On the Fourth of July this summer, a free app appeared in Google Play Store to help Americans make neighborhoods safer from the misuse of guns. Brett Stalbaum, who is 46 and has been a lecturer in the visual arts department at the University of California San Diego for 11 years, created the app in the university’s Walkingtools.net Laboratory for exclusive use on Android phones.
Gun Geo Marker used global positioning technology to allow people to tag the location of dangerous guns and people suggested of dangerous gun practices in their neighborhoods. Once recorded in a database, the information could be accessed by anyone else using the app in the same neighborhood. One might say it was intended as a digital early-warning system to head off potential gun violence or accidental shootings.
A little more than a week later, on July 13, Gun Geo Marker had been disabled.
Stalbaum explains by email: “The project suffered numerous hacking attacks that filled the database with false info.” In his view, “anti-gun-safety types also used the app itself as a tool for mischief. It is sad to see, but also something that I grudgingly admit I have a certain level of respect for as an electronic activist myself.”
He knew his project would draw fire. On the app’s website, Stalbaum already had written: “I am all too aware of a small component of the community that sees any attempt at improving gun safety as an affront to their Second Amendment rights.... So, the project is also a culture-jamming exercise intended to draw out earnest expressions from the radical anti-gun-safety community.”
Again by email, Stalbaum explains: “Culture jamming — a practice that many artists are involved in — is creating disruptions or disturbances within mainstream media discourses that problematize an issue and change the flow of the conversation. The Gun Geo Marker drew an explosion of paranoid rage that marks this moment in the national gun debate, although I would have much preferred a version of this project where more gun owners realized that facilitating the safe use and handling of firearms as a community is the best path toward preserving our Second Amendment rights.”
The Tables Turn
Stalbaum probably did not expect anyone to accuse him of participating in the activity he condemned: unsafe handling of firearms. Yet that’s what happened on several message boards for gun enthusiasts, including Calguns.net. Several contributors to the site posted and captioned pictures that originally appeared on the Facebook pages of Stalbaum’s wife.
In one picture, a woman is shown in arid terrain aiming what gun experts have told me is a .22-caliber rifle. With the butt of the rifle against her shoulder, she has her finger on the trigger and appears ready to fire. A caption to the picture supplied by the Calguns contributor observes that she is using no eye or ear protection.
Another image, much darker, shows a second woman loosely holding what appears to be the same gun, not preparing to fire but with her finger on the trigger. To her right in the back, sits Brett Stalbaum, so identified by the caption, and between them stands a bottle of Jameson whiskey.
One post in the Calguns forum claims the pictures were taken “at Stalbaum’s Julian address.” The contributor went so far as to provide an aerial photograph of the land, the U.S. Geodetic Survey topographic map locator, and the coordinates to look for the property. From that information, he concludes that the firing had taken place “across two roads, and as far as I can tell it’s completely flat and there is no natural backstop until well after the [second] road.”
I speak about the pictures with Marshall Loewenstein, 44, who owns a small collection of guns and considers himself to be a scrupulous practitioner of gun safety. Loewenstein has a master’s degree in computer science from the University of California San Diego and works locally in software marketing. He says he pursues his shooting hobby at firing ranges.
Ear and eye protections are “both for your own safety and for the safety of others around you,” Loewenstein tells me. “If you have an injury while you’re shooting, it could cause you to misfire the weapon, perhaps even at people nearby.
“Also, a cardinal rule of firearm use is that your finger is off the trigger and out of the trigger area until the moment you have the gun aimed where it’s going to be discharged and you are sure it’s time to discharge it.”
Loewenstein admits that nobody in the pictures is drinking alcohol and handling the gun simultaneously. But he finds whiskey in the presence of shooting to be troubling.
“You’d have to stretch your imagination,” he says, “to believe that all or some of the people on the firing line were not consuming alcohol at the same time the firearms were being used. That’s unacceptable from a safety standpoint and immensely hypocritical for a self-professed gun-safety advocate.”
Both Stalbaum and Loewenstein seemingly prefer to remain in the background of the hot rhetoric about guns in the United States, an issue that usually looks more like angry combatants shouting past each other than a civil discussion.
For this story, Loewenstein and I spoke four or five times by phone. On July 14, I contacted Stalbaum for his response to the characterizations of his and his wife’s behavior as pictured in the Calguns forum. Could I meet him somewhere? He responded the following day, requesting that we discuss the matter, and Gun Geo Marker, by email.
“I will admit,” he writes, “that I have not always been a responsible gun owner, and in some ways, that is where this story starts. In the United States through many different means (be it from a family member to a child or a private sale in many states), guns can be transferred from person to person without background checks or so much as a pamphlet about gun safety.
“There was a time when we and a good friend, also a gun owner, were firing a .22 at the location of a fixer-upper we had just purchased. Fortunately, a neighbor left us a thoughtful note about our bad behavior, and that really rocked me. It got me thinking about how communities and neighborhoods might better participate in promoting gun safety. My neighbors had something to teach me, and I was ready to listen. Then as I became more aware how this kind of casual, uninformed use of firearms also contributes to child deaths…, I became an advocate of safely securing guns around children and of universal background checks, all of this concurrently with becoming an ever stronger advocate of the Second Amendment, which is sincere and real.