the impetus of hundreds of dead children.

But as a newsletter that tries to look at how our society and communities are changing, how new technology and new ideas can and are improving lives, I want to look at the school shooting problem through a different lens. What if we put aside the big gun culture issue for now as not likely to be immediately resolved and focus on what could be done to mitigate the problem until we can force a broader resolution? Are there ways we can better protect kids from shooters in the interim, because we can’t or won’t, at least not yet, solve the big picture issues around mental health, access to guns,and a culture that openly celebrates and encourages violence?

We make these concessions and trade-offs all the time. Driving around in big metal boxes at 40 to 70 mph is inherently dangerous. We’ve tried to make it less so with airbags, seatbelts, red lights, and so on. Flying used to be pretty dangerous. We’ve made it much less so, without debating whether we should be doing it in the first place. Playing sports is dangerous, sometimes deadly. We try to mitigate the risks.

Could technology mitigate school shooting deaths and injuries?

One thought I’ve had for years, probably starting with when I watched my police officer father go to work some days wearing a bullet proof vest: if we can’t do anything about people with bad intentions carrying guns, can we effectively make them useless by making ourselves immune to them? This idea also percolated in my brain while studying wars in college. In warfare, one side devises a weapon the other side then devises a defense. You come up with a spear, we come up with a shield. You come at me with a sword, I don armor. You bomb my city, I build bunkers.You launch a Scud missile, we launch a Patriot missile to shoot it down.

Can we make our schools (and maybe other public places) impervious to shooters through better technology, systems, and practices?

The Atlantic looked at this one year ago in more depth than I can do here this morning. So I’ll start by pointing you to that story, by William Brennan, from last January. It’s worth thinking about, and maybe acting on, as some school districts have already done.

BULLETPROOFING AMERICA. Could Technology Help Prevent Mass Shootings?

Key ideas: Two of the three ideas don’t involve the actual guns. One does, and that one is automatically harder because of some gun rights advocates’ insistence that any requirements affecting guns infringe on a constitutional right. The idea is interesting – manufacturing smart guns that could be remotely disabled when being used in a mass shooting. The article addresses some big holes in the idea (why would shooters use such a gun?) but I would set it aside anyway at the outset because, again, it involves government being able to effectively disarm someone, which takes us back to the rights argument.

The article looks at two other ways of making schools safer: one seems obvious – fortifying the schools to protect against attacks, even if at the expense of other things we want in our schools. The article addresses body scanners, and automatic locking doors – both of which are already available to schools.



The other idea is directly in line with a common feature in this newsletter – the use of non-humans to do what humans can’t do safely.

Brennan: “As robots and drones become more commonplace, they’re likely to play an increased role in all areas of public life, including mass shootings.”

More from Brennan:

“The company behind the robot is hoping to develop gun-detection software that will let it recognize firearms and alert authorities if one is spotted. One day, such robots might even be able to stop a gunman on their own. A weapon-equipped robot might track down a shooter using visual sensors and data gathered via a ShotSpotter-like system. After locating the gunman, it could fire at him—or, perhaps, incapacitate him with nonlethal force.”

I went looking this morning for some other tech ideas and companies working on this problem.

From a company called TriggerSmart: “The second part of the system is the ability to create safe zones in certain areas such as schools where smart guns coming into the area will be disabled remotely.”

You may have heard about ShotSpotter – it’s gotten some press because police departments are starting to use it to detect shots fired in their cities, rather than relying on someone calling 911. The technology, used in schools, could speed up police response.

Someone should be working on not just a shot spotter, but a threat spotter. If someone even shows up within a couple of blocks of a school carrying an assault rifle, or multiple guns, there ought to be a way that information is relayed to the school, at a minimum, so it can go on lock down BEFORE someone enters school property with those guns. That technology doesn’t seem to exist, and might have constitutional rights issues, (I’m aware of the fears of the surveillance state) but it should be explored. We already have given up the expectation not to be under surveillance in many public places, including many schools. Again, there are trade-offs.

Some various approaches to using technology to reduce the impact of mass shootings were explored by Deepak Puri in Network World back in November, after Las Vegas.

