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How gun-detection technology promises to help prevent mass shootings

New tech firms are leveraging artificial intelligence to identify firearms and alert law enforcement within seconds—but they face plenty of practical challenges.

How gun-detection technology promises to help prevent mass shootings
[Photos: Rob Curran/Unsplash; Benedikt Geyer/Unsplash]]

Even after the back-to-back mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso, and the fact that a solid majority of Americans support expanded gun control, the issue is at as much of a stalemate as ever. And while a legislative solution may be far off, potential technological solutions are coming to the fore. Enter companies like Aegis AI and Athena Security, new tech firms leveraging artificial intelligence to identify firearms and alert law enforcement within seconds.

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While the recent mass shootings seem an obvious application of gun-detection technology, combating the more frequent gun violence in American cities is likely just as important to law enforcement. Founded by Lisa Falzone and Chris Ciabarra, cofounders of Revel Systems, Athena grew out of a desire to do something good for the world. After growing Revel Systems to a half-billion-dollar valuation, and selling it to a private equity firm, Falzone says that she and Ciabarra grew weary of retirement. Around the time of the Las Vegas and Stoneman Douglas shootings, the two realized that mass shootings were being recorded by cameras and that a layer of artificial intelligence could be added to these systems to yield what Falzone calls an “interactive proactive tool” to fight mass shootings and other gun crimes.

Athena Security uses object-motion detection to spot when an individual brandishes a fireman, and immediately send an alert to their client, whether that’s a private security firm or local law enforcement. The company’s AI object-motion detection is camera agnostic, meaning it can work on any CCTV system. When a gun is detected, the video feed of the active shooter is made available to the client both on mobile devices and desktop computers, allowing officers to know what they are dealing with and where it is happening, all in the space of three seconds, according to Falzone.

[Image: courtesy of Athena Security]
Currently, Athena Security is in use by a number SWAT teams, Fortune 500 companies, the Al-Noor Christchurch mosque in New Zealand (the site of a religiously-motivated act of domestic terrorism last March), as well as by schools and governments. Falzone says that Athena Security is currently deploying its software on existing camera systems for its clients.

“We send an alert to e-911 and then they have that link and see exactly what’s going on during the crime,” Falzone explains. “Lots of police forces have tested the technology, the results of which are detailed in the white paper. We’ve created a really accurate algorithm to achieve over 99% accuracy.”

Every second matters

Falzone is right to say that every second matters. The Dayton shooter, Connor Betts, needed less than 20 seconds—the amount of time it took police to respond to the scene—to murder nine people and injure over a dozen more.

“The way that police get information right now is through a lot of panic: People calling 911, and the police thought it was multiple stores and they had no idea where the shooter was, and it took a long time to find the shooter,” she says. “Giving the police accurate information is so critical to response time. So, even if you do detect a gun that a shooter is firing, every second counts. If you can get police there 30 seconds faster, or even seconds faster, those are lives saved.”

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Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit started by former legislator and current gun control advocate Gabbie Giffords, sees promise in gun-detection technology, but also challenges. David Chipman, senior policy advisor at Giffords Law Center, and a former ATF agent and consultant at ShotSpotter (a gunfire locator product), says that gun- and shot-detection technologies are similar to technologies used to detect fires.

“I think the argument could be made that as a society we value private property more than we value public safety and the safety of human life,” says Chipman, who also worked as a gun control advocate in former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration. “Now that we’re having a different kind of debate or conversation where people are clearly saying that no level of gun violence is appropriate. We have to have technologies that help police prevent crimes instead of respond to it after the fact.”

Chipman envisions gun-detection camera systems being implemented in spaces, both public and private, where governments and businesses want to protect people. He characterizes such systems as “metal detectors 3.0″—ones that could be used in places like schools, sports stadiums, and malls to help react more quickly to shooters. And Chipman sees this technology being useful beyond the prevention of mass shootings. Chipman thinks gun-detection systems would be invaluable in hot spots for urban gun violence, where most people neither see nor hear a gunshot and where any witnesses might be unlikely to report a crime to police anyway.

