A Blockchain Technology Solution to Prevent Gun Deaths

Image Courtesy of Time Magazine

Big Idea: “Could a distributed platform linking guns and health records reduce gun violence — with no intervention from the federal government?

With headlines such as U.S. Shootings Since 1963 Have Killed More Americans Than All Wars Ever, it should come as no surprise the calls for increased gun control and regulation. As many have noted on Medium and Twitter: it’s time for prayer, but also action.

One part of the problem is that guns end up in the hands of people who are mentally ill, begin engaging in criminal activity, or are under investigation by the FBI for ties to terrorist organizations. These people may have been totally fine when they first bought the gun, but changing from a normal person to a person who uses a firearm to deliberately take a life usually doesn’t happen overnight. It’s time to create a national gun database, but one that respects privacy, while also designed with a way to have triggers such as changes in mental health, criminal records, or terrorist watch-list status that automatically throw up a red flag to preemptively notify law enforcement.

Recently, Hawaii has begun working with the feds to register guns on a national platform. Others, including this New York Times editorial writer, have called for the continuation and expansion of a national gun registry that already exists for certain types of weapons to all the 300 million plus guns in the United States.

However, the modern gun database must solve for the drawbacks of past efforts. Critics point to Canada’s failed attempt to create a national gun registry: it was expensive to create, criminals rarely register their guns/leave them at crime scenes, and giving the central government a national gun database infringed on individual and state rights.

It’s time to create a modern national gun database that works, and respects privacy and individual and states rights. The solution is using a new technology called blockchain.

What is blockchain? Blockchain is a technology built around open data. It is a protocol accessible to multiple parties that can record identities, reputations, and transactions in a public marketplace.

Wait, what does that mean? Essentially, Blockchain technology allows for the creation of a public record without there being any one administrator. Take bitcoin, the first application of Blockchain, for example. Blockchain allows different parties to exchange bitcoins, and, keeps tab on every exchange without there being any central governing body or administrator.

State or federal governments, without running or administrating the platform, could require all gun manufacturers and sellers to register guns on a national platform. When a gun sale is made, the seller would be required to record the transaction information on the blockchain platform, similar to what they already do for certain types of weapons, such as assault rifles.

Furthermore, the buyers of guns would be required to match their electronic medical records and electronic criminal record to their identity on the platform. When a medical change occurs, such as depression or suicide attempt, the platform would spit out the information to state law enforcement for the protection of the individual and others (60% plus of gun deaths are suicides). When a criminal record changes, local law enforcement can also be notified. Having these alerts be created would be programed into the system and would be directed at local law enforcement who could read the alerts only with a digital key (similar to how bitcoin owners claim their bitcoins).

Blockchain purists may argue that blockchain based technology should be used to uphold absolute privacy. I believe the technology should be leveraged for decentralization but not, at all times, for anonymity.

A blockchain-enabled platform offers several key benefits. First, as a decentralized system, it is much cheaper to build and maintain, especially given large parts of the source code already exists courtesy of places such as Cambridge Blockchain. Secondly, it addresses the largest cause of gun deaths- mental illness. Thirdly, it gives law enforcement the tools to prevent gun violence without threatening individual liberties with a big brother approach of a national gun database accessible at all times by the feds.

While the debate rages on as to whether certain types of guns should be banned and other gun restriction measures, a blockchain-based platform that helps prevent guns deaths, without big brother policies, should be a consensus proposal that is put into place today to save lives. I hope people much smarter than me work to build and advocate such a system.

I am researching the topic of civic applications for blockchain for an independent project at Harvard Business School.