Big Data can kill American gun crime

While Betanews isn't usually a place for political discourse, I'm going against the grain on this one. It's because I strongly believe the real answer to solving our serious gun crime problem in America rests in something most readers on this site tend to embrace: technology. More specifically, what we refer to as Big Data. I fully believe we have a data problem, not a gun problem. While the debate at large focuses on reaching the same end goal, the fingers point at the wrong solution.

Big Data, in my opinion, does have a spot in this debate. While Robert Cringely one month ago wrote why he believed just the opposite, I think we have more than enough examples of where Big Data has been helping more than hurting. If you listened solely to the press conferences politicians hold in Washington, you'd almost come to the conclusion that all the guns used in recent crimes pulled their own triggers. There seems to be a steady forgetfulness that nearly every recent mass tragedy was actually perpetrated by individuals with some form of mental illness. But this doesn't stir the headlines the same way gun debates do, so the topic gets swept to the wayside.

We've got a serious problem in America, and I don't think it lies in magazine round capacities or (mislabeled) assault weapons. It's that we have no reasonable technological backbone in the form of data collection and sharing that can track individuals at risk for committing these types of violent crimes. New York City successfully leveraged Big Data (CompStat) to fight its own crime problem; we've tracked sex offenders with ease down to the city block for many years already; and the USA has managed a national detailed terror "No Fly List" for nearly a decade now.

So why can't we effectively track mass data on potentially violent threats afflicted with mental illness? It's a very good question, and one that will only be logically tackled once we get over the largely theatrical gun control debate.

The Dead End that is New Proposed Gun Control

It's a shame that so much congressional energy is being spent on clarifying what visual aspects of guns constitute assault weapons that politicos like Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) want to ban. The biggest sham about the new proposed assault weapons ban, for example, is the established fact that most violent crime isn't even committed with so-called "assault weapons". Handguns are the most prevalent choice for mass shootings.

If you're hesitant to believe the true numbers, have a look at some of the most violent recent school shooting suspects in the United States:

  • Adam Lamza (Sandy Hook shootings): Semi-Automatic Rifle used, yes.
  • One L. Goh (Oikos University shootings): Semi-Automatic Rifle used, no.
  • Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech shootings): Semi-Automatic Rifle used, no.
  • Steven Kazmierczak (Northern Illinois shootings): Semi-Automatic Rifle used, no.
  • Charles Carl Roberts IV (Amish School shootings): Semi-Automatic Rifle used, no.
  • Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (Columbine shootings): Semi-Automatic Rifle used, yes.

Of just the above sampling of 6 recent violent US school shootings, only two instances involved semi-automatic rifles (the center of the current assault weapons ban controversy.) Of the rest, all involved some form of handguns, supporting the established statistics on US gun crimes at large.

A standard S&W MP15 sporting rifle, commonly referred to as an AR-15. Contrary to reports, "AR" merely stands for "Armalite" -- the company which originated this style of weapon. And doubly, it can only fire at semi-automatic levels, unlike a true "assault rifle" that can handle fully-automatic. Gun paranoia fuels this kind of media misinformation.

While there is no strong correlation between assault weapons and recent mass school shootings, mental illness definitely has a staggering presence among the involved suspects. Using the same sampling of perpetrators, have a look at just how many had some form of mental illness that has been publicly reported:

  • Adam Lamza (Sandy Hook shootings): Reported to have a personality disorder in combination with Asperger syndrome.
  • One L. Goh (Oikos University shootings): Afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia and to-date determined mentally unfit to stand trial for crimes committed.
  • Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech shootings): Declared mentally ill by Virginia in 2005, two years before the infamous shootings.
  • Steven Kazmierczak (Northern Illinois shootings): Long history of mental illness; multiple suicide attempts; strong interest in Columbine shootings; sympathetic towards Palestinian terror group Hamas.
  • Charles Carl Roberts IV (Amish School shootings): Suspected sexual attraction to children due to falsities told before shootings and sexual lubricant found at crime scene where young girls were murdered.
  • Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (Columbine shootings): Described in multiple reports as "psycopathic" and "depressive" among other social and mental related issues that affected the duo.

In some form or fashion, all of these individuals above had one thing in common: mental instability. That's right, every single one of them. In fact, a majority of them had traceable histories of instability that was brought to light only after it was too late. I'd argue it's not a gun problem at all that we're fighting, but a lack of coherent direction on information sharing and mental health access. Both sides on the issue are at fault to some degree.

New gun legislation is likewise doomed for failure in solving the core issue of gun access because even the US Department of Justice concedes that among state prisoners in jail for gun crimes, 80 percent obtained their weapon in part by "street buys" or "illegal sources". So this begs the question: if criminals aren't following the law to begin with, what makes us believe these new regulations are going to keep weapons out of their hands? If I'm connecting the dots right here, these stricter gun laws will merely give the bad guys another leg up over law-abiding citizens.

