How Big Data Can Solve America's Gun Problem

The private sector has all the tools we need to flag rapid weapons build-ups and suspicious purchases. All that's needed is the political will to build the most basic database.

[optional image description]David McNew/Reuters

Big data might have stopped the massacres in Newtown, Aurora, and Oak Creek. But it didn't, because there is no national database of gun owners, and no national record-keeping of firearm and ammunition purchases. Most states don't even require a license to buy or keep a gun.

That's a tragedy, because combining simple math and the power of crowds could give us the tools we need to red flag potential killers even without new restrictions on the guns anyone can buy. Privacy advocates may hate the idea, but an open national database of ammunition and gun purchases may be what America needs if we're ever going to get our mass shooting problem under control.

Just look at the gun-acquiring backgrounds of some of our more recent mass killers to see what I mean. James Holmes, the Aurora shooting suspect, went to three different locations spread out over 30 miles to legally buy his four weapons. All three were reputable outdoors retail chain stores. He then went online, and bought thousands of rounds of ammunition along with assault gear. UPS delivered around 90 packages to Holmes at his medical campus in that short period. It doesn't take a PhD in statistics to see that a quick, massive buildup of arms like this by a private individual -- especially one, like Holmes, who was known in his community for having growing mental health issues -- should raise a red flag.

In Newtown, Adam Lanza carried hundreds of rounds -- enough to kill every student in the Sandy Hook Elementary school if he had not been stopped. But he also attempted to destroy his hard drives to cover his pre-rampage digital tracks. Clearly he feared the data he left behind.

The list of examples can go on. Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech student who committed the worst mass shooting in American history, bought two semi-automatic handguns, along with hollow point bullets, from dealers in just over a month. A few weeks later, he purchased 10-round magazines from a seller in Idaho through eBay. All this was after he failed to disclose information about his mental health on the gun-purchasing background questionnaire (specifically, that he had been court-ordered to outpatient treatment at a mental health facility).

Though we call this kind of thing big data, a database tracking ammunition and gun purchases would be, in fact, tiny. As someone who deals daily with the deluge of data currently inundating the marketing world, I can say based on experience that this kind of record-keeping would be an inconsequential task to set up, and the data science to analyze it trivial. Massive efforts are going into far smaller things, such as which TV program is most engaging for soap buyers who have DVRs, and which pitcher/batter combinations lead to better baseball.

Let me give you some numbers. According to the ATF, about 4.5 million new firearms, including approximately 2 million handguns, are sold in the United States every year, along with roughly 2 million more secondhand ones. No one knows how much ammunition is sold yearly in the country, but as a yardstick, the U.S. Military bought 1.8 billion rounds in 2005.

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Marc Parrish has held senior marketing positions at Egghead, Palm and Barnes & Noble.

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