A Blockchain for Guns?


As the last of the millennial generation came into the world, the problem had already become apparent. Most of us born before the mid-90s have witnessed the wave of mass shootings rise—each one another step towards normalization of this kind of tragedy. Each time, progress stalls on implementing meaningful steps towards preventing future tragedy.

Voices from different perspectives hold contentious opinions grounded in emotion or logic… or emotional logic. Yet, as the lethality of guns improves (from muskets at the time of writing the second amendment to rapid-fire armor piercing machine guns), the solutions to many of our systemic problems become more numerous and harder to ignore. We believe well-crafted technologies designed to serve a user’s purpose can help our society and give us smarter ways to navigate hazards.

One major issue with the regulation of guns compared with most any other dangerous tool or substance is the lack of a nationalized database to track movement and use. Gun rights proponents assert that a list could be used to suppress their rights or limit their ability to own and operate a firearm. Given that technological advances in gun themselves have run essentially unabated in relation to technologies related to controls or regulation, our view is that, when used properly, a blockchain-driven database of gun creation and ownership would do a lot more good than harm, especially if it could be used to help prevent future tragedies.

Thomas Heston believes that blockchain technology might offer a viable option to track the use of a potentially lethal tool. In a yet-to-be-peer-reviewed paper released in November of 2017, Heston describes a system which utilizes decentralized blockchain records to track the manufacture and sale of all guns produced in the United States. Heston’s idea would mean a little more work—typing out serial number—on the manufacturer’s end as well as the vendor, but the results could go a long way towards preventing future acts of violence.

Why Blockchain?

Blockchain technology is the overarching framework on which currencies like Bitcoin are based. The basic idea is that records are shared across thousands of computers simultaneously, making them difficult to corrupt or misuse. Even if one instance of the blockchain were to be compromised, the records saved across all participating machines would reveal the false information. Any personal information associated with a particular account is also encrypted, and generally only visible to the owner of the account.

In the case of a currency like Bitcoin, the blockchain replaces traditional banking institutions by acting as the primary source of truth. Every transaction is confirmed and re-confirmed by each computer connected to the system so, as the system gains more users, it gains security—more corroborating machines, more speed, more CPU.

Why use this technology for guns?

Guns are the perfect complement to the blockchain infrastructure as they are already (generally) outfitted with information that can be tracked over time as the item changes hands. Heston proposes that each gun owner would be given a “digital gun safe” which would contain the information associated with each of their firearms. The digital vault would be accessible only to the owner, possibly via biometric data like a fingerprint.

In this system, the gun’s manufacturer would be tasked with creating a digital record for each gun they make. That information would be passed on to a vendor and, eventually, to the consumer purchasing the gun. If the gun were to pass to a new owner, the exchanging parties would be responsible for transferring the record to the new owner. This system would create a highly encrypted database of gun ownership that could be browsed by regulating bodies to help flag owners with potentially dangerous behaviors or intent.

What About Potential Drawbacks?

Though applying gun records to a blockchain system could have many benefits, like any process, there are some instances where the system could fail. A scratched-off serial number on a weapon could make it hard to track whether it was in the database or not. There would need to be behavioral changes early in the establishment of this process to guarantee that independent sales were accurately tracked. Most pressingly, a blockchain system for guns could be difficult to implement at an effective scale.

A single-state system would be easier to accomplish, but would probably not be effective at preventing individuals from acquiring a massive number of weapons in another state. Gun use in Chicago, where we’re based, is a perfect example of that. A nationalized system, though likely more effective, would be difficult to pass in the current political climate, though young communicators and activists are working hard to change that. Finally, a blockchain system for guns would require a better system for background checks and closing the “gun show loophole” which decreases the requirements for purchase from certain vendors at gun shows—something most Americans want, but the NRA does not.

And, even as we write this article, state laws are being proposed that would make tracking guns with blockchain technology illegal. In fact, digitally tracking gun ownership has been a contentious issue for years. Despite the encrypted nature of the blockchain, the idea of tracking who owns a gun irks those who hold tight to fears of some sort of government takeover.

A Changing World

Though it is unlikely that revolutionary blockchain technology will be leveraged to create a database for guns anytime soon, applying shared-ledger processes to other complex systems looks like the future from where we’re sitting. Though many still do not fully understand the technology or potential applications, many also believe in its potential to radically alter our lives for the better through secure and accurate data tracking.

In the world of food, for example. Blockchain technology has already been utilized to track livestock from the farm to the butcher, to your plate. Some companies are similarly using blockchain to track produce from farm to facility, to market. This data opens up a possibility for a safer future. If, for example, one apple is confirmed to be contaminated with salmonella, a blockchain system could be referenced to find the locations of other apples that pose a contamination risk and prevent them from being passed to other consumers. Why this system seems okay for generally life-sustaining food but not lethal weapons seems a relatively simple consideration.

Though blockchain technology is beginning to find its way into the mainstream, many are still hesitant to make such a vast and extensive change to existing systems. As consumers, it’s our job to make sure companies and politicians know this is something we want. When it comes to guns, we already know that the majority of consumers want stronger gun control measures, background checks, and tracking systems. Let’s use the technology of the future to make our present safer for everyone.