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Schools turn to artificial intelligence to spot guns as companies lobby lawmakers for public funds

TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas could soon offer up to $5 million in grants to schools to equip surveillance cameras with artificial intelligence systems that can spot people carrying weapons. But the governor must approve spending and schools must meet very specific criteria.

The AI ​​software must be patented, “designated as qualified counterterrorism technology,” meet certain security industry standards, already in use in at least 30 states, and capable of detecting “three broad classifications of firearms with a minimum of 300 subclassifications” and “at least 2,000 permutations,” among others.

Only one company currently meets all of these criteria: the same organization that touted them to Kansas lawmakers who craft the state budget. That company, ZeroEyes, is a rapidly growing company founded by military veterans after the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.

The legislation pending before Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly highlights two things. After numerous high-profile shootings, school security has become a multi-billion dollar industry. And in state capitals, some companies are successfully persuading policymakers to enshrine their particular corporate solutions into state law.

ZeroEyes also appears to be the only company qualified for national gun detection programs under laws passed last year in Michigan and Utah, bills passed earlier this year in Florida and the Iowa and proposed laws in Colorado, Louisiana and Wisconsin.

Missouri on Friday became the latest state to pass legislation supporting ZeroEyes, offering $2.5 million in matching grants for schools to purchase gun detection software designated as “technology qualified counter-terrorism officer.

“We don’t pay legislators to put us in their bills,” said Sam Alaimo, co-founder and chief revenue officer of ZeroEyes. But “if they do, that means I think they’re doing their homework, and they’re making sure they have approved technology.”

ZeroEyes uses artificial intelligence with surveillance cameras to identify visible weapons, then sends an alert to a 24-hour operations center staffed by former law enforcement officers and veterans. If ZeroEyes staff verifies that it is a legitimate threat, an alert is sent to school officials and local authorities.

The goal is “to get that gun before the trigger is pulled or before it hits the door,” Alaimo said.

Few people question technology. But some question the legislative tactic.

The very specific Kansas bill — particularly the requirement that a company have its products in at least 30 states — is “probably the most egregious thing I’ve ever read” in legislation, Jason Stoddard said , Director of Safety and Security for Charles Schools. Maryland County Public Schools.

Stoddard is chairman of the new National Council of School Safety Directors, created to set standards for school safety officials and combat salesmen who are increasingly pushing special products to lawmakers.

When states allocate millions of dollars to certain products, it often leaves less money for other important school safety efforts, such as electronic locks, shatterproof windows, communications systems and staffing security, he said.

“Artificial intelligence-based weapon detection is absolutely wonderful,” Stoddard said. “But it’s probably not the priority that 95% of schools in the United States need right now.”

The technology can also be expensive, so some states have grant programs. In Florida, legislation to implement ZeroEyes technology in schools in just two counties cost a total of about $929,000.

ZeroEyes isn’t the only company using AI-enabled surveillance systems to spot guns. A competitor, Omnilert, moved from emergency alert systems to gun detection several years ago and also offers 24-hour monitoring centers to quickly review AI-detected weapons and transmit alerts to local authorities.

But Omnilert does not yet have a patent for its technology. And it has not yet been designated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as counterterrorism technology under a 2002 federal law providing liability protections for companies. He applied for both.

Although Omnilert is in hundreds of schools, its products are not in 30 states, said Mark Franken, Omnilert’s vice president of marketing. But he added that this should not prevent his company from benefiting from public subsidies.

Franken has contacted the Kansas governor’s office in hopes that she will veto the specific criteria, which he says “creates some sort of anti-competitive environment.”

In Iowa, legislation requiring schools to install gun detection software was amended to give companies providing the technology until July 1, 2025, to receive federal counterterrorism technology designation. But Democratic state Rep. Ross Wilburn said the designation was originally intended to incentivize companies to develop technology.

“It was not put in place to provide, to promote any type of benefit to any particular business or any other,” Wilburn said during the House debate.

In Kansas, ZeroEyes’ chief strategy officer presented an overview of its technology to the House K-12 Education Budget Committee in February. It included a live demonstration of its AI gun detection and numerous real-world surveillance photos spotting guns in schools, parking lots and transit stations. The presentation also noted that authorities arrested a dozen people last year directly as a result of the ZeroEyes alerts.

Kansas Republican State Rep. Adam Thomas initially proposed specifically naming ZeroEyes in the funding legislation. The final version removed the company name but retained the criteria that essentially limits it to ZeroEyes.

House K-12 Budget Committee Chairwoman Kristey Williams, a Republican, vigorously defended the provision. She argued during a negotiating meeting with senators that because of student safety, the state could not afford the delays of a standard bidding process. She also presented the company’s technology as unique.

“We don’t think there’s any other alternative,” Williams said last month.

The $5 million appropriation won’t cover all schools, but Thomas said the amount could increase later once people see how well the ZeroEyes technology works.

“I hope he does exactly what we’ve seen him do and prevents gun violence in schools,” Thomas told the Associated Press, “and we can eventually bring it into every school.”

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Lieb reported from Jefferson City, Missouri. Associated Press writer Hannah Fingerhut contributed from Des Moines, Iowa.

ABC News

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