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Blockchain in The Firearms Industry: 6 Possible Use Cases

  • 15 November 2018
  • Sam Mire

Means to create a more responsible framework for firearms ownership is a mission that most everybody can get behind. 30% of American adults currently own a gun, while a reported 69% do not. Comprising that 69% of Americans who aren’t gun owners are 36% who say they could see themselves owning a gun in the future, and 33% who say they could never envision owning a firearm. Guns are simply an indelible part of American life, and there are some concerns surrounding firearms that could be at least partially quelled through the introduction of better technologies, such as the blockchain.

For example, the issue of illegal guns continues to beg the most outside-the-box solutions. Additionally, finding ways to apply blockchain tech to augment the way we monitor arms sales and track the fitness of gun owners using the blockchain is a worthwhile undertaking. As it stands, the federal gun registry and vetting system has proven inadequate to maintain oversight that will lead to preventative policing. There are features of the blockchain, namely interoperability and the potential to build into it machine learning algorithms, that could enhance the way that we conduct gun sales and monitor the flow of legal firearms, ensuring that they remain in the hands of mentally fit, responsible owners. 

Blockchain in the firearms industry - Practical use cases


Conducting Background Checks

Blockchain use cases in the firearms industry - Conducting Background Checks

The federal database used to conduct background checks is not foolproof — far from it. In 2017, it was reported that the FBI’s background-check system was missing millions of instances of criminal convictions, mental illness, and other non-qualifiers that would have barred certain individuals from attaining a firearm. Fundamental, infrastructural flaws in the database and methods for interagency sharing have been cited as the reason for such breakdowns, as fixing them would be both time-consuming and costly. While measures have been taken in hindsight — such as the 4,000 weapons seized late last year — foretelling when a firearm in the wrong hands will result in tragedy is impossible, and retroactive solutions are often too little, too late.

One of the causes of the system’s inconsistency is the reliance upon hospitals, treatment providers, local law enforcement, and other agencies to send information into federal agencies for entry into the database. This issue is begging for a solution by which records can be uploaded by non-federal entities, or by which those records are automatically uploaded and flagged for information pertinent to a background check.

Visions for this system may vary, but they all include some level of remote updating and monitoring capability and arms tracking from manufacturer to owner. These requirements are suited to the blockchain’s capabilities of secure, interoperable access and automated, algorithmic updating based on a confluence of data sources.


Tracking The Manufacture and Sale of Weapons

Blockchain use cases in the firearms industry - Tracking the Manufacture and Sale of Weapons

From the manufacturer to the resale of firearms, knowing where a firearm is at any given time is important to ensuring it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. Considering the number of illegal firearms flooding the United States, registering weapons — both legal and illegal — opens a future in which the source of an irresponsible sale or an illegal smuggling of firearms can be more easily and certainly identified. According to the Washington Post, lawful gun owners commit less than one-fifth of gun crime in the United States. Of 893 firearms recovered from crime scenes in 2008, approximately 8 out of every 10 perpetrators were not legal gun owners. While tracing illegal guns is notoriously difficult, weapons that are smuggled into the country with their serial numbers intact could, in theory, be traced back to their manufacturer to give authorities a shot — however miniscule the odds may be — of better tracking smugglers and irresponsible sellers.

Considering the contentious nature of the firearms safety debate in the nation and the consequences of the firearms themselves, monitoring the chain of custody for firearms should be a top priority. Once an individual has passed a background check and been issued their firearm, the onus to ensure that they are mentally fit and acting responsibly enough to own a firearm does not evaporate. The database could help locate gun owners (while ensuring their due process is protected) in cases where their fitness comes into question. Such a database, expanded globally, could help locate the source of illegally transported firearms when they can be identified. Concepts such as a digital gun locker have also been floated as facets that could make this broad concept a tangible reality.   

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • WISeKey  Bridging the gap between digital and physical tagging/tracking of guns.
  • Blocksafe  Leading a consortium of blockchain providers for decentralized firearm solutions.
  • GunshotSpot Decentralized anonymous neighborhood watch. 
  • TriggerSmart – Proprietary solution for limiting the use of weapons remotely.  

Interstate Data Sharing

Blockchain use cases in the firearms industry - Interstate Data Sharing

The databases that we have in place to create a national, not just local, trove of actionable data pertaining to firearms have proven flawed. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has, unfortunately, shown itself to be filled with holes that have allowed violent criminals to fall through the cracks. When Devin Patrick Kelley turned a Sutherland Springs, TX church into his personal hunting ground and killed 26 innocent people, his story was an indication of a system inexplicably reliant on its participants self-reporting those who should be barred from purchasing firearms.

It would eventually be revealed that Kelley had been dishonorably discharged from the Air Force after he was convicted of assaulting his wife and breaking the skull of his infant stepson. He also reportedly escaped from a psychiatric hospital in 2012, yet because the Air Force failed to report Kelley’s discharge (and apparently the hospital did, too), Kelley was able to obtain a military-style rifle legally, using it to slaughter a room full of worshippers. These are the sort of instances that have led some states to take matters into their own hands, banding together to share data in the hopes of preventing similar circumstances.  

