Can Technology Save Us from Our Gun Culture?

I don’t know about you, but I find America’s love affair with guns frightening. Apparently, so do many other people because that’s the reason gun sales continue to soar. The more people who buy guns, the more other people want to buy them. It’s literally an out-of- control arms’ race.

The pandemic has fueled the fear behind the latest gun figures – a record 40 per cent jump in annual sales last year to nearly 40 million (that’s right 40 million), with 1/5 of the increase accounted for by first-time gun purchases. Another 16 million gun purchases were recorded in just the first four months of 2021, putting sales on a path to hit nearly 50 million this year:  Even before the pandemic, since 1999, gun sales have increased in most years.

Not so coincidentally, after falling from mid-1980s to 2000, gun related deaths have been sharply increasing ever since, suicides increasing faster than homicides: (data based on the CDC).

It is pointless to argue whether guns kill people or people kill people. The facts are what they are: more people have been dying due to the use of firearms every year for the past twenty years (and even then, the numbers of deaths should have been unacceptable).

Gun control advocates have long been hoping that eventually the carnage – whether from mass shootings or from the mounting numbers of individual shootings – would eventually instill enough horror in politicians to toughen our gun laws, at least through more and better background checks and prohibiting the sale of military assault weapons. But the very opposite has happened: the more shootings there are, the greater the demand for guns for self-defense, while state legislatures continue to make it easier than ever for people to buy and brandish their guns.

Texas recently allowed “open carry” without a license. Most all other states that allow permit-less gun ownership only if the guns are concealed. All told, over half the states now permit permit-less carry:

In short, people and the officials who are elected represent them are no different than nations engaging in an arms race. And it’s not just the power of the NRA that is driving all this. It’s fear.

Is there any way out of this vicious cycle? Not through politics, that’s certainly what history has shown so far. Even if by some miracle some state legislatures and/or Congress toughened our gun laws, with so many guns out there and so many people owning them, the carnage would continue. It’s not all that different from climate change. There is so much CO2 already in the atmosphere that even efforts to slow the growth of emissions will not change the intensified severe weather that global warming has already baked in the cake.

OK, you ready for, what seems to me, the only ultimate answer? And before I write the words, can you at least suspend disbelief until you’ve read all the way through?

Admittedly, the solution is not here, now, but with a moonshot type investment – which could benefit all civilians and the military – it could be one day.  It’s not rocket science, or maybe it kind of is: If Israel, with a lot of U.S. help, has an Iron Dome that stops virtually all incoming missiles, why can’t we have the equivalent for bullets?

Of course, bulletproof vests, which protect the upper body, have been around for a long time (guns a lot longer). But these vests only protect the upper body and are heavy. Surely, with enough brainpower and money, more effective, and in the long run cheaper personal bullet-defense systems for the whole body including the head, could be developed. Maybe not perfect, but a lot better than what is out there now. The question is: why hasn’t this happened yet?

A former colleague of mine at the Kauffman Foundation, who has had a great entrepreneurial career and as an author, Diana Kander (also with a remarkable personal story), wrote a book several years back called in the All-In Startup: The core message: don’t start a company you want to scale unless you’ve got something to offer people that cures the equivalent of a “migraine” headaches. In other words, not something “nice to have,” but something you’ve “got to have,” but no one else has figured it out.

Well, if getting shot isn’t at least a “migraine headache” level problem, I don’t know what is.

So, to paraphrase the question I just asked, why haven’t entrepreneurs, or at least big business, figured this out yet? Apparently, some people have thought about this problem, though in a limited way – but only better body armor. There’s this from a former teenager at a science fair: And here’s a six year old piece about some academics working with the Army on related body armor technology: But still no advances even in body armor that would resemble light bullet-proof shirts or pants that don’t look like body armor, are comfortable, affordable and that people wouldn’t feel crazy if they bought and wore.

And there still doesn’t appear to be anything about protection for your head, which one would think would have to be some bubble-like device you’d have to walk around in (note: current motorcycle helmets won’t do the trick) . I realize that a lot of people have gotten used to wearing masks during the pandemic and maybe beyond (during flu season as a matter of course, which would make sense), but I can’t see many people walking around with bulletproof bubbles on their heads (even if they were invented).  

Stopping bullets needs even more “out-of-the-box” ideas. Is it even possible, for example, to effectively surround designated geographic areas – a city for example – with systems that effectively repel rapidly moving objects, like bullets, while leaving other slower moving ones, like cars and trains? In other words, some kind of force field that effectively would render guns useless. I’m no physicist, and I realize that this idea sounds like science fiction, but as science fiction enthusiasts know, science fiction writers have some of the best records when it comes to predicting what the future may look like.

Maybe there are less crazy ideas that could be exploited. Why isn’t our government funding them? Logically, the right place would be the research arm of the Defense Department, or DARPA, which historically has funded the development of once far-out ideas (like the Internet) before. Why aren’t more people – and importantly politicians -- across the political spectrum thinking about and supporting this kind of research?

For all I know, maybe research in this vein is already taking place somewhere – in universities, DARPA or some other arm of the government – and I don’t know about it because it’s all secret. But with my limited Internet-research capabilities, all I could find about DARPA doing anything close to bullet research, is to make bullets “smarter”, allowing them to change course in flight to be even more lethal:

Maybe there are readers of this post who will be able to tell the rest of us something more encouraging along the lines of the ideas outlined here. If so, then please have at it.

I close with several thoughts. One is for those who think trying to stop bullets, not just through better protective clothing (and headgear), is impossible. Maybe you’re right. But just for a moment, transport yourselves back to the age before antibiotics, and imagine if someone had told you that if we eventually would have drugs that would cure a large number of bacterial infections, including sinus infections which in their day killed people routinely. You probably back then would have said that was crazy too. Or what about artificial hearts? Or any number of other innovations that have made our modern life what it is today?

Second, I realize if my anti-bullet fantasies were to come true, they wouldn’t solve the problems of firearms being used by people committing suicide. There’s an easy answer to that. No solution can solve or mitigate every problem. Wouldn’t we all be happier if there were just better ways to cut down on gun-related homicides (and non-lethal injuries)?      

Third, I also realize that no technology can permanently reduce our gun or violence problems. With any major advances in self-defense, there will be countermeasures. But those will take time, and in the meantime, which ideally could be a long time, lots of lives can be saved.

Fourth, there are likely to be side-effects of more effective anti-bullet technological advances. I’m not sure what they are, but I have faith (actually not the right word) there would be. Think nuclear power. Cars. Airplanes. Even anti-biotics (over-use). But if the fear of potential side-effects were allowed to stop endeavors, humans would make no progress at all.

In the end I have a lot more faith in human ingenuity, even if far-fetched today, than I do in persuading people to change their minds, especially when they’re afraid.