On the Fourth of July this summer, a free app appeared in Google Play Store to help Americans make neighborhoods safer from the misuse of guns. Brett Stalbaum, who is 46 and has been a lecturer in the visual arts department at the University of California San Diego for 11 years, created the app in the university’s Walkingtools.net Laboratory for exclusive use on Android phones.
Gun Geo Marker used global positioning technology to allow people to tag the location of dangerous guns and people suggested of dangerous gun practices in their neighborhoods. Once recorded in a database, the information could be accessed by anyone else using the app in the same neighborhood. One might say it was intended as a digital early-warning system to head off potential gun violence or accidental shootings.
A little more than a week later, on July 13, Gun Geo Marker had been disabled.
Stalbaum explains by email: “The project suffered numerous hacking attacks that filled the database with false info.” In his view, “anti-gun-safety types also used the app itself as a tool for mischief. It is sad to see, but also something that I grudgingly admit I have a certain level of respect for as an electronic activist myself.”
He knew his project would draw fire. On the app’s website, Stalbaum already had written: “I am all too aware of a small component of the community that sees any attempt at improving gun safety as an affront to their Second Amendment rights.... So, the project is also a culture-jamming exercise intended to draw out earnest expressions from the radical anti-gun-safety community.”
Again by email, Stalbaum explains: “Culture jamming — a practice that many artists are involved in — is creating disruptions or disturbances within mainstream media discourses that problematize an issue and change the flow of the conversation. The Gun Geo Marker drew an explosion of paranoid rage that marks this moment in the national gun debate, although I would have much preferred a version of this project where more gun owners realized that facilitating the safe use and handling of firearms as a community is the best path toward preserving our Second Amendment rights.”
The Tables Turn
Stalbaum probably did not expect anyone to accuse him of participating in the activity he condemned: unsafe handling of firearms. Yet that’s what happened on several message boards for gun enthusiasts, including Calguns.net. Several contributors to the site posted and captioned pictures that originally appeared on the Facebook pages of Stalbaum’s wife.
In one picture, a woman is shown in arid terrain aiming what gun experts have told me is a .22-caliber rifle. With the butt of the rifle against her shoulder, she has her finger on the trigger and appears ready to fire. A caption to the picture supplied by the Calguns contributor observes that she is using no eye or ear protection.
Another image, much darker, shows a second woman loosely holding what appears to be the same gun, not preparing to fire but with her finger on the trigger. To her right in the back, sits Brett Stalbaum, so identified by the caption, and between them stands a bottle of Jameson whiskey.
One post in the Calguns forum claims the pictures were taken “at Stalbaum’s Julian address.” The contributor went so far as to provide an aerial photograph of the land, the U.S. Geodetic Survey topographic map locator, and the coordinates to look for the property. From that information, he concludes that the firing had taken place “across two roads, and as far as I can tell it’s completely flat and there is no natural backstop until well after the [second] road.”
I speak about the pictures with Marshall Loewenstein, 44, who owns a small collection of guns and considers himself to be a scrupulous practitioner of gun safety. Loewenstein has a master’s degree in computer science from the University of California San Diego and works locally in software marketing. He says he pursues his shooting hobby at firing ranges.
Ear and eye protections are “both for your own safety and for the safety of others around you,” Loewenstein tells me. “If you have an injury while you’re shooting, it could cause you to misfire the weapon, perhaps even at people nearby.
“Also, a cardinal rule of firearm use is that your finger is off the trigger and out of the trigger area until the moment you have the gun aimed where it’s going to be discharged and you are sure it’s time to discharge it.”
Loewenstein admits that nobody in the pictures is drinking alcohol and handling the gun simultaneously. But he finds whiskey in the presence of shooting to be troubling.
“You’d have to stretch your imagination,” he says, “to believe that all or some of the people on the firing line were not consuming alcohol at the same time the firearms were being used. That’s unacceptable from a safety standpoint and immensely hypocritical for a self-professed gun-safety advocate.”
Both Stalbaum and Loewenstein seemingly prefer to remain in the background of the hot rhetoric about guns in the United States, an issue that usually looks more like angry combatants shouting past each other than a civil discussion.
