Technology Can Redefine the Mass-Shooter Problem

One way to stop school shootings would be to restrict the ability of 249 million American adults to buy and own firearms, including by confiscating millions they already possess. That might work, but promoters have demonstrated with great reliability that they can’t raise the votes. They can’t get Democratic votes for such a policy, much less Republican votes.

Look closely at the lesser gun-control tweaks being proposed in the wake of Wednesday’s atrocity in Parkland, Fla. They all meet some checklist of gun-control desirables but are irrelevant to the specific problem of the carefully planned mass-casualty attack.

To some people, that doesn’t matter. The gun issue draws out us-vs.-them distinctions that are eminently exploitable for fundraising and political purposes. But what about the rest of us? When a problem seems insoluble, redefine it, enlarge it or shrink it in some way. That’s often good advice.

The American electorate may not tolerate draconian (by U.S. standards) restrictions on guns, but it will tolerate a fair amount of surveillance. License-plate readers track our travels. Cellphone towers can triangulate our location. Face recognition is increasingly deployed in conjunction with security and traffic cameras; in China, police officers have it built into their spectacles. Not to mention the stupendous amounts of personal data we willingly hand over to businesses.

Now take all the red flags raised by

Nikolas Cruz

: He posted on social media pictures of himself with weapons and small animals he had apparently tortured. His fascination and exhibitionism with guns was broadcast to one and all. Teachers were warned to take action if he was seen approaching the school with a backpack; he later was expelled.

He was widely regarded as a menace. His mother, neighbors and school officials had repeatedly sought police intervention. He posted a YouTube comment under his own name in which he declared a desire to become a “professional school shooter,” one of two warnings passed on to the FBI.

One thing we know: If, along with these red flags, he had professed jihadist sympathies or frequented al Qaeda websites, the American people would be fine with the FBI tracking him closely. They and their courts would be fine even with undercover agents being sent to lure him into a prosecutable offense so they could arrest him.

OK, jihadist sympathies are a winnowing factor. A lot more disaffected young males are gun nuts, make threats and act weirdly than become mass shooters.

But technology potentially changes the equation in important ways. Big data may not be better than psychologists at predicting who will commit a mass shooting a year or two from now, but it can help us know who might be planning one next week: Who got kicked out of school, failed to show up for a court-assigned counseling session, made a big purchase at a gun store, posted a deranged or threatening message on social media, prompted an uptick in alarmed social-media chatter by friends and acquaintances.

Especially since the young already conduct their social existence mostly online. Information technology is taking over our lives. It will not be uninvented. In another few years, unless you cut yourself off from the network (which will arouse its own suspicions), you will be findable in seconds. A police drone overhead will be able to focus its cameras on you or the vehicle or building in which you are to be found. Indeed, London cops caused a furor by innocently posting on

Twitter

the visage of a TV comedian snapped by an overhead camera looking down on the masses in Leicester Square. If it can’t already, soon this technology will be able to sound an alarm if a specific person on a list approaches a school or other sensitive site.

The question of how and whether to use these capabilities for public-safety purposes is already bubbling up in a thousand contexts, without much organized consideration or debate. Would such an approach produce an unmanageable number of false positives? Let’s find out. There inevitably would be a learning curve. Let’s start climbing it.

A fact now can usefully be faced: A lot more people enjoy guns than become mass killers, but an excessive fascination with guns is a hallmark of mass killers. Let’s make use of this information. Gun stores have security cameras. If not the police, then businesses themselves will soon enough track every time you visit a gun store and which counters you linger over. It shouldn’t be a reach, with the information we potentially have in hand, to define a new category of person who most Americans would agree should be prohibited from buying guns and ammunition.

The media, with their usual depth and nuance, are trying to set up a fight between gun controllers and proponents of mental-health reform, who are naturally accused of ducking the real issue. In fact, we will need some basis in law for acting on people who set off alarm bells but haven’t done anything illegal. A new approach to mental health has to be part of the strategy.

Appeared in the February 17, 2018, print edition.

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