After the mass shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday night, there are two non-obvious roles tech played that are deeply at odds with each other. They reveal a lot about the way we frame discussions concerning acts of violence and how that affects our willingness to consider commonsense solutions.
And, clinging to some hope that sanity may prevail, I believe this may offer a way to take at least a modest step toward making a tiny impact on America’s penchant to tolerate a culture of mass shootings.
The first item caught my eye as I was reading the coverage in the New York Times. Within a few hours of the shootings, the FBI was saying they were relatively confident the killer had no contact with known terrorist organizations:
Aaron Rouse, the F.B.I. special agent in charge in Las Vegas, said that so far there was no proof that Mr. Paddock had links to any international terrorist organization.
Left unspoken is how the government might be confident enough to so quickly make such a public assessment. The answer: The U.S. government has constructed a massive surveillance state under the rationale of that we are willing to forfeit our privacy in the name of fighting terrorism.
The first time this really hit me was after the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013. Incredibly, within three days law enforcement were able to narrow in on two Chechen brothers who, it turns out, the feds had been tracking for some time, having intercepted and analyzed contents of phone calls, emails, and travel records. It was just a few months later that the first Snowden revelations were made that truly allowed us to see the scope of how the U.S. government was spying on foreign targets, but capturing enormous amounts of data from U.S. citizens in the process.
While there was some controversy around this, really, nothing changed. For the most part, Americans seem totally fine with having this huge repository of our data in the hands of the government, because we’re willing to do anything in the name of stopping terrorism.
Now, contrast that to the Vegas shooter.
The guy apparently legally acquired what officials were estimating to be 10 suitcases of firearms. According to the Times:
The police said they found 23 firearms in his suite. And when they searched the attacker’s house, they discovered an additional 19 firearms and, according to Sheriff Joseph Lombardo of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, “some explosives, and several thousand rounds of ammo.” He added that they also found ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer sometimes used in making bombs, in the gunman’s car.
The sheriff said some rifles found in the hotel room may have been modified to make them fully automatic. Automatic rifles, which fire multiple rounds with a squeeze of a trigger, are highly regulated, and on videos posted online by witnesses, the rapid-fire sound indicated that at least one weapon was fully automatic.
One would think that somebody amassing a personal arsenal like that would have sent up some red flags. But nope. Because when it comes to gun purchases, we have intentionally tied the hands of law enforcement by effectively forbidding them to share and retain information about such things.
While federal law requires licensed gun dealers to maintain sales records, it also requires the FBI to destroy approved background check records, hampering law enforcement efforts. States can — and should — take important steps to fill the gaps in federal law.
This is staggering to consider. On one hand, we have federal agencies running deep analysis across all forms of digital communications to divine the tiniest morsel of information that might warrant adding someone to the list of people to monitor. On the other hand, we are actively preventing law enforcement from getting notice about some dude who might be amassing a cache of weapons to wreak havoc.
It seems like creating a national database of gun purchases and gun owners is a minimally prudent thing to do. Because just maybe you might want a law enforcement agent go at least knock on his door and see what’s what if someone is legally buying 10 suitcases full of weapons.
We don’t do this because the gun lobby is absolutist. Never give an inch. And they have succeed because they have framed this in terms of protecting the privacy of these law-abiding folks. We let them win because politically speaking, mass shootings and terrorism remain distinct in terms of our belief about the threat they post.
But far more people die in mass shootings every year in the U.S. than in terrorist attacks. And so certainly we could agree to give up some tiny measure of privacy, an amount that is still dwarfed by the privacy we’ve ceded to the fight on terror. Surely this is a bargain worth striking.
Creating a national gun owner database is worth the gamble. And in taking that step, there wouldn’t even be the need to cede the rights to buy or own guns for the moment.
Just a bit of common sense to help law enforcement do their jobs. Even in this divisive political era, letting them use technology to help avert at least some of these tragedies in the future should be the kind of thing most people can agree upon.