App al­lows peo­ple to post bail by turn­ing in their il­le­gal guns

The Washington Post Sunday - - CAPITAL BUSINESS - — Dan Bey­ers

An en­tre­pre­neur hop­ing to get il­le­gal guns off the street seeks ad­vice on how to per­suade mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties to try his novel ap­proach.

The en­tre­pre­neur: From the age of 9, Trevor Brooks was a ward of the state of Mary­land, bounc­ing be­tween group homes and in­sti­tu­tions in Bal­ti­more. “The first il­le­gal gun was put into my hand at the age of 12, and by 18, I was heav­ily im­mersed in that cul­ture,” Brooks says. He was not yet 20 years old when he found him­self in­car­cer­ated with a life sen­tence, con­victed of a gun crime when a close friend and neigh­bor ended up dead in the midst of a tus­sle.

“It dawned on me that ev­ery­one I knew had guns,” Brooks said. “The big­gest prob­lem out­side of drugs is the ac­cess to guns.” While in prison, he re­solved to ad­dress the is­sue and de­vised a plan to do so.

Af­ter spend­ing two decades be­hind bars, Brooks was released from prison in Novem­ber 2015 and hit the ground run­ning with his busi­ness idea. By Jan­uary 2016, he was hatch­ing his startup, GunBail, as part of the San Fran­cisco-based ac­cel­er­a­tor NewME.

The pitch, Trevor Brooks, founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive, GunBail: “GunBail is an app that in­cen­tivizes non­vi­o­lent of­fend­ers to value their free­dom over their guns. We pro­vide a safe, anony­mous plat­form to al­low peo­ple to post bail by sur­ren­der­ing il­le­gal guns as pay­ment. We are work­ing with mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties to cre­ate pro­grams to ac­cept a work­ing il­le­gal firearm. Then, peo­ple can use our web­site or app to ar­range to ship guns di­rectly to law en­force­ment in ex­change for bail release un­til they have to ap­pear in court, no ques­tions asked.

“Our tar­get mar­ket is in­di­vid­u­als who are ar­rested for drug vi­o­la­tions be­cause they are likely to have ac­cess to il­le­gal guns and be will­ing to ex­change them for their free­dom through bail. We want to get those guns, one by one, off the streets to re­duce vi­o­lence. Roughly 12 mil­lion peo­ple are ar­rested ev­ery year, and 85 per­cent of those ar­rests are for non­vi­o­lent of­fenses. Of those, 75 per­cent can­not af­ford bail release, so they sit in pris­ons — on the tax­pay­ers’ dol­lars — for months, weeks, some­times even years — await­ing tri­als. But 55 per­cent of all ar­rested of­fend­ers have ac­cess to il­le­gal firearms, their own or through friends, fam­ily or as­so­ciates.

“Since start­ing the com­pany, I’ve been knock­ing on doors in Bal­ti­more — politi­cians, the state’s at­tor­ney’s of­fice, judges, the po­lice com­mis­sioner. I gained the sup­port of [for­mer NFL player] Ray Lewis and other lead­ers in the com­mu­nity. We have been push­ing to get GunBail added to a new bail re­form bill in Mary­land. The state leg­is­la­ture has been very sup­port­ive, and now we’re work­ing to roll out a pi­lot test in Bal­ti­more in July be­fore ramp­ing up through­out the state. We are also talk­ing to about 10 other ju­ris­dic­tions through­out the coun­try, in­clud­ing Wash­ing­ton.

“The big­gest chal­lenge for GunBail has been nav­i­gat­ing the po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion-mak­ing process in each mu­nic­i­pal­ity. Our cus­tomers are mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and po­lice de­part­ments, and they are also our part­ners. We need their co­op­er­a­tion in set­ting up the in­fras­truc­ture to re­ceive the weapons. Noth­ing like this has ever ex­isted — we’re cre­at­ing a new cat­e­gory, and in do­ing that, we’re flesh­ing out the op­er­a­tions, in­clud­ing the spe­cific stages at which law en­force­ment and ju­di­ciary sys­tems must be in­te­grated.”

The ad­vice, Liz Sara, board chair of the Ding­man Cen­ter for En­trepreneur­ship at the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land: “There are a lot of cities that have re­turn pro­grams for il­le­gal guns, but they have lim­ited suc­cess be­cause peo­ple do not want to be as­so­ci­ated with an il­le­gal gun for ob­vi­ous rea­sons. Your tech­nol­ogy plat­form’s anonymity com­po­nent of­fers a clear value propo­si­tion to po­ten­tial users, which should boost the num­ber of guns re­turned and re­moved from the streets. As for the roll­out strat­egy, it will be ad­van­ta­geous in the be­gin­ning to limit the num­ber of pi­lots to two or three mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties to learn as much as you can be­fore tak­ing on a na­tional ap­proach. Choose the ju­ris­dic­tions where you are fur­thest along, such as Bal­ti­more, to fo­cus your ini­tial ef­forts.

“In each of these pi­lots, care­fully doc­u­ment the process — es­pe­cially when you pull in each stake­holder. When did law en­force­ment get in­volved in the de­ci­sion? When did you talk to the courts? When did you talk to the mayor’s of­fice, if at all? Your goal with the pi­lots is to un­der­stand which stake­hold­ers are re­spon­si­ble for the de­ci­sion to use your tech­nol­ogy plat­form — and when. Af­ter your first few city pi­lots, you’ll see some trends emerg­ing, which will help shorten the sales cy­cle in fu­ture cities.

“Once you are up and run­ning in a few mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, add cities slowly. It’s more im­por­tant to make each pi­lot very suc­cess­ful to show great re­sults. The more guns that are turned in, the greater the suc­cess you can claim. Other po­ten­tial cities will look at the suc­cess of those pi­lots as they make their own de­ci­sions.”

The re­ac­tion, Brooks: “We have made the most progress in Bal­ti­more, Chicago and Los An­ge­les, so con­cen­trat­ing on those cities first makes the most sense to de­velop a good process to roll out to other mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties.”


GunBail founder Trevor Brooks is ask­ing for ad­vice on how to co­or­di­nate with mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties.

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