Leveraging Smart Contracts for Gun Control

I’m currently a student at Holberton School and recently our school started a 3 month side project lead by one of our school’s mentors Evelyn de Souza that focuses on using smart contracts to solve a real world problem. We formed groups of 4 to 8 people and in our first week we were to identify the problem we wanted to solve. My group brainstormed a list of use cases that included things like digital identity, wills, prenuptial agreements, and supply chain management.

While discussing the supply chain use case we used real world examples of supply chain issues. Diamonds came up because wouldn’t you feel better knowing your diamonds came from a reputable source and not the hard labor of child workers? The conversation then strangely segwayed from diamonds and child labor to guns. Once we started talking about guns, I started thinking about the Parkland shooting and just how easy it is to get a gun in America. This was it. This was the problem we needed to solve.

The Problem

CDC statistics for gun deaths 2012–2016

From 2012–2016 there have been on average 35,000 gun deaths every year and the amount of deaths increases every year. The United States is the world leader in mass shootings As of March 2nd, there have been at least 12 school shootings in the United States this year alone. This a problem that can and should be fixed.

According to the 2015 National Firearms Survey, approximately 3% of Americans own about half of all guns in the United States which makes that an average of 17 guns owned by about 7.7 million people. The issue is not in how many guns people have, but rather, in how easy it is for people to get them.

At the moment, there is close to no tracking of gun ownership in the United States. As stated in the following report on firearm sales records:
 “Without a central repository of all firearm sales records, gun tracing is a slow, cumbersome process” . Currently, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) must go through many, many steps just to find the first owner of a suspect gun and the retailer that supposedly sold it to him/her. Typical investigations consist of making phone calls and looking through boxes of paperwork which are so inefficient that criminal investigations sometimes drag on for weeks because of it. Additionally, the fact that gun ownership records only consist of paper trail records means that records can be easily altered or falsified if someone had ill intentions.
According to a GQ Report, the numbers are actually quite unsettling:
* 4.2 million paper records of sales as of 2010
* 34,807 records of suspect guns as of 2010
* 4 million records of traced guns as of 2010
* Several hundred million out of business records as of 2010
* 330,000 records of theft guns as of 2010

What is most interesting is that the ATF receives 2 million new gun records every single month. All of these records occupy thousands of cardboard boxes such that it is no longer surprising why many gun tracking investigations turn up short and lead nowhere.

Current federal law requires dealers to keep records of sales so that they can be used in a criminal investigations should the need arise, but the federal law also prohibits law enforcement from using dealers’ records to establish a central system for firearm transactions and also from requiring sales records to be transferred to a centralized facility. On the state side of things, the laws vary by state with some being extremely strict about sales records and background checks while others are very loose or nonexistent. At a high level, firearms records are not well-maintained or well-documented consistently by either the state nor federal governments making investigative processes extremely inefficient.

As the subject of this discussion is so sensitive and because there is so much red tape, we do not aim at trying to change these policies, but rather we are proposing and building a project that we believe is a theoretical solution to the issue and will simply test these hypotheses on our own. The lack of gun record centralization, and the desperate need for it, inspired the idea of using blockchain technology to store and trace gun ownership records from manufacturer, to dealer, to purchaser. With blockchain technology being used predominantly for games and cryptocurrencies, that is the essence of our project — creating smart contracts on a blockchain that can theoretically solve what we believe to be a serious issue that affects millions of people nationwide.

Our Solution

I lived in Houston, Texas last year and I was able to purchase guns from private parties on websites like Texas Gun Trader. We would agree to meet in a public place like the parking lot of an Academy store, or just outside my house. After greeting each other I would be inspecting a gun and negotiating over the price. Once we agreed on a price, I’d hand over cash and they would hand me the gun. If I didn’t insist on a bill of sale there would be no record of transaction. We wouldn’t even have exchanged IDs. Texas has some of the loosest gun laws in the country and it isn’t alone.

Another thing I learned from living in Texas, is that you are not required to report a gun lost or stolen. What if a gun is stolen and used in a crime? How are you not a part of the problem if you don’t report a gun that you owned lost or stolen?

It is our belief that we can greatly reduce the ease with which killers like Nikolas Cruz can get weapons in this country. There are more strict restrictions placed on getting a driver’s license than there is on owning a gun. Shouldn’t owning a gun be just as, if not more, difficult as getting a driver’s license? Can we make a system that makes it more difficult to own a gun and forces gun owners to be more responsible in the process? I know we can.

It is the goal of our group to develop a way to use smart contracts to identify and track gun ownership. Our system would track all the transactions in which a gun changes hands. Each gun would have a system of smart contracts that adds a record of transaction to the blockchain each time the gun changed hands.

System model for gun with a single owner

The beginning of each gun’s history would start at the manufacturer. The manufacturer would initiate a smart contract that notes the creation of a new gun. This would also encode information that was specific to that weapon onto the blockchain. The manufacturer would then only be authorized to sell to dealers who have the required Federal Firearms License(FFL). Once the authenticity of the FFL has been verified, the manufacturer would then be able to initiate the smart contract that coincides with this transaction. This second contract would be linked to the first, or origin contract on the blockchain.

The heart of the system comes into play when a person wants to buy a gun from an authorized dealer. In our system a gun dealer wouldn’t be allowed to sell you a gun until you met certain criteria. First your identity would have to be verified with government. Second, there would be a background check to ascertain your legal right to own a weapon. This background check would look for felonies, domestic violence and any other criteria that restricts your right to possess firearms. Lastly, you would need to have a medical professional verify your mental state. Once these three criteria are met and verified through smart contracts they will enable you to purchase a weapon from an authorized dealer.

The importance of these checks is two fold. The contracts confirm that potential gun owner is legally allowed to own a firearm. They will also allow the authorities involved to interact in the interest of public safety. If your gun is used in the commission of a crime, the law enforcement authorities will then be allowed to use the system to trace a gun back to the owner. Doctor’s will be able to alert authorities to gun owners who may have drastic changes in their mental state which would cause them to be a danger to themselves or others. This would be a major aid in keeping the public safe.

Private Sales

Going back to my story of buying a gun in Houston the issue was not the private sale itself. It was the lack of identity verification, and transaction record that were the major issues. We could use the same checks that we would require from a person wanting to purchase from a dealer to enable private sales.

Private sales model

In order to allow for a private sale, both parties would need to have met the necessary criteria. The smart contract allowing the sale would be impossible to execute without having these criteria met. If you sold a gun to someone who wasn’t authorized to purchase the contract wouldn’t execute and you would still be on record as the owner of that weapon. If that person decided to use the gun you sold them in the commission of a crime your name would still be attached to the weapon as the owner. You would then have to explain how this person got a hold of a gun that was supposed to be in your possession. You would also need to report your gun lost or stolen for the very same reason. If you want to own a gun you need to be held responsible for what happens to that gun.

Goal of Our Project

The idea of our full system isn’t complete, nor is it achievable in the 3 month time frame that we’ve been given for this project. My team has decided that we will focus on one small portion of the full application of our system. We want to track a weapon from the manufacturer to the end user as a proof of concept.

Project Team Members:

Spencer Taylor, Mitali Sengupta, Derek Kwok, Artur Adamian, Andrew Suh, Gregory Dame