“When you talk about mass shootings and school shootings, or some of the things we’ve seen at malls and such, can you alert police that gun-carrying people are entering a space that you have zero tolerance for a gun crime ever happening?” says Chipman. “But, how do we balance the right of free travel, acknowledge that people can lawfully carry guns under certain circumstances, but also create awareness for police if something goes sideways?”

Concealed carry and other drawbacks

There are plenty of challenges to the widespread implementation of gun-detection technology. The main obstacle, according to Chipman, is that people carrying firearms in states that guarantee the right to concealed carry could claim Athena Security or Aegis AI’s gun-detection systems are invasions of their privacy.

In other cities, the obstacle might be more financial than constitutional. Some cities, like New York, with its considerable CCTV coverage and vast public funding, might be willing and able to make that investment. But a city like Houston, with Texas’s pro-gun laws and culture, could quickly become a battleground for legal challenges, even if some public and private spaces are likely to layer the AI onto their CCTV systems. Smaller cities and towns, on the other hand, might be more willing to install gun-detection systems but lack the funds to implement the technology.

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“If such a technology passes privacy muster so that you can carry a concealed weapon but the government or private businesses have a right to know, this can be very cost-prohibitive to get the coverage you need to blanket the area,” says Chipman. “Someone is going to have to write this check.”

Even more daunting are questions about performance—how effective are they at preventing mass shootings? Chipman says gun-detection camera systems might only be useful in a mass-shooting scenario that plays out over an extended period of time. The Dayton shooting, as he notes, was over in 30 seconds. So in a nearly identical scenario, he believes there would be little to no value to law enforcement. And, based on his experience as an ATF agent, Chipman says the primary goal of law enforcement in responding to a critical incident like a mass shooting would be to identify as quickly as possible those people carrying a gun. The next step is to determine who the good guys are.

[Image: courtesy of Athena Security]
“That’s one of the problems we are seeing now amongst first responders to shooters in an environment where there are sometimes law-abiding gun owners taking some action, including maybe even brandishing a gun, at the same event,” Chipman explains. “With these recent shootings, there are reports of second shooters, so any technology that allows police to more quickly get to that fundamental concern they have when they arrive would be valuable. But this technology has to be 100% reliable; otherwise, it will never be used. At ShotSpotter, that was one of the things we really had to work hard on.”

And it potentially won’t be just the “good guys” with concealed-carry firearms at active-shooter events. Someone with ill intent is likely to carry concealed, although that’s not always the case—the El Paso shooter came in clearly brandishing his weapon.

Penny Okamoto of CeaseFire Oregon and Beth Roth of the Safe Tennessee Project both echoed Chipman’s worry about concealed-carry holders. Roth, in particular, wonders if false alarms, where an object is misidentified as a gun, could prove problematic for law enforcement. Okamoto is also concerned that gun-detection systems could be thwarted by weapons designed not to look like firearms. She points to how ShotSpotter’s gun audio-detection technology could be potentially defeated by silencers, which can be legally obtained in 42 states.

Indeed, altering the sound of gunfire could make it harder for gunshot-detection systems, which is why Giffords Law Center vigorously fought the NRA when it came to deregulating silencers. Today, silencers are regulated like machine guns and rarely used in crimes. They are legal under federal law if registered with the ATF; states decide if silencers are legal or not in their jurisdictions, with some localities also having their own regulations. On a national level, Chipman says silencer laws are a patchwork that generally allows them to be registered with the ATF if not in conflict with existing state or local laws. The Virginia Beach shooter is a reminder that when used, silencers are deadly, says Chipman.

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CeaseFire Oregon’s Okamoto sees problems on the horizon with the technology, predicting that firearms companies could design guns to look like common devices. One of her colleagues attended an NRA convention in Texas last year, where they saw guns designed to look like cell phones. Granted, the phone-shaped firearms only hold two rounds—nevertheless, gun-detection cameras wouldn’t be able to distinguish it from a real smartphone.

“While that’s a small number [of firearms], it’s something that could grow,” says Okamoto. “3D-printed firearms should be included in the [gun-detection] AI mesh or AI training. Right now, 3D-printed firearms are smaller in terms of the amount of ammunition they can hold, but in five years it could be some pretty disturbing technology.”

