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What Mass Shootings and Big Data Have in Common

Producers of guns and data say they aren't responsible for misuse. But it's precisely the dangers that make these industries profitable.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In his address to the National Rifle Association last weekend, President Trump criticized gun-free zones while his secret service discordantly made the convention a gun-free zone for his safety. The controversy returned guns to the headlines after a month of data scandals. Gun control activists might rightly lament the nation’s short attention span, which shifted outrage to Facebook and Cambridge Analytica in April. But in fact, data privacy and mass shootings are more closely related than they might first appear. The spring’s twin controversies both come from global markets in morally questionable goods. And the industries’ histories have striking similarities.

Those responsible for the sale of data and guns both disclaim responsibility for the dangerous uses to which these goods are put, though both are profitable precisely because of those dangerous activities. The long-frustrated effort to regulate firearms trade, dating from the nineteenth century, finds an echo in today’s struggle to regulate the trade in personal data. In both instances, regulation became a priority only when reckless sale of these goods abroad began to impinge on security at home. Moreover, just as firearms-makers have long leveraged their role in national security and industrial prosperity to thwart regulation, so the concentrated market power of giant tech companies, on whom governments, economies, and the very flow of information now depend, enables them to avoid reform.

In the eighteenth century, the British government helped British firearms-makers cope with erratic government demand by encouraging them to sell their wares abroad. British guns flooded the world—through the slave trade in West Africa and the conquest of South Asia and North America. British officials who expressed fear about unwittingly arming enemies with British guns were routinely assuaged by the logic that greater scruple would merely forfeit profit and influence to the French or the Dutch. Gun-makers also insisted that their goods were merely commodities like anything else and should not be subject to particular restrictions.

When powerful anticolonial movements emerged around the world in the late nineteenth century, the appeal of this logic waned. British officials belatedly struggled to limit arms possession among the Irish, Indians, Afghans, South Africans, Maori, and others it ruled, over the protestations of the British gun industry. 

Firearms makers continue to require custom to supplement government demand. As gun controls tighten around the world, American civilians have become a crucial market, owning roughly a third of all firearms in the world today. The U.S. federal government eases these sales by continually obstructing passage of sensible gun control laws, shielding gun-makers from liability lawsuits—for example, legislation in 2005 protecting gun dealers and manufacturers from lawsuits should their products be used in crimes—and exempting guns from regulation by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Questioned about liability before 2005, a Glock executive echoed eighteenth-century gun-makers: “There’s nothing intrinsically evil about these things.”

Like the British in the eighteenth century, the U.S. government also eases sales of these allegedly neutral commodities abroad. American arms can be found on all sides of conflicts around the world. A long global effort to regulate firearms sales has culminated in the Arms Trade Treaty of 2014, but instead of ratifying the treaty, the Trump administration plans to ease controls on firearms exports by moving their oversight from the State Department to the looser jurisdiction of the Commerce Department, where some sales may not even require licensing. The announcement this week that Oliver North, notorious government coordinator of covert arms sales to Iran in the 1980s, will be the NRA’s new president is a reminder that the firearms industry is part of a wider armaments industry whose global sales are brokered by governments in the name of jobs and security. Both the Taliban and ISIS have American arms.  

Twentieth-century Silicon Valley was as much a product of government subsidy as the eighteenth-century gun industry. And online influence is today’s way of projecting power with arsenals. Bots—phantom stores of powercan sway advertising audiences and reshape political debates—and determine election outcomes. The American company Devumi buys bots wholesale from a global market and sells them to social media companies. It has made millions by selling Twitter followers and retweets. And for long there has been a remarkable absence of moral or even political drama around this industry: “Everyone does it,” one actress who is a Devumi customer told The New York Times in their January exposé—echoing yet another defense of eighteenth-century gun manufacturers. Just as gun-makers fear forfeiting profit by scrupling about sales to national enemies, today’s social media firms fear forfeiting profit and prestige by eliminating fake accounts; their market value is tied to the number of people using their services.

Now, however, some lawmakers are calling for more regulation of social media companies, in the wake of revelations of Russia-aligned hackers deploying bots to influence American politics.

Russia-linked bots have particularly distorted the gun control debate. Revelations that thousands of bot posts had claimed Parkland survivors were paid actors prompted Facebook and YouTube to promise to crackdown on trolls. But the falsehoods continue to proliferate. Meanwhile, in April, YouTube headquarters in Silicon Valley itself became the site of a mass shooting.

British officials belatedly cracked down on arms trading out of the fear of armed Irish and Indian rebels; the 2014 Arms Trade Treaty was likewise fueled by fears of firearms in the hands of terrorists and insurgents. In both cases, the driving concern was to keep arms out of the wrong hands, not the ethical dubiousness of the trade itself. Now, having armed the other side in an information war, social media companies and the government agencies that have fostered them are scrambling to put the genie back in the bottle, too.

But both industries have proved resistant to reform efforts, with calls for change often eliciting rhetorical commitments without denting the legislative and business infrastructure that sustains them.   

For instance, responding to public pressure after Parkland, JP Morgan’s chief financial officer affirmed that the company’s links to manufacturers of military-style weapons for civilians (like the AR-15) “have come down significantly and are pretty limited.” But JP Morgan’s asset management arm is now among the primary owners of the AR-15 manufacturer Remington, which will emerge from bankruptcy proceedings this month—the gunmaker thrived thanks to panic-buying triggered by fears of increased gun control under President Obama but slumped as those purchases diminished under the solidly pro-NRA President Trump. Neither JP Morgan’s proclamations nor the bankruptcy proceedings have affected Remington’s manufacturing operations. Indeed, the proceedings bought the company time in facing down a lawsuit by the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in the Connecticut Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, tax dollars continue to fund government contracts for the very gunmakers activists seek to hold accountable for the scourge of mass shootings.

The theater around Congress’s questioning of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in April, which pushed Parkland from the front pages, likewise addressed public anger without resulting in concrete steps towards regulatory legislation. It is difficult for companies and government agencies invested in the health of Silicon Valley to gainsay the logic of profit. Marketing and gaming companies, insurance and law firms, suppliers, employees—so many depend on the continued sale of bots and guns, whatever the ethical dilemmas they pose as commodities. Even the art world thrives off major donations from gun-makers who simultaneously fill the coffers of the NRA. 

Bots and AR-15s are dangerous objects, not the neutral commodities imagined in theories of free-trade capitalism. In 1807, though it allowed British guns to flow around the world, the British government did abolish the slave trade, despite many vested interests, out of a sense that humans were not a morally defensible “commodity”: Some goods should simply not be sold. If the ethical argument is not compelling on its own, the Realpolitik one may be: Irish rebels armed with guns did end British rule; bots and guns in dangerous hands likewise threaten America’s security today.