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Kansas and Missouri Lawmakers Tried Funding AI Weapon Detection Technology. How Does it Work? ZeroEyes now is in 42 states, including Kansas and Missouri

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Above image credit: A core mission of ZeroEyes is to help security and law enforcement be better prepared