For this story, Loewenstein and I spoke four or five times by phone. On July 14, I contacted Stalbaum for his response to the characterizations of his and his wife’s behavior as pictured in the Calguns forum. Could I meet him somewhere? He responded the following day, requesting that we discuss the matter, and Gun Geo Marker, by email.
“I will admit,” he writes, “that I have not always been a responsible gun owner, and in some ways, that is where this story starts. In the United States through many different means (be it from a family member to a child or a private sale in many states), guns can be transferred from person to person without background checks or so much as a pamphlet about gun safety.
“There was a time when we and a good friend, also a gun owner, were firing a .22 at the location of a fixer-upper we had just purchased. Fortunately, a neighbor left us a thoughtful note about our bad behavior, and that really rocked me. It got me thinking about how communities and neighborhoods might better participate in promoting gun safety. My neighbors had something to teach me, and I was ready to listen. Then as I became more aware how this kind of casual, uninformed use of firearms also contributes to child deaths…, I became an advocate of safely securing guns around children and of universal background checks, all of this concurrently with becoming an ever stronger advocate of the Second Amendment, which is sincere and real.
“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 Express Times, 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 Express Times 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.
Children continue to die
Recently, on the Gun Geo Marker website, which remains intact despite the app’s having been disabled, Stalbaum wrote in response to the death of a three-year-old child in Yellowstone National Park. The toddler shot herself after picking up an unsecured pistol her father had left lying about.
“Irresponsible gun owners continue to accidentally kill their children,” said Stalbaum. “How long, America? Because all we are doing is clawing the guns from the cold, dead hands…of our children.
“How many of you know a gun owner who refuses to use a trigger lock when storing guns around kids only because of some strange paranoia about personal protection? Shouldn’t you talk to them? Shouldn’t someone talk to them? Are your children playing in the homes where adults improperly secure their firearms?
“Guns don’t kill children, but children do sometimes shoot themselves or family members to death with guns irresponsibly stored by adults…. [The Yellowstone incident] is just another death that might have been prevented if only neighborhoods had the information they need to support gun safety accountability.”
But Loewenstein does not think something like Gun Geo Marker could have prevented the death. What possible good can it do? he asks. He believes the issue is one of “personal responsibility [on the part of] adult owners of firearms. No matter what laws are made, there are going to be tragedies and accidents. Most of the recent tragedies are dominated by mental health issues.”
And when people are “confronted by the media with very graphic stories, they often end up committing a psychological fallacy. What happens is you over-ascribe importance to it just because it’s graphic. Well, accidental poisonings, automobile accidents, and deaths in swimming pools all outnumber the total number of children’s deaths by firearms.”
Those other child deaths, according to Loewenstein, are “more isolated, are not covered by the media, and they don’t have such a graphic or emotional content to them. So what happens? We become complacent.
“It may sound callous for people to be speaking out against things that are ostensibly targeted at the safety of children — no one wants to encourage using dangers for children — but people do need to refocus on areas that are far more important and where far greater gains can be made.”
Another app to protect children
I ask both men if they’d like to compare Gun Geo Marker to the recently activated Operation Predator app, a tool that is “designed to seek the public’s help with fugitive and unknown suspect child predators.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (which is the “largest investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security”) has made the Operation Predator app available for iPhones, with plans to expand the program to other smartphones in the future. The app allows users to view pictures of child predators known only through images in pornographic material. Once a predator is recognized in the images, a user of the app can immediately notify federal officials of the person’s identity and possible whereabouts. Within hours of the app’s release in mid-September, someone located for authorities a Michigan man, who was immediately arrested.
A thought experiment
In a more recent email, Brett Stalbaum discusses both Gun Geo Marker and the Operation Predator app in the same category of new technology that allows the public to assist law enforcement in deterring dangerous behavior. In what he calls a “thought experiment,” he compares reaction against such devices to how he thinks many people could have experienced the telephone when it was first made available to the public more than 130 years ago.
The thought experiment suggests possible concerns at that time. “What if the things people are saying to each other over the phones are inaccurate? Is there any provision in this new technology to ensure people are speaking true things? And what if criminals start to use these newfangled wired voice devices to alert other criminals to the fact that a gun owner is not at home right now, and their guns, hoarded ammo (and maybe the gold coins covered under backyard earth) are ready to steal? Isn’t this a clear and present and egregious violation of my second, fourth, fifth, and eighteenth amendment rights?”
He concludes: “I don’t have much more to say than: ‘Progress happens.’”
But despite conceivable abuses, the Operation Predator app, unlike Gun Geo Marker, has so far drawn little to no criticism. That would make sense to Loewenstein, who notes that, besides the obvious similarities of public participation and the intention to help children, the two apps are “very different.”
He explains, “The primary difference is that reports to Operation Predator app are not immediately posted with public visibility. They are simple leads [to law enforcement].” Persons suspected of committing a crime would then enjoy a presumption of innocence until they are found guilty. They would have “all the rights afforded to them through the Constitution and judicial system.”
But “if a person is found guilty of a crime, especially a felony, they should expect to lose some of their rights such as the right to privacy and thus be included in this app. This contrasts with the Gun Geo Marker, where there is a presumption of guilt. The presumption could be made by a person unlikely to have the requisite expertise about any laws or safety rules which may or may not have been broken. Lastly, because of the lack of judicial involvement, the Gun Geo Marker offers no recourse for those who, either with or without ill intent, are [erroneously named as dangerous] in the app.”
The future of Gun Geo Marker
Many of the statements on the Gun Geo Marker website make Loewenstein feel that Stalbaum “probably believes that anybody who is strongly pro–Second Amendment is also a radical anti-gun-safety person. And that’s a gross mischaracterization. It’s just not true. There’s a very large and smooth spectrum of people from pro-gun rights to anti-gun rights.”
Despite the wide spectrum, Loewenstein complains, Stalbaum has used the Walkingtools.net Laboratory at University of California San Diego to advocate a narrow position. Public funds, he thinks, must have been used.
“Almost no funding was used,” Stalbaum responds. “Less than $20 out of my own pocket for a domain name; this kind of work is inexpensive…. All of the software work I do for the Walkingtools.net Laboratory is technically owned by the university, but since this particular bit of code has no commercial value, we will be releasing it as open source software. It needs some cleanup and to be turned into a more general ‘Geo Marker’ skin...so that anyone can improve, re-skin and repurpose it.
“Also, I am going to get a purely demonstrational version working, one that does not attempt to store marks to a server. That will function as a speculative science-fiction app of a near future where apps that let communities discuss local dangers will become more and more common. That is fertile terrain, because we are only starting to have a conversation, and social realization, that almost nothing that we think is private actually is, and that our Constitution’s 18th-century ideas about public and private are inadequate to today’s technology.”
Stalbaum hopes to put out the new version of Gun Geo Marker by the end of the year. In his latest email, he is calling it a “digital sculpture representing the voices and faces of those who oppose community accountability for gun owners who, for example, store their guns unlocked in places where kids can easily play with them.
“I don’t think I could continue to enjoy my gun hobby if I were not involved in cleaning it up, too. And this kind of activism is what I know. The major barrier remaining is an insistence that reasonable gun laws represent a slippery slope toward some paranoid fantasies about the government seizing privately owned guns.”
Someone has to have the last word
What Loewenstein anticipates in the second phase of Stalbaum’s project is that he will use public comments on Gun Geo Marker to “berate or make fun of people who spoke out or acted out against it. Stalbaum characterizes those people as radical anti-gun-safety people. I certainly opposed his application, and I’m not a radical anti-gun-safety person at all.
“He is not only an artist but an electronic activist,” says Loewenstein, who notes that in 2009 Stalbaum helped create an app that allowed Mexican immigrants more easily find water as they crossed the border in desert areas. “He tries to make social statements through his art. But that appeared to be aiding and abetting an illegal activity.”
But what of the original Gun Geo Marker as a practical tool, an experiment that was so universally condemned when it appeared that its opponents snuffed it out immediately? “It’s pretty obvious,” says Loewenstein, “if you think about the issues, that the application could not have had any benefit in terms of safety. It was only an attempt to stir the pot on one side of the issue.”
Stalbaum asks me to invite Loewenstein to meet us for further discussion over a beer. It may yet happen.