The coronavirus pandemic is having a peculiarly American side effect: Gun sales are surging.
Sales leaped by more than 19% in January and 17% in February, compared with the same months in 2019, according to Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting.
Gun buyers in the United States bought an estimated 1.24 million guns in, January up from 1.04 million the year before, and 1.36 million in February, up from 1.26 million the year before, according to Small Arms Analytics, which bases estimates on background check data. Those millions of new guns are in addition to the approximately 400 million guns American already own.
Americans have a strange love affair with guns. Fear, fanned by the NRA, other gun rights organizations and the gun manufacturers, is a powerful marketing tool.
Enter Lisa Falzone, the co-founder of Athena Security.
The last time gun sales jumped markedly – and it was a much bigger jump — was between 2012 and 2013, when Barack Obama was elected. Gun sales doubled year-over-year, topping 2 million in December 2012.
But there is a big difference between the situation now and then: technology. New video, scanning and AI technology are enabling what is being styled the “threat detection” market. In the wake of the Parkland shooting, a handful of entrepreneurs have started companies, including Chicago-based Aegis AI and Scylla, launched by German entrepreneur Albert Stepanyan. A company called Liberty Defense says it can detect weapons in, say, luggage.
But the market isn’t likely to be won by technology alone.
The NRA Narrative
For decades, the gun companies and their political allies seemed one step ahead, well-funded, strategic, and successful in blocking any attempt to put up a barrier between Americans and their guns.
The result has been a society riven by gun violence, where 40,000 people die by guns every year. Two-thirds of those deaths are suicides. Many of those murdered are young black men and women killed by their domestic partners.
And then there are the mass shootings: 118 since 2012, according to Mother Jones. In February, there was another one, which barely registered with most Americans: An employee at the Mohlson Coors brewery shot and killed five coworkers.
A Businesswoman And A Mad Scientist
A mass shooting, Parkland, motivated Falzone to enter the business, she said.
She grew her previous company, accounting services firm Revel Systems, to a $500 million valuation, exiting in early 2017. After that, she took a break.
But “I really hated not working,” she said. She and her partner wanted to do a for-profit company that made a huge impact. Parkland happened. The idea became clearer.
“We come from Silicon Valley, where there is the latest and greatest in computer vision, so our first product is gun detection,” she said.
Her co-founder, Chris Ciabarra, is CTO and the “mad-scientist” half of the partnership. Falzone met him through a blog she wrote about confidence and entrepreneurship while she was a student at Stanford. “I’m so grateful for that,” she said.
To tackle the gun problem, the duo raised $5.5 million from angels, including Peter Thiel’s angel fund. (Thiel has invested in other video surveillance companies, including Clearview AI – which the New York Times wrote about in a story headlined, “Meet Clearview AI, the secretive company that might end privacy as we know it.”)
“As soon as someone pulls out a gun, our system detects it and sends and alert in about three seconds. It gets people to the crime scene a lot faster.”
Gun detection is only the first product: The system also can scan people’s bodies for fevers, evaluate traffic, and detect if someone in a crowd has slipped. Currently, Athena Security is marketing a COVID-19 detection service, based on fevers.
Falzone said the intent is not to exit, but to grow and run the company for the long-term. The company has about 60 employees in Austin, with technology, she said, that is accurate 99% of the time. It spots guns if 75% of the weapon is exposed. Athena Security is first tackling mass shootings, selling to large public spaces (at the moment, the large public spaces are not so much an issue!).
Athena has about 800 cameras installed in locations including the Houston Convention Center and several large malls, Falzone said, charging $100 per month per camera stream. It also has a partnership with Qatar-based conglomerate Al-Ameri International Trading to install Athena’s detection systems in mosques all over the world. One of the first mosques set to get the system was the Al-Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, where 50 people were killed by a shooter who – in a sign of how powerful the NRA’s narrative is — referenced the U.S.’s Second Amendment.
Falzone, who is one of the standout Silicon Valley women entrepreneurs of her generation, said she hasn’t heard from the gun organization directly or indirectly about what she’s doing.
The Words Matter
But when she is marketing the company’s gun detection services, she talks about the “gun alarm” market.
Falzone knew from the beginning how hard it would be to create a business that made an impact. A big part is communications and education. “People have never heard of a gun alarm before, so it’s a dual challenge, building the company and educating people,” she said.
Purposefully or not, the frame takes on the gun rights lobby’s decades-old, and deeply successful narrative, which portrays guns as objects: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
That political narrative has been paralleled by the gun industry’s marketing campaign to turn them into toys.
I talked to Will Vizzard about this for a Quartz story early this year.
“If you go back to a 1960’s gun digest, it was a big catalogue of hunting guns,” Vizzard, a former agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and now an emeritus criminal justice professor at California State University in Sacramento, said. “But you know the thing with sporting guns? The damn things never wear out.”
According to Vizzard, “Guns used to be tools. Now they’re toys. They’re like Barbie dolls for adult males.”
By relating guns to fire, Falzone’s reframe shifts the narrative to focus on the gun as an instrument that can be useful, but that can also take on a life of its own and become dangerous
“What the fire alarm industry has done,” she said. “This is our mission.”
Between 2013 and 2017, an average 3,173 Americas died in fires annually, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Fire alarms helped cut the number in half since the 1970s.
Making a real dent in the number of people killed by gun violence isn’t about going after public spaces and mass shootings. To change the other numbers, domestic violence and suicide, the surveillance would have to be installed in people’s homes, where most gun violence takes place – and where, incidentally, the NRA’s narrative is ahead again, with its expanded take on the Castle Doctrine.
The Ethical Dilemmmas
Whether Falzone and the other new entrepreneurs are up to the political and ethical challenges of either the gun alarm market or the broader gun alarm, or threat detection market, remains to be seen. Part of the complexity lies in the fact that people will spend money so that they don’t walk in fear in public spaces, even though the chance that they will be the victim of a mass shooting remains miniscule. That’s Athena Security’s initial market — but it’s a controversial one.
ShotSpotter, which sells gun-shot detection systems to cities, decided not to market its service to secondary schools, which Athena Security is doing.
“We made a conscious choice about that. We focus on urban gun violence. When you talk about the other flavor of gun violence … I think it’s hyped up a lot,” said Ralph Clark, CEO. “I always had a problem with four kids of my own in public schools in Oakland. How can we ask schools with tight budgets to install, for $50,000 or $60,000, a fire alarm that probably could never get used?”
Falzone said her company was like a ShotSpotter 2.0. About 1.2 million violent crimes occurred nationwide in 2018, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Athena’s system attempts to eliminate racial profiling by blurring the subjects’ faces in the system before artificial intelligence analyzes the image for potential threats. Falzone also has said that the system doesn’t track or store individual data. Adrian Fenty, general partner at M Ventures and the former mayor of Washington, D.C., is an advisor.
Mass shootings are one thing. Violent crime is another. To save the most lives, you’d have to grapple with two of the most untouchable narratives in American life, reframing domestic violence and suicide from individual failings and stigmatic shames to run-of-the-mill public health problems.
Sometimes, as a journalist, you can almost feel the next turn of the news cycle, the next set of headlines: As the recession and pandemic pull a dark veil over the country in the coming months, some – many – of those hurt economically and emotionally will be people who were already getting left behind, older white men. Most of the 3 million guns sold in the last two months will never be fired to hurt someone. If they are, the people most likely to take the bullets are the ones standing in lines at the gun stores the past two months.