Red-flag laws are as good as the data

A disciplined, hardened terrorist, or an odd fish like the Las Vegas mass-murderer Stephen Paddock, might not otherwise betray his murderous intentions, but the typical gun-fetishizing, mass shooter-admiring obsessive copycat will. This has been made clear in excruciating episode after excruciating episode. As the Texas atrocity showed again, killers of this ilk advertise their inclinations online and offline. They advertise their acquisition of weapons. They give voice to threats because making threats meets the same psychological need that acting on those threats does.

Red-flag laws, by acclamation, may be our response to the latest Texas and Buffalo shootings. But red-flag laws are only as good as the evidence that causes somebody, often police, to invoke them. Most are single-data-point laws—somebody complains for some reason. The results are bound to be mediocre, producing false positives and harassment of innocent citizens. But now punch the name into a hypothetical Google Mass Shooter Profiling Tool, scanning the subject’s recent online history, purchases and school, employment, police, medical, and travel records. A subroutine, the Google Social Stability Matrix, examines data related to the subject’s longer-term life pattern. Is he a stable, invested member of the community or adrift and unconnected?

Many data points are better than one, making the red-flag petition less of a shot in the dark and less of a menace to the law-abiding. A subject who rates a 3 might merit a welfare check, one who earns an 8 an immediate lookout-order using networked license-plate readers and face-recognition cameras. But then ask: Why wait for a red-flag petitioner to supply a name? Why not have an algorithm already looking for warning patterns that even a family member, school official or employer might not see?

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