If there's one thing I would recommend in light of all the above data, it's that broadening our concealed carry laws could likely have the biggest impact on keeping death tolls down when shock killers decide to strike. The evidence already points to lower murder rates among states that have concealed carry in contrast to those that do not. And there's even movement to get teachers prepared to fight back, like these Utah educational workers who are training to carry concealed weapons in school, something already legal in the state.

Renowned security expert Larry Correia said it best on a recent blog post surrounding the gun control debate: "Gun Free Zones are hunting preserves for innocent people. Period".

The Data is out There, We just refuse to make sense of It

If there was a posterboy for the mess that is our state of mental health information sharing in America, it would be Seung-Hui Cho. This was the 23 year-old troubled college student who took 32 lives plus his own on the campus of Virginia Tech in 2007. The signs that were present, and data that was already available, was insurmountable. For example, Lucinda Roy was the co-director of Virginia Tech's creative writing program, and experienced Cho's conditions first hand. "[He was] the loneliest person I have ever met in my life", she told ABC News.

Roy attempted to get Cho help through official channels, but met resistance from higher-ups who noted "legal hurdles" in getting Cho the help he needed. The University even made public mental health records they held on Cho, noting several instances of discussions between Cho and school health specialists where he described ongoing symptoms for depression and anxiety. Three therapists had the chance to talk with Cho before his murder spree, to no true avail. They are not to blame necessarily -- the broken system is.

The more you look into the past lives of these school shooting perpetrators, the more commonalities you find with similar signs and data. While every single shooter doesn't leave behind such a vivid trail of mental illness evidence, most instances do have enough concrete data to say that "something" could have been done. The problem at hand is that we have no discernible way of making sense of all this data. How do we store it all? Where do we organize it? Who's to manage it?

These are the kinds of questions we should ask now, and work towards to a solution once and for all. The terror tragedies of 9/11 forced Washington to get serious about a No Fly List, and the results have been impressive overall. Many recorded (and some likely unrecorded) instances of potential terrorism were stopped dead in their tracks due to this cohesive national database.

The New York Police Department also showed how the right technology can empower change. Specifically, reducing crime and predicting future problems, edging on the lines of what the movie "Minority Report" made famous in its screenplay. GIS and database technology helped form the basis for CompStat, a comprehensive system that has been so powerful, it is now in use in numerous US cities such as Austin, San Francisco, Baltimore, and other large urban centers. In fact, CompStat has been so effective that by 2001, one third of the country's 515 biggest police departments had adopted some iteration of the CompStat methodology in place.

Big Data isn't perfect, however, especially when government is involved. Take for example the FBI's spotty recent history in getting its multi-million dollar pet project running, Sentinel. That Big Data project went completely overbudget, overran on its entire projected launch date and was eventually taken back in-house for final development. The in-sourcing effort by the FBI further bloated costs and finally produced a usable data warehousing platform by 2012 -- over a full decade after the information mess that allowed 9/11 to take place.

Information Sharing is Key to Preventing the Next Sandy Hook

I'm not an expert in the topic of federal information systems, or even smaller state level database platforms. I don't have the single answer to what our next steps should look like. But I do know, as a rational American, that connecting the dots surrounding the real issue with mental health information sharing isn't that difficult. The patterns exposed among a majority of these school shooting suspects should provide some immediacy to the question of how we plan on getting already collected information shared, and how to best leverage it to help prevent the next disasters.

Sadly, until we get real about tackling our information sharing problem, the Adam Lamzas and Seung-Hui Chos will continue slipping through the cracks. The unfortunate part is that the breadcrumbs are already out there. Without a technologically powered way to sift it, sort it and make use of it at the proper levels, we can't do much about it. And so the political theater will continue in Washington, while the underlying cause of mass shootings gets swept aside because gun control debates steal more headlines then mental health discussions ever could.

Want to get involved in making real change? Contact your congressional leaders and tell them to address the mental health information problem. Even banning every future assault weapon sale won't in the least prevent the next Sandy Hook or Columbine.

Photo Credit: mashe/Shutterstock

Derrick Wlodarz is an IT professional who owns Park Ridge, IL (USA) based computer repair company FireLogic. He has over 7+ years of experience in the private and public technology sectors, holds numerous credentials from CompTIA and Microsoft, and is one of a handful of Google Apps Certified Trainers & Deployment Specialists in the States. He is an active member of CompTIA's Subject Matter Expert Technical Advisory Council that shapes the future of CompTIA examinations across the globe. You can reach out to him at info@firelogic.net.

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