‘Big data’ could help pinpoint possible shooting spree

This week I’ve asked Marc Parrish, a friend who has extensive experience managing big data for the high-tech industry, to provide his views for this column, based on a previous article he wrote for The Atlantic online.

Big data refers to an accumulation of information that is so big, it’s not possible to manage it using commonly used software and personal computers. Instead, it’s often managed in the cloud using massively parallel software running on hundreds of servers at one time.

In Marc’s previous work in senior marketing positions at EggheadPalm and Barnes & Noble, he has pioneered the use of big data and cloud database technologies to spot trends, anticipate customer needs, manage sales data, understand the buying process, and much more.

Big data and America’s gun problem

By Marc Parrish

Big data needs to be unleashed on America’s persistent gun violence. After the rates of gun violence plummeted in the 1990s, the last 10 years have seen little change in gun homicide rates. We should do better.

We need a national database of gun owners, firearm and ammunition purchases.

Even with no new restrictions on the guns we buy, data can arm us. Simple math and the power of crowds can red flag those at risk, not only for committing violence against others, but against themselves.

During my entire business experience, I have noted that the more open the access has been to the data, the more insightful the resulting decisions are. As a nation, we would do better.

Some privacy advocates and the NRA may hate this idea, but an open national database of ammunition and gun purchases can lead us toward the knowledge needed to save lives.

In the majority of the shooting sprees that have shocked America, there have been patterns of behavior in the purchases immediately beforehand that could have warned us of the impending disasters. Most involved a quick, massive buildup of arms in an uncomplicated pattern by individuals with mental health issues.

In the past few weeks, since the massacre of the Newtown children, many have attempted to analyze our meager data. But there is no public data available that provides information on the weapons and ammunition that are being bought by individuals. Ironically, this information already exists in the sales records of the hundreds of retailers who sell these items.

Though we call this information big data, a database that tracks ammunition and gun purchases would be, in fact, tiny.

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 approximately 2 million additional secondhand guns. 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.

That sounds like a lot — but it isn’t. This data would fit on a thumb drive.

By numerical contrast, Netflix, with 24 million users, will stream several billion movies this year, and Walmart sees many times this in a single day of transactions. Twitter had 150 million tweets about the 2012 London Olympics, and 12 million in the first hour after Osama bin Laden was killed.

Big, complicated data, this is not. But the political will to create a firearm and ammunition purchasing database will need to be massive if we’re ever going to have one. There has been political paralysis for decades as tens of thousands of Americans die every year from gun violence.

Keep in mind that the Second Amendment’s first line, before it gets to the “right to bear arms,” states, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state.” Tracking weapons would seem to be part of regulating the militia — in fact every state’s National Guard and the U.S. military maintains records of its weapons and ammunition. Most states, however, don’t even require a license to buy or keep a gun.

The NRA’s opposing argument will be that collecting data will be an invasion of privacy for gun owners. But in our post-9/11 world, we already have ample precedents to do this. Go into any airport and see what happens when you try and buy a ticket with cash on the next flight out. You will not board the flight without security calling you aside for questioning.

Go into a pharmacy in dozens of states and buy cold medicine, and you will be asked for ID and tracked in the NPLEX database. Go on the Internet and read that the cellphone carriers told Congress that U.S. law enforcement made a staggering 1.3 millions requests for customer text messages, caller locations, and other information just in 2011. And that the number of requests has doubled in the last five years. Most of this cell phone data is requested without even a warrant issued by a judge.

There is no outrage by the American public over any of this, even though it causes citizens inconvenience and invades their privacy. We are willing to permit much when we are convinced that it is in the interest of government making us safer. Getting carded for cold medicine does not bother anyone as a freedom limiter.

Ammo, handguns and rifle purchases have been excluded from the simple tracking mechanisms and from the scrutiny of algorithms that these other pursuits are subjected to.

Why?

After all, flying on a plane, buying cold medicine, and using your cellphone are much more common (so more people are tracked) than purchasing a weapon, and much less dangerous.

To keep us safe, our government has decided it needs the brightest mathematical minds to analyze records on the former and not the latter.

Imagine if that were to change. Armed only with data, we could begin to see the patterns between guns and ammunition purchases and violence, and to flag those people most at risk of doing harm.

We’re one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world. Let’s put some of that technology to work for the common good and to save lives.