Beyond A.I.

Several gun control advocates contacted by Fast Company expressed support for gun-detection technology, but not at the expense of legislative efforts to regulate firearms. “I support a comprehensive approach when it comes to reducing gun violence,” says Roth. “We need better gun laws—policies supported by evidence and by voters (background checks, red-flag laws, stronger firearm dispossession laws, etc); more funding for community groups and ‘violence interruptor’ programs; as well as smart technology, whether that’s gun-detection systems or smart guns.”

CeaseFire Pennsylvania’s Shira Goodman says technology should be used to combat gun violence, but not to the exclusion of legislation and investment in communities. Products like ShotSpotter, Aegis AI, and Athena security can, as Goodman notes, help law enforcement with the speed of policing—things like locating areas with frequent gunshots, recovering shell casings, and creating databases of bullets.

“It helps police figure out where to put resources,” says Goodman. “And they give us a good picture of what’s happening in hot spots, and how we can better direct our resources. . . . We also need to invest in community programs that create better opportunities for people. We need education, anger management, and conflict resolution programs to deal with this really tough problem.”

“How do you get people to put down the gun?” Goodman adds. “You have to give them a better option.”

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Chipman points to Giffords Law Center’s work in researching and reporting on programs to target urban gun violence. These programs identify those most at risk of perpetrating or being the victim of gun violence, then direct services towards them. Giffords Law Center notes that such tactics have been particularly effective in cities like Oakland and Richmond, California.

In Richmond, the Office of Neighborhood Safety, a non-law-enforcement city agency, is focused on addressing serious violence. Its cornerstone program, the Operation Peacemaker Fellowship, is an 18-month, intensive mentoring program for the small number of people at the highest risk of engaging in violence. Mike McLively, a senior staff attorney at Giffords Law Center, and director of its Urban Gun Violence Initiative, says this strategy is now being expanded to other cities, including Sacramento and Stockton, under the name Advance Peace.

“Part of what’s so important about it is the laser-like focus on highest-risk individuals, which is based on the now well-established principle that serious violence in American cities is driven by a very small number of individuals,” McLively explains. “Richmond has seen huge (70%+) declines in shootings since ONS got started in 2007.”

Giffords Law Center recently published a large report on Oakland’s strategies to combat gun violence. Since 2012, the city has reduced gun homicides and shootings by 50%. McLively says there are several reasons for the city’s success, including sustainable and robust funding from parcel taxes to fund violence-reduction work. They also conducted a thorough analysis, which found that gun violence wasn’t just being perpetrated by a broad group of young people, but a smaller number of individuals closer to the age of 30. And, with the help of the California Partnership, a statewide coalition to combat poverty, Oakland implemented Group Violence Intervention to restructure how the city was addressing serious violence.

This was combined with very robust street outreach and social services provision through Oakland Unite, a city agency funded by ballot initiatives and dedicated to providing services to those most likely to be involved in shootings,” says McLively. “In other words, Oakland’s strategy involved law enforcement and community elements, all working in partnership for the first time.”

And it helped that these strategies were supported by the community and embraced by city leadership. McLively says that state grants, through a program called CalVIP (the California Violence Intervention and Prevention Program) helped in implementing Oakland’s multipronged approach to gun violence.

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But Goodman says that mass shooters are quite different from other perpetrators of gun violence. Most mass shooters are usually white males, often with a history of anger or a propensity to violence. Goodman says that the way you reach potential mass shooters is to get better resources into American schools.

“Instead of putting armed guards in our schools, make sure there are better resources for our counselors, that teachers are trained to recognize signs of crisis, and students have a safe way to report,” says Goodman.

Chipman has another theory to identify and reach those who could become mass shooters.

“Suicide is also a huge driver of gun violence and I think behind some mass shootings as well,” he says. “Extreme Risk Protection Orders show promise by granting police authority to temporarily remove guns from persons who may harm themselves or others.”

The NRA did not return calls for comment.

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About the author

DJ Pangburn is a writer and editor with bylines at Vice, Motherboard, Creators, Dazed & Confused and The Quietus. He's also a pataphysician, psychogeographer and filmmaker.

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