Three months after their children were slaughtered, parents of Sandy Hook Elementary School students joined forces with Silicon Valley to find high-tech solutions to the nation's epidemic of gun violence.
The parents have already testified to Connecticut's legislature and to Congress in favor of stricter gun-control laws -- including the federal assault-weapons ban that the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee approved Thursday on a party-line vote. But this week, the Newtown parents flew across the country to begin exploring how the valley's technology can cut the number of people killed in America by guns.
If the guns that Connecticut shooter Adam Lanza took from his mother employed a "smartgun" technology that allowed only the owner to fire them, 20 children and six educators might still be alive today, valley investors say.
Among the Newtown parents who came to the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on Thursday were Mark and Jackie Barden. They talked about how their son, 7-year-old Daniel, would have seen the promise of saving lives with technology.
"He would look into his heart and try to fix things," Mark Barden said. "And I can't tell you how much it touches us that you are looking into your hearts, taking your time and talents and devoting yourselves to fixing this."
The new partnership between the tech community and Sandy Hook Promise -- a nonprofit supporting families affected by the massacre and working to
make the nation safer from such acts -- involves a pledge from about 30 venture capitalists and angel investors to support companies developing technology that can help curb gun violence.
"If the tech community can create awesome companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter, we can certainly turn our attention to innovating around safety," said Ron Conway, special adviser to the San Francisco-based SV Angel investment firm and now founder of the Sandy Hook Promise Innovation Initiative.
"I'm hoping a year from now that the tech community has invested $15 million in brand-new startups that are innovating in gun violence reduction, mental health and school safety," he said.
Other prominent investors taking part in the initiative include Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla; Zack Bogue, husband of Yahoo President and CEO Marissa Mayer; and David Sze, an early investor in and director of companies such as Facebook and LinkedIn.
Some money might go to firms developing the smart-gun technology -- firearms that won't work without their rightful owner's biometrics, such as a finger- or palm-print, or perhaps a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip in the owner's ring or wristband -- said Jim Pitkow, chairman of the newly formed Technology Committee to Reduce Gun Violence, which will identify and vet ideas worthy of support.
Other areas might include improvement in background-check processing; school-safety tools, such as emergency response systems that don't rely on a centralized public-address system for communications; mental health applications; and data analysis to make best use of police resources.
The initiative will also offer a prize for the most promising new ideas not yet in development.
Conway said the effort took root in his own San Francisco home when former Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., who was gravely wounded in a 2011 mass shooting that claimed six lives, happened to be among the guests at his holiday party on Dec. 14 -- the same day as the Newtown massacre. The stunned discussion that ensued that night "gave the tech community resolve that we were not going to be bystanders," he said.
Nicole Hockley said her son, Dylan, would have celebrated his seventh birthday last Friday, said the Newtown parents had met privately earlier with Bay Area parents who also lost children to gun violence.
"The look of pain in their eyes has become all too familiar to me. It's the same pain I see in the families who lost loved ones on 12/14, and the same pain I now see when I look in the mirror," she said, her voice trembling. "This is a club in which no one would ever choose to be a member.
"We can feel the thirst for change and the need to do things differently," Hockley said, adding that the tech and investment effort "gives me hope at a time when hope is most needed."
Among the Bay Area residents with whom the Newtown parents met was Mallie Latham, whose 20-year-old daughter, Shanika, was shot to death last August just two blocks from his East Oakland home. Latham said it "was very powerful, an immediate connection" that defied any differences of urban versus suburban or black versus white.
"We had the commonality of loss ... and it ended up being very healing," he said, adding that he's glad to see the tech community rallying around the issue. "It's not an individual problem -- this is communitywide, nationwide."
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