States who make this decision would be wise to consider how the blockchain can be utilized to implement real-time updates, draw from and store critical documents, and secure the firearms-related data that, while necessary for safety, should also be kept under tight lock and passkey for the sake of privacy and integrity. 


Tracking Ammunition Purchases

Blockchain use cases in the firearms industry - Tracking Ammunition Purchases

As most are well aware, a gun has no use without ammunition. The sale of ammunition requires no license, and there is currently little to no oversight with respect to whether and how much ammunition can be bought and sold. While there is an 18-year-old age restriction for purchase, beyond that, there are few limitations. In general, this would seem to fall in line with our capitalistic and Constitutional rights, but there is also reason why greater oversight into the purchase of ammunition would be warranted.

Some have taken a proactive approach to addressing ammunition-related concerns; Walmart recently raised its minimum age to purchase guns and ammunition to 21. As is the case with any industry, there’s incentive not to trace or limit the sale of ammunition. The annual revenue of the gun and ammunition manufacturing industry is $13.5 billion, with $1.5 billion in net profit. These figures tell us little in and of themselves, but the circumstances of certain mass shootings tell us that, if the systems were in place, an improved database for monitoring ammo purchases could potentially alert law enforcement to instances of suspicious stockpiling of ammunition for nefarious purposes.

The Columbine Massacre is perhaps the most significant mass shooting in American history, and while there is no guarantee, some believe an ammo-tracking database could have served as an indicator that the perpetrators were up to something fishy, at the very least. While gun rights advocates would likely argue against such a database — at least one that is created outside of the warrant process — there is an argument to be made for the potential of better systems of ammunition tracking, and the blockchain’s automation is ripe for such an application.  

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • Arizona House Bill 2216 While blockchain could help in the tracking of guns and ammunition, regulatory roadblocks are cropping up and preventing innovation. Arizona passed a law banning the use of electronic systems to trace guns.  

Traceability for 3D Printed Weapons

Blockchain use cases in the firearms industry - Traceability for 3D Printed Weapons

3D printing has created a unique challenge to an already overstretched gun regulation landscape. As if grappling with illegal weapons, hold-riddled background check databases, and an ever-evolving set of circumstances pertaining to gun owners’ legal status and mental health wasn’t enough, the proliferation of 3D-printed guns has emerged as yet another threat to safe, regulated gun ownership. It’s been reported that anybody with $12 and access to a 3D printer can create an “untraceable” firearm.

This presents obvious issues in terms of attempting to keep potentially lethal weapons out of the hands of the unfit and ill-intended. According to a report from the Rand Corporation, a non-profit research outlet, firearms listings made up the greatest proportion of for-sale listings on the dark web, comprising 42% of all listings. These listings, according to the report, often advertise firearms at a price that is at or below prices that could be found on the black market. While firearms made through additive manufacturing are currently no match for their traditionally manufactured counterparts, setting a precedent with respect to background checks and traceability for this new class of firearms is necessary.

The blockchain could be a storage locker for 3D firearm designs, with access to those designs predicated on background checks, legal agreements not to share them with unauthorized individuals, and other requirements that will help ensure 3D-printed weapons aren’t made accessible to dangerous or unfit individuals. This database could theoretically incorporate facets of supply chain tracking as well to provide baseline oversight into the burgeoning industry. 

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • Genesis of Things Though not firearms related, GoT’s blockchain rights management for 3D printing and manufacturing could be applied to the recent question of 3D printed gun rights. 

Technological Infrastructure for Implementing New Regulation

Blockchain use cases in the firearms industry - Technological Infrastructure for Implementing New Regulation

Passing a law is one thing. Implementing that law is an entirely different beast. We discovered this reality with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Passing the law required plenty of political dealmaking and compromise, but the site itself cost at least $2 billion, and was plagued by persistent crashes upon its rollout. Unfortunately, this is illustrative of the difficulties that tend to arise when such massive projects are rolled out. If and when new gun-specific legislation is brought to the table and approved, the fragmentation among regulatory agencies, health institutions, gun shops, and other related entities will undoubtedly cause delays and bugs with any attempted rollout.

Our gun-related legislation continues to evolve. In 2018, legislatures in 39 states either imposed restrictions on gun ownership or expanded rights. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is said to already be considering a proposal for new gun control measures in the wake of a shooting at a synagogue that left 11 people dead. As these laws and landscapes change, however, it’s fair to ask whether the infrastructure exists to translate the laws into reality.

The blockchain is noted for its interoperability. If the technology were to be relied upon as the single platform on which data is stored, updates are issued, and algorithms are installed to add a level of automation to data entry and records-updating, the likelihood of smooth implementation of any new gun legislation will be drastically increased.

About Sam Mire

Data journalist and market research analyst focused on emerging technology, trends, and ideas.

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