“I am not a gun owner, I am a guns owner. So I am in a position that is not so unique — many gun owners will be honest with you about the mistake that woke them up — to understand just how fragile and incomplete our gun-safety laws really are, which is why I support any legislation that would require verification of gun-safety training for all transfers nationally. It could save lives, and in my case, too, it might have even averted some embarrassment. Today, I am fastidious about safety, having learned a lesson that thankfully only involved a note from a concerned neighbor. Looking back, really, that note may have been the genesis of the Gun Geo Marker.”
A challenge to the data’s veracity
But how reliable could the information available on the app be? Couldn’t someone maliciously tag enemies as dangerous firearm users, even if they didn’t own a gun?
Gun Geo Marker, Loewenstein believes, was a platform that enabled people to publish erroneous data. “The data can be random and submitted by anybody,” he tells me, “as evidenced by the organized strike against the app, where everybody put in bogus information to make it useless. That in itself demonstrates that erroneous data can happen.”
On the Geo Marker website, Stalbaum anticipates this concern. “There is no way for anyone to check the veracity of marked sites beyond living in and understanding your own neighborhood, and using your experience there to determine if a mark makes sense or not.”
Stalbaum gives two examples. The first is a location that’s been marked for racial reasons, with the comment, “And guns r bad dood.” A person using the app, Stalbaum says, “should be able to deploy basic common sense to determine that this is probably a fake mark by an angry anti-gun-safety type (not to mention, a probable racist). But if the… message is, ‘My child’s friend talked about his dad’s unlocked handgun’, then you might draw an entirely different conclusion about the site.”
But Loewenstein found the neighborhood-awareness argument “a bit comical. I don’t know what kind of neighborhood he lives in, but neighbors are pretty isolated these days. Many people barely see their neighbors, let alone have any knowledge of their safe or unsafe firearm practices.”
From erroneous data to privacy violation
For many gun enthusiasts, Gun Geo Marker triggered privacy concerns. “If someone saw an individual cleaning a firearm in their garage,” Loewenstein continues, “they could easily say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s dangerous; there are kids in the neighborhood.’ Then from a [street] address, someone can extrapolate back to the person and then their privacy is completely violated.”
The social stigma that outing the gun owner might generate, he says, could affect background checks for their potential employment or “security concerns related to their employment. There could be a wide variety of repercussions.”
How about other applications? “Would it be ethical or acceptable,” asks Loewenstein, “to develop a similar application to tag homes of people based on their political leanings, their race, their religion or their sexual orientation. I don’t think anyone would agree that those things would be an appropriate thing to do. Why is it appropriate to single out someone who might be a firearms enthusiast and may be a very safe firearms enthusiast? Why is it ok to single them out to be tagged in this fashion?”
But Stalbaum finds gun ownership to be in a different category. It “has been protected under our Constitution and celebrated culturally in this nation since its founding,” he says, “so I find the comparison to lists of other groups who have been repressed and had to fight for their civil rights paranoid at best, and disingenuous at worst.”
Potential crimes and free speech
Could the use of an application like Gun Geo Marker lead to crimes against people who are reported in the app? “Absolutely,” says Loewenstein. “If someone wants to target a home specifically to acquire firearms, [this app] could lead to that type of activity. It probably wouldn’t be a common use, but it’s possible. So that’s something that’s very ill thought out about the application.”
But Stalbaum argues that gun owners worried about being robbed might first want to “remove your NRA bumper sticker, because you are marking your own home when you park there.”
He then invokes a broad appeal to the Constitution as a whole. “There is no right to anonymous gun ownership under the Second Amendment, and the First Amendment makes it clear that others who know of your use or ownership of guns have the right to speak publicly about it. So if a gun owner wants anonymity, they need to keep their gun ownership a personal or family secret.”
Gun Geo Marker angered many people across the country. According to a July 28 story in The Express Times of Easton, Pennsylvania, Dave Rible, a former police officer and Republican lawmaker in New Jersey, said two days after the app had been disabled, he was “drafting legislation to ban the possession of similar apps and technology that allow users to pinpoint the addresses of gun owners they deem ‘potentially unsafe.’
“We wouldn’t allow an app to be sold that tells bank robbers where they can find the keys to the bank vault, so why should we tell criminals where they can find unsecured guns,” Rible was quoted as saying.
According to the newspaper, Rible added that his ban, if it passed the state legislature, “would make possession of such technology a fourth-degree crime…. In addition, anyone convicted of using the app during the commission of a crime would be subjected to mandatory prison sentences” of up to 18 months.
Earlier, in June, said the Times Express, Rible had already sponsored legislation to make it illegal to publicize the identities of “firearms-purchaser identification card holders and handgun-purchaser permit holders.” The legislation came in response to previous attempts in New York to release similar official records.
But the Times Express quoted a Rutgers School of Law-Newark professor indicating that “by banning an app like Gun Geo Marker, the government would be limiting communication between private citizens.” The professor felt sure that such a ban would violate the First Amendment. Rible’s ban went nowhere in the New Jersey legislature.