The problem? Background checks.
- The checks must be run before a critical event (e.g. purchasing something dangerous, like a 32 ounce soda!)
- The checks must be available for private parties and individuals to use.
- The checks must be privacy preserving.
When we boil the core issues down, those who are astute in similar problems will note the similarities between this and electronic voting. In e-voting, we must preserve the privacy of which choices were made on the electronic ballot, while at the same time proving that a voter's vote was indeed cast and counted. It's not as simple as some people would make you think. No, just because you can bank online and buy products and services online, does NOT mean that standard e-commerce security mechanisms will preserve this level of privacy. This is different. We've written about that before, so for a more deep dive read there first.
Given the timing and today's political culture in the U.S., this is obviously related to "universal background checks" for firearms purchases. Our bent here at Securology is that firearms are neither good nor bad-- they are inanimate objects. In the hands of lawful citizens, they are even better. But we're not discussing that (just disclosing our bias). We are not even talking about whether such background checks will stop crimes (we are convinced they won't deter but a very minor portion of dumb criminals-- and even for them it may only be a speed bump). What we are discussing is the academic nature of this problem. Given the desire for a backround check system, is a compromising solution even possible? What might it look like?
Those in favor of firearms ownership without background checks are generally concerned that either criminals or organized criminals and government overthrowers may use "the list" of firearms and their owners for a door-to-door confiscation. We will not be discussing that. While we generally believe any such "list" is wrong and could lead to that, we also believe it is foolhardy for anyone on either side of that type of a conflict to take a side. It leads only to pain and death-- a topic for another day, maybe. However, we will assume this worst case to be a constraint: under no circumstances should our "system" (the one that we are thinking creatively about here) allow a "list" of firearms matched to their owners to exist. At least not concretely and discretely (realizing there are a myriad of other data points that could build such a list, like credit card purchases, GPS waypoints from when a smart phone visits a gun range, CCW permits, and the list goes on ...).
Shaking the politics off for a minute, it is an interesting academic problem.
On the private party constraint, a "system" like this must allow for two individuals with no prior knowledge of one another to prove that the buyer has been "cleared" to make the purchase (i.e. no prior felonies). Likewise after the exchange, no clear indication of whether an actual transaction or just the precursor for a transaction should transpire.
Perhaps something like this:
- Potential buyer makes request to the background check system.
- The system verifies the buyer's non-felony status and returns a "number", an identifier that is valid for some period of time, say 14-30 days.
- The buyer then takes that validation code to a seller, who can validate the code's authenticity in the system, matched up to the buyer's name.
- The buyer and seller can then proceed to make a transaction and exchange of goods, or not. Either way, the transaction was validated before.
- As a legal requirement, the seller could be required to keep a copy of the validation code and buyer's name for some period of time, e.g. one year. And to further assert that this data is used lawfully to preserve privacy, it could be a felony to intentionally divulge it to any third party, including law enforcement, without a warrant.
Entering any more "data" into a system to provide a full "chain of custody" would generate "the list" that is one of our constraints to specifically avoid. However, many advocates of a "universal background check" system believe that at any time, a given item identified by its serial number, make, and model, should return a list of all of its owners and the duration for which they owned it, including the transfer of ownership date. That "chain of custody" by default is the feared "list". While we are not discussing the pros and cons if such a list existed, we state with confidence that no solution exists that can both create chain of custody and satisfy the constraint of privacy stated at the beginning of this thought exercise. We may as well give up on that and move on to solving perpetual motion.
If the system we opined were to exist, there would most certainly be abuses of it that neither those in favor or against controlling possession of [widgets] (so tired of saying gun control when this could be applied to anything from household cleaners, to fertilizer, and now even to pressure cookers since the Boston Marathon). For example, many organizations perform background checks on potential volunteers or employees prior to allowing them access to perform certain duties, and the checks they perform are typically accomplished through third party services which charge fees for the service. Those service providers will most certainly be against a system like the one we are discussing in this article, simply because an organization could pretend to be a firearm seller and have their potential volunteer/employee pretend to be a firearm buyer. What's good enough to pass the "background check" for the possession of firearms, is probably good enough to work in sensitive places like a hospital or a daycare. Perhaps, then, if a system were implemented, it should be one-step abstracted away from the item that politicians are trying to control (widgets, er, firearms), and the political will of those in favor of such controls should be redirected more generally (and probably more beneficially) towards a generic background check system?
Or, as an anonymous person recently stated in the comments of an article on a similar topic: perhaps if society TRUSTS an individual to be free enough to walk around, drive a car, purchase alcohol, etc., then we should automatically determine that person has cleared any "background check" and needs no further interference prior to lawfully acquiring any widget of his choosing? In other words, if they're too dangerous to own a firearm, drive a car, or have access to alcohol (listed in statistically more dangerous order), perhaps they should not have been released from prison? If freedom is restored, let all freedom be restored.
Note: a similar solution to this problem has been presented by US Senator Coburn, though we are not aware of the specifics.