Aug 04
2016

Failing fast - Gun Shop Watch List

Americans are sick and tired of the senseless gun violence that all too often fills our media. It breaks our hearts to see innocent people murdered at the hands of terrorists and bad actors.

News surfaced after the Orlando shooting that the killer had visited a gun store weeks before the massacre only to be denied service by an alert store clerk.

That store also shared the incident with the FBI, who were unable to act due to lack of information. Later on, the shooter was able to purchase weapons at another store only miles down the road from the first and carry out his evil plan.

Days after that horrible incident a familiar series of events unfolded…

Our nation morned. “Thoughts and prayers” were offered. And our politicians used the opportunity to push pre-existing, inept gun policy to a vote which predictably failed.

Discussion of the incident and opinions of what we should do dominated the airwaves. Most of the opinions were retreads of familiar solutions that have not worked in the past, but one in particular caught my attention.

Listening to AM radio one Friday I heard Dave Ross propose an idea unlike those I’d heard before…

His idea based on the Orlando scenario: What if gun stores could share information with each other to help prevent bad actors from accessing firearms and then harming the public?

It’d be foolish to think one tool or approach could stop every shooting, but it sounded like something that could help. Better yet, building it sounded like something I could do to help.

As a gun owner I was already aware that shops denied sales because of all sorts of issues; including failed background checks, intoxication, and mental health concerns. It just made sense to help those same gun stores communicate more efficiently. What Dave proposed sounded like a private social network for the firearm community. I could build that.

To me, it sounded like a wonderful plan. Feeling empowered I set out to build what I could to validate the concept.

Site and Prototype

It took me a few days but I was able to get the basic idea online, and an interactive mobile prototype mocked up that demonstrated MVP functionality.

Interactive demo! Click to check it out…

I chose the name “Gun Shop Watch List” to tap into the spotlight of attention being shined on the ill fated “No Fly No Buy” legislation that was going to a vote in Congress. It occurred to me that the media would be very eager to promote an idea that piggybacked on stories dominating headlines during the previous days. Having a catchy name would only help in that aspect.

It was a risky move, because I was also cognizant of the fact that 2nd Amendment supporters had great distaste for that legislation, and government spying in general. I tried to balance the name out by making military inspired design choices that would appeal to firearm enthusiasts. With that in mind, I sourced my color palette, typography, and branding ideas from old Army manuals.

I also took great care when writing the copy, making sure to emphasize my own support of the 2nd Amendment and making it plain that GSWL was a tool only for the firearm community and not a government initiative.

Media coverage

As anticipated, the media loved Gun Shop Watch List.

Dave Ross was kind enough to do an interview with me which ran locally in the Pacific Northwest. That segment was heard by people at the Lars Larson show, who also were gracious enough to give me 10-15 minutes of their time the following day.

Email came flooding in, both positive and negative, but more importantly to me at the time — more interview requests came. When it was all said and done I had done a handful of interviews with local and national outlets capped by a lengthy segment on WGN TV News in Chicago.

Living in Chicago as a kid, and growing up a huge Chicago Bulls fan (thus watching hours of WGN) I was really satisfied the idea was able to make it that far.

Reaching out

During this time I also set out to contact as many local gun stores as I could. A few local store owners in San Jose were kind and friendly enough to hear me out, and their feedback was greatly appreciated.

I also researched existing gun shop software solutions, asking each and every company responsible for them if they’d like to partner with me to bring a network like this to market. I received zero responses from that effort. Not a single email or phone call. Not even a no.

The NRA predictably refused to talk with me, but I was encouraged when executives from the National Sport Shooting Foundation took time out of their day to let me demo the product and provided some valuable feedback in the process. As enthusiastic as the NSSF were, they also declined to assist spreading the idea — fearing that people might see simple coverage of the concept as a sign of endorsement.

At this point, I felt like I’d done what I could to get the idea out there, but now came the moment of truth… How would the target market react to something like this? Is it something they wanted? Would they even use it?

The firearm community reacts

Support and criticism came as a result of the media exposure and outreach efforts.

I was encouraged by the small number of stores who signed up for access, but in the end feedback from the firearm community ended up being more negative than positive.

Problematically, a few key themes kept rising to the surface…

1 - Friction and extra hassle

At the core, gun sellers are business men. Most simply want to conduct that business with a minimum of hassle. Like everyone else, they don’t take kindly to processes that complicate their work day.

Many of them feel that the current Federal background checks are draconian enough. Many of them feel that adding an extra step to their selling process is not worth the benefits a system like GSWL could provide.

2 - The name…

(Sigh…)

I knew going in the name could be a tough sell, but I chose to roll with it and err on the side of publicity.

Looking back, that was a mistake. People’s concerns were predictable… Was it a government conspiracy? Was it a spying tool? Explaining it to them usually convinced them I was a good guy with a good heart, but generally those conversations didn’t end up in a productive place when it was all said and done.

Even the NSSF cited the name as their most concerning issue, after commenting after a demo that the “idea was quite promising”.

3 - Legality

As they should be, gun sellers are a cautious crowd. Many of them were concerned that using a tool such as this would open them up to legal prosecution, as one FFL eloquently put it…

I wouldn't want to necessarily be on the liability end of the open transparent system being used by DAs as proof I knowingly sold to a mentally unfit customer because I received a notification. However, in my conversation with said customer I may not have come to same conclusion.

I probably would not subscribe due to those concerns. I personally don't care how you label it (No Gun For You List is fine)... I'm just trying to figure out the implications especially since you mentioned having it be an open tool for LEO.

Even though such a case would be difficult to prosecute I couldn’t design around the concern these folks feel about potentially opening up their business to legal trouble.

“Good Ideas” alone don’t necessarily make good products

A small number of retailers and people in the firearm community signed up, and I thank you all, but the benefit of a system like this only exists when it has critical mass.

What good would GSWL do if one store put out an alert, yet nobody in that immediate area were online to see it? I suppose I could build a database of national gun stores and use some sort of text-to-speech translator to robocall them all, but how effective would that be in the end?

Taking all of that into account, regretfully I’m going to be putting GSWL on the shelf.

I still believe the core of a good idea exists in GSWL, but it will never be successful unless rolled into a larger package of software that provides a benefit in the day-to-day operations of the firearm dealer.

Years ago I might have jumped at the challenge of building out such a product — perhaps to manage a gun shop’s inventory, dealer to dealer transfers, and online presence — then tie the networking and communication aspect into that… But it’s 2016 and these days I’m older, wiser, and have a lot less energy.

On to my next misguided project I suppose…

Written by Seth B

As Principal of Subimage LLC, Seth spends most of his days improving Cashboard. Occasionally he finds time to write about music, design, startups, and technology.

Tagged: business, startups, case-study