As the Gun Market Moves to Crypto, Deeply Private Owners Reveal More Than They May Know

In American gun culture, a desire for privacy runs deep. For many gun owners, any government attempt to keep tabs on who owns what is a non-starter. “I’m not for any type of registration,” John Crump, the special projects coordinator at the Gun Owners of America, said in a recent interview.

Cryptocurrency advocates have a similar ethos and often talk about empowering people to avoid government oversight via their newfangled financial ecosystem.

Crump lives in the overlap between those two worlds. At GOA, which describes itself, quoting former U.S. congressman (and presidential candidate) Ron Paul, as “the only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington,” he’s an in-house expert on crypto and blockchains.

The latter, of course, is what makes crypto possible in the first place. Blockchains are digital accounting ledgers that publicly track when a token moves from one person to another. While built to be anonymous (nobody has to record their identity in a blockchain), that shroud of secrecy can be pierced by law enforcement or anyone with the right sleuthing skills.

And that’s where crypto can get tricky for gun owners. In effect, when someone purchases a gun with a cryptocurrency, a digital paper trail is created. The blockchain record might not spell out the name of the buyer and seller or what gun was exchanged, but the transaction is logged so privacy cannot be assured.

“Honestly, I don’t think a lot of people realize how everything is traceable,” Crump said. “A lot of people in the firearms market, when they hear bitcoin or crypto, they automatically assume that it’s untraceable and private. But they don’t realize that blockchain is a ledger. Everything is there.”

Tom Heston, a clinical associate professor at Washington State University’s Department of Medical Education and Clinical Sciences, approaches the gun-violence epidemic from a public health perspective. His 2017 paper titled “A Blockchain Solution to Gun Control” proposes a blockchain-powered universal ID to track guns and ammunition. That, Heston argues, would help enforce gun-control measures such as red-flag laws, which let police temporarily seize firearms from people thought to be a danger to themselves or others.

Such a system, he argues, wouldn’t include personal information like names or addresses on the blockchain. But if law enforcement needed to identify someone it could do so by connecting a crypto wallet address to the actual person behind it. “Having a way to identify people while also maintaining their privacy is, I think, that combination that cryptocurrency brings,” Heston said in an interview.

The gun lobby strongly disagrees with Heston’s take on registries and privacy. (In June, the state of California accidentally leaked the personal information of gun owners, the worst nightmare of privacy-focused gun owners.) Heston counters this argument by sharing that Congress has just passed a gun-safety law, “and those red-flag laws require databases. So why don’t we have a database that protects privacy?”…

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