With New Zealand reeling after a self-described fascist murdered at least 49 worshippers at a Christchurch mosque, gun control is back on top of the news cycle worldwide. And blockchain developers think they can help make it more efficient and accurate.
In November 2017, Dr. Thomas Heston a clinical associate professor at Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, proposed using blockchain technology to create a decentralized and secure tool to track guns and improve the accuracy of buyer background checks in the United States.
In “A Blockchain Solution to Gun Control,” Heston recommended creating a blockchain-based registry to “create and maintain a database that is accurate, resistant to hacking, and easy to access” by vendors, purchasers, and law enforcement.
Gun owners would have what he calls “an electronic gun safe, similar to a Bitcoin (BTC) wallet,” a digital repository protected by biometric information like a fingerprint or retina scan. It would contain information about each gun owned—which would be transferred when the gun is sold or transferred—as well as data about the individual ranging from basic ID to a record of any criminal record or mental health issues.
Heston added that “[t]racking the transfer of guns from manufacturer to dealer to end user can also be readily improved through blockchain technology. Fully distributed databases, such as the distributed bitcoin ledger, are more robust against attack, are easier to update, easier to maintain, and could also track the flow of guns from manufacturer to end user.”
More controversially, he said that “some countries may find it acceptable to also embed data from Internet browsing, similar to marketing data Facebook, Google, and Amazon currently collect. Artificial intelligence methods similar to those used in Internet marketing could potentially identify relevant mental health issues, such as an obsession with gun violence… A person’s browsing information is already being extensively tracked commercially, and this information could be incorporated into the electronic gun safe.”
Heston’s system is far from likely to be accepted in the U.S., where the politically influential National Rifle Association (NRA) opposes strengthening existing background check laws. In 2018, Arizona passed a law banning the use of decentralized technology including blockchain to track firearms, and Missouri is considering similar legislation.
The FBI’s current tool for buyer background checks, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), is required to complete all requested buyer checks within three days, and does so with an accuracy rate that ranges from 99.3 percent to 99.8 percent, according to a 2016 audit. That means that between 2008 and 2014, the FBI’s 51 million checks still resulted in at least 51,000 incorrect approvals or denials.
Stronger gun control is already under discussion in New Zealand, where former prime minister Helen Clark has called for tougher laws, saying she, “would be surprised if the New Zealand parliament didn’t accept that challenge head on to strengthen the law.” Following a 1996 massacre in which 35 people were killed by a gunman, neighboring Australia banned and confiscated through a mandatory buyback some 700,000 many semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, and tightened licensing requirements for other firearms.
New Zealand’s gun control laws are considered some of the laxest in industrialized countries, other than the U.S., as licensing laws do not require most firearms to be registered. They were tightened to require the registration of semi-automatic rifles in 1993, in the wake of a shooting rampage that left 13 people dead three years earlier. At the time, it was the largest massacre in the country’s history.