Silicon Valley Takes on Gun Violence, Funding Innovative Technologies

BY Jaewon Kang  July 30, 2013 at 5:42 PM EDT


Ron Conway of SV Angel speaks onstage at a TechCrunch conference in New York City on May 1, 2013. Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images for TechCrunch.

Silicon Valley luminary Ron Conway — a successful investor in high tech companies, including Google, Facebook and Twitter — is well known for his spectacular holiday celebrations that attract celebrities, business tycoons and politicians.

Last year, Conway’s party happened to fall on the same day as a deadly shooting that left 20 children and six adults dead in Sandy Hook, Conn. Among his party guests was Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who was shot in the head more than two years ago in Tucson.

As he and Giffords discussed the events of Sandy Hook, Conway saw a role technology could play in combating gun violence — a role nobody had promoted thus far.

He convinced a colleague, Jim Pitkow, to join the search for high tech answers. Pitkow, a Web entrepreneur, had worked with Facebook and the Demi and Ashton Foundation, using technology to fight child sex trafficking. Pitkow and Conway rallied their networks to collectively launch the Technology Committee to Reduce Gun Violence last March.

The committee tapped a coalition of about 40 venture capital leaders to find innovative, profitable solutions to prevent gun violence using technology. The group invited investors to review and fund fresh ideas that could amplify legislative efforts to combat gun violence.

“What technology can do is shift the debate from hypothetical to practical,” said Pitkow, who now serves as chairman of the committee.

He and his colleagues have been looking to innovate in four areas: gun safety, school and public safety, brain health and data analysis. The group believes gun violence can be reduced by applying existing technologies and developing new ones in these fields. School staff, for instance, can use text or voice message systems that already exist on their phones to send signals and alerts.

Since violence has sometimes been tied to mental illness, newly developed Web apps have been designed to monitor and manage mental health conditions. People can also utilize personalized guns with fingerprint sensors that only allow authorized gun owners to operate the firearms. If those guns are stolen or borrowed, they can’t be fired.

“We feel very comfortable that there’s a next Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page in (this) area,” Pitkow said.

Silicon Valley giants are not the only ones turning to technology for possible answers to reducing gun violence. California passed a law six years ago requiring all semi-automatic handguns to be equipped with a technology that stamps a firearms’ serial numbers and other identifying information on each bullet. It’s now in effect after many years of delay due to quarrels over patents on the technology.

Earlier this year, Vice President Joe Biden expressed interest in smart gun technology — the concept of integrating technology, like fingerprints recognition or radio frequency identification, into a firearm to allow only the gun owner to operate the weapon. Supporters claim this technology could have prevented shootings like Sandy Hook because Adam Lanza would not have been able to fire his mother’s guns.

But Larry Keane, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, is skeptical. While he isn’t opposed to research and development of personalized technology, he thinks it could have unintended consequences.

“It would encourage somebody to leave guns loaded, relying upon the authorized user technology to make the gun safe, and we think that’s a dangerous situation,” Keane said.

Keane added that mandating this technology could have a negative impact on consumers’ rights. “Consumers ought to be able to purchase products that they think meet their needs. Not everybody will need or want this,” he said.

But Pitkow is optimistic about the progress the committee has made: “There’s a potential role for innovation on this issue,” he said.

Ian Sobieski, a member of the committee and an investor, agrees with Pitkow’s optimism. Sobieski believes the committee is unique because it can inform entrepreneurs of investors’ interest in ideas that could reduce gun violence. “A lot of people innovate,” Sobieski said. “A lot of smart, young people, in particular, innovate in areas where they see that innovation being rewarded.”

Though Sobieski thinks the task of reducing gun violence as extremely challenging, he hopes technology may hold the key. “I care because I think the solutions aren’t that hard or far away,” Sobieski said. “It simply takes a little bit of intentionality to make a difference.”

The committee, which now consists of about 150 members from all over the country, continues to receive proposals and will release the details of submitted plans later this year.