And “a bunch of electronics and computer engineers,” wrote in Hackernoon after the Las Vegas shooting about a method for finding the source of sniper fire – not usually a school shooting problem, but obviously, in light of the Nevada tragedy, another type of gun violence worth trying to tackle with tech.

And if we aren’t able or willing to prevent shooters from shooting, can we give our kids a better chance of survival? This could be in the form of better safe-room technology and procedures, but also could be in the form of better bullet proofing not just school environments, but kids themselves.

This sounds drastic and horrifying – but at this point, everything should at least be on the table. We had this story back in November about a Miami private school offering parents bulletproof inserts for their kids’ backpacks.

The Follow:

Can we hack a solution to gun violence?

“During the Gun Violence Prevention Challenge Summit & Hack-a-thon, the Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies (CAMTech) will employ a public health approach to gun violence prevention by generating innovations that can address gun safety, mental health, community resilience, and policy.”

The summit is April 13-15 in Boston. More on that here

Another organization looking into the issues of smart tech aimed at mitigating gun violence: SmartTechFoundation

If you are of a mind to fix this problem, I’d urge you to look at these opportunities to get involved. Something has to be done about this. And we’re stuck on an old debate. We need to look at this in a new way. Our kids need us to do that.


Notes from the New Opium War

In Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton proposed yesterday that drug companies help pay for the damage inflicted by opioid abuse and addiction.

His proposal would put a one-cent tax on drug manufacturers per milligram of active ingredient in pain pills.

He was joined at a news conference yesterday in St. Paul by two state lawmakers – both of whom lost a child to opioid addiction. Opioid deaths in Minnesota increased nearly 20 percent last year in Minnesota.

More from KSTP Television

Moves like Dayton’s come as a new study says that the economic toll of the opioid crisis is enormous.

“The cost of the country’s opioid crisis is estimated to have exceeded $1 trillion from 2001 to 2017, and is projected to cost an additional $500 billion by 2020, according to analysis released (this week) by Altarum, a nonprofit health research and consulting institute.”

The human toll is even harder to appreciate: 64,000 Americans died of overdoses in 2016. More than from gun violence. More than ever died in any year ever in a car accident. More than the number of Americans who died in 10 years of war in Vietnam.


FDA Approves Blood Test to Determine Concussion Severity. Engadget


Is polling people about whether it is “good for the world” CNBC

Magic Leap:
Everything we know (or at least everything Business Insider knows) about Magic Leap One. BI


How We’ll Get Around


I am unabashedly interested in the move toward autonomous vehicles – I think they’ll revolutionize the way we travel and live in this country eventually. The question is when will they be safe enough for most of us to be comfortable turning over control to our robot helpers.?

For a contrarian view today – let’s go to Ross Marchand, director of policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, who has a plea to go slow, and some good safety data to back up his argument.


I wrote an update yesterday about Richard Branson’s involvement in Boom, a Denver company that is making new supersonic jets. Flight times cut by about half. New York to London in under four hours.

How We’ll Live – Housing


New Apps are making it easier to connect home sellers and buyers. Washington Post


This is one of the most interesting ideas for funding affordable housing. Curbed



Keeping an eye on the weather in the I-95 corridor in Middle Atlantic, Northeast

The Georgia DOT has proposed two trucks-only lanes on part of Interstate 75 from Macon, to near Atlanta.

Germany: Five cities will offer free public transit in bid to cut pollution

Montreal: Construction to start on automated light rail project 

Somebody put a bunch of crap on the road in Michigan yesterday

No final song today. Been reading and writing about a school shooting today, and I’m just not in the mood.

If you know someone else who likes reading about efforts to solve problems by looking things in a new way, forward this email to them so they can subscribe too.

Want to read past editions of The Lede? Find them all here

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About David Royse

David Royse
David Royse is the Editor-in-Chief of Ledetree.com. He has been a professional journalist for more than 20 years, including stints with The Associated Press and The News Service of Florida. He enjoys writing about health and medical science, and hopeful stories about scientific breakthroughs and new technology.

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