Red Flag Laws Are As Good as the Data

Facebook emphasizes that Salvador Ramos announced his intention to kill his grandmother and attack a school in a “private” message and not in a public post. But electronic text messages, including those meant to disappear after reading them, are not private with respect to the carrier. The intended recipient may never see them, but the carrier always does. The message must exist in a database to be displayed. Until a few years ago, Google scanned your private e-mails in order to show you advertisements. Many email providers still do this. If private electronic messages can be scanned for one purpose, they can be scanned for any purpose.

Bloomberg misquoted Joe Biden in a headline, saying the president demanded that “the US stand up to arms manufacturers after the Texas attack.” No he didn’t because he’s not an idiot. His actual words weren’t gun manufacturers but gun lobbying, which at least allowed for an intelligent ambiguity as to who he was referring to. Gun manufacturers play no role in US gun policy. They have no clout compared to the actual “gun lobby” and hardly any voice, if we can use that word to refer to millions upon millions of gun voters.

Al Gore would have become president in 2000 if he hadn’t lost his home state thanks to those voters and the 1994 assault weapons ban. Enacted with horror after the mass shooting of Luby in Texas, it quietly expired 10 years later because voters for guns transformed Congress the same quiet way they denied Mr. Gore the White House.

Of the 20 million firearms sold annually in the US, half are magazine-operated semi-automatics, which come in handy for butchering by someone wanting to make an insane statement. Stopping these sales is not on the agenda of any legislature. Getting these weapons out of the hands of the public would be an even greater task. Wisdom is enshrined in clichés, however: there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Ask Google, Microsoft or Facebook, companies that employ data scientists by the thousands, what databases they need to access to stave off the next mass shooting, what privacy restrictions need to be relaxed. It would be the easiest problem for them to solve all week.

You cannot purchase a gun in Texas without presenting a driver’s license or other government-issued identification, filling out a federal form, and undergoing an immediate background check, which creates information in a database. One oversight is Texas’ failure to ensure that everyone who buys ammunition leaves a record. This can be fixed.

A disciplined, hardened terrorist or oddball like Las Vegas mass murderer Stephen Paddock might not otherwise reveal his murderous intentions, but the typical gun fetishist, mass shooter-admiring obsessive copycat will. This was made clear in harrowing episode after episode. As the Texas atrocities have shown once again, killers of this type are making their addictions known online and offline. They advertise their gun purchases. They give threats a voice because uttering threats meets the same psychological need as acting on those threats.

Red flag laws, by acclamation, could be our response to the recent Texas and Buffalo shootings. But warning signs are only as good as the evidence that prompts someone, often the police, to invoke them. Most are single data point laws – someone is complaining for some reason. The results are bound to be mediocre, leading to false alarms and harassment of innocent citizens. But now you enter the name into a hypothetical Google Mass Shooter profiling tool that scans the subject’s recent online history, purchases, and school, employment, police, medical, and travel records. A subroutine, the Google Social Stability Matrix, examines data relating to the subject’s longer-term life pattern. Is he a stable, engaged member of the community, or helpless and disconnected?

Many data points are better than one, making the Red Flag petition less of a shot in the dark and less of a threat to law-abiding people. A subject who scores a 3 could earn a social check, someone who scores an 8 an instant lookout command with networked license plate readers and facial recognition cameras. But then ask: Why wait for a Red Flag petitioner to provide a name? Why not have an algorithm already looking for warning patterns that even a family member, school official, or employer might not see?

Sounds like China? The data is there. Private and public institutions already have many feet in this pool. The Uvalde School District monitored social media to identify budding student conflicts, according to The Washington Post. These techniques will not be unfounded or evolving, so the remaining choice is to wrap them in democratic accountability and due process. Most crimes may not be stopped by such means, but statement-style mass shootings cry out to be stopped.

Wonderland: Joe Biden prefers to talk about racism and guns than to face the real problem. Images: AFP/Getty Images/Reuters/Shutterstock Composite: Mark Kelly

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Alley Einstein

Alley Einstein is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Alley Einstein joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing

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