How Mark Zuckerberg could prevent gun violence

Story highlights

  • Sreedhar Potarazu: Facebook founder and other leaders should push for ways to use data to prevent violence and terrorism
  • Potarazu says privacy questions and constitutional issues can be overcome

Sreedhar Potarazu, an ophthalmologist and entrepreneur, is the founder of Enziime, a software company focused on providing data science applications to assess health care delivery. He is the author of "Get Off the Dime: The Secret of Changing Who Pays for Your Health Care." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)On the day after Thanksgiving, a gunman walked into a Planned Parenthood building in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and opened fire, killing three people and wounding nine. Five days later, a married couple in San Bernardino, California, left their 6-month-old baby with the husband's mother, armed themselves to the teeth, drove to a county building and opened fire, killing 14 and wounding 21.

In the days between those mass killings, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, became the parents of a baby they named Max, and they announced their plan to give away 99% of their fortune -- currently estimated at $45 billion -- to make the world a better place for their newborn daughter.
Sreedhar Potarazu
I think they should narrow their horizon. If the Chan-Zuckerbergs really want to make the world a better place, they should read the first paragraph of this op-ed and invest some of their $44.5 billion into solutions to help stop our rampage at home. The same goes for Bill and Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffett, and the Clinton Foundation.
    Instead of spending so much money on solving the problems of the Third World, they could put some of it into solving our biggest problem here -- gun violence. It is a public health and national security issue, and it can be eradicated with the combination of massive investment and key influencers, instead of just the government.

    The data that exist

    Consider that Tashfeen Malik, who carried out the San Bernardino attack with her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, had pledged allegiance to ISIS in a posting on Facebook, U.S. officials have said. Consider that Robert Lewis Dear, the suspect in the Colorado Springs attack, had been accused of violence against women and was feared by his neighbors.
    Consider that James Holmes, who shot up a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and Adam Lanza, who killed 20 first-graders and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, and Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, all had serious mental health issues.
    Available data existed on almost every one of these individuals before they started shooting. But what we didn't have -- and still don't have -- is what might have prevented all those killings in the first place: an infrastructure that would enable us to combine relevant data from multiple sources and integrate it to give us more real-time signals about imminent danger. Building such a network will require billions of dollars from people such as Zuckerberg and Gates, who understand how to do it.
    We're not unaccustomed to using personal data to make threat assessments. Companies look at our driving records to determine how much we should pay for car insurance. Banks assess our credit records to determine whether to give us a mortgage. Privacy is important, but we routinely surrender a bit of it willingly every day. Yet when it comes to gun violence -- literally a matter of life or death -- we're inexplicably more interested in protecting our privacy than we are of protecting our lives.
    You don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand that when one in five Americans suffers from mental illness every year, and one in three Americans owns at least one gun, there has to be a fairly large percentage of the American population that belongs to both groups.
    That's an issue of national security. Add the risk of international terrorism, and this further substantiates the need to integrate massive data to make threat assessment more sophisticated.
    All of this data already exists. We're just not making use of it in a way that maximizes its potential.
    When people who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia or severe bipolar disorder and others who are on America's terrorist watch list can purchase firearms without a background check -- when people aligned with terrorist organizations can signal their intentions on social media -- we are not being proactive in protecting ourselves. We're just sitting back, wringing our hands, offering our prayers and ignoring all of these critical signals, waiting for the next shooting to happen.

    Real risk is more than just guns

    The U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, has famously suggested that guns are a public health risk. But the real risk isn't guns alone -- it's the combination of guns with mental illness or with political or religious extremism.
    We need to get serious about figuring out who in our country is at risk of picking up a gun and killing others. It's true that not every gun owner is a threat, just as not everyone with high blood pressure is at risk of a stroke. And it's true that not every mentally ill individual is a threat, just as not everyone with high cholesterol will have a heart attack. But the combination of gun possession and mental illness -- like the combination of high blood pressure and high cholesterol -- clearly increases the odds. This is an identifiable combination that has to trigger a threat assessment that can save lives, and the data required to make that assessment are already available.
    So why is nobody pounding his fist on his desk and saying he's going to invest his resources to educate the public, to combine the data and to make a serious move to end this national epidemic?
    We need to bring together the wealthiest people in America, who have access to the data, and government officials who want to solve the problem of gun violence -- not by taking guns away from responsible people, and not by removing people with mental illness from society, but by finding ways to assess who poses a threat to the rest of us.
    Yes, there are constitutional rights that must be protected, but every constitutional right has its limits. We have freedom of speech, but we can't shout "fire" in a crowded theater. I don't believe our Founding Fathers wrote the Second Amendment with a school massacre in mind. If keeping ourselves safe in public places means sacrificing a sliver of privacy, then it's worth it. This is not "Big Brother." This is common sense.
    The information is already there. With a substantial investment, our brightest minds can devise a way to combine and share our criminal data, our terror-watch data, our health data and our gun possession data -- responsibly and without seriously compromising privacy -- so we can have a far more accurate assessment of threats and risks than we have today.