Whenever the issue of firearms ownership is brought up, those on both sides dig in and there is little way to truly find compromise. Supporters of the Second Amendment often already complain that their rights have been eroded. While the Second Amendment may read, “Congress shall make no law…” the truth is that there has been legislation that limits firearms ownership including the National Firearms Act of 1934, the Gun Control Act of 1968 and the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986.
Meanwhile on the other side of the issue, gun control advocates have called for greater efforts to conduct background checks. Earlier this year Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) introduced House Resolution 127—Sabika Sheikh Firearms Licensing and Registration Act, which called for at least twenty-four hours of training with every firearm an individual owns, require a psychological evaluation to obtain a license and even require owners of antique firearms to have such a license.
While it is unlikely Lee’s bill will be met with much support, there have been calls for a national gun registry. However, Second Amendment supporters, who naturally would oppose such a registry, may have an unlikely ally in privacy advocates.
A new study conducted by researchers at Brown University has found that an encrypted gun registry would bridge the divide on this issue. It suggests that it would make it more difficult for those legally barred from owning firearms from acquiring one, and also make it easier for law enforcement to trace firearms much in the way that automobiles can be tracked.
The study was led by Brown’s Seny Kamara, who began the work after staffers from U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) reached out in 2018.
How successful such a “national” database would be all depends on whether every county in the country signs on, something Kamara admitted to Wired magazine could be a tall order.
“People in different parts of the country are going to feel differently about it, so the idea was to design something like a national gun registry that could potentially be voluntary,” Kamara explained.
Rather than being a true “national” registry, this would work as a series of non-centralized data bases, all of which would be encrypted to maintain privacy—yet could be accessible to law enforcement via a physical authentication token. Such a key would ensure that officials could gain access while the general public could not—and because it is encrypted, in theory it would be inaccessible to hackers.
The study did not look into a plethora of issues, such as how it would handle private sales, what information would be contained in the registry or even how data could be shared across a decentralized network. For one thing what happens if a firearm is sold or transferred to another user in a different database? How would that be tracked?
While a blockchain that is used in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies could potentially play a role, it is meant to allow the transfer of digital money without disclosing the user. In this case the user and associated physical firearm is what is registered. If that firearm is sold, stolen or otherwise changes hands without updating the database the information is completely useless!
All of those facts make it obvious to see that the National Rifle Association and other groups that support the Second Amendment would remain opposed to the database. It would only serve law abiding individuals and put a burden on gun shops and dealers to report the transactions of the sales.
However, at this point the Brown study wasn’t so much to develop an encrypted network but rather to even determine if was possible. About the best possible takeaway on this is that at least Sen. Wyden was exploring the feasibility of the technology and not writing actual legislation.
“Far too often, lawmakers write bills without having a good grasp of technology, especially when it comes to encryption,” Wyden told Wired in a statement. “My view has always been that making good public policy depends on knowing what is possible on the technical side. So when I had the idea to create a new kind of secure gun registry, I was hoping Professor Kamara could give me a gut check on whether this was a harebrained idea or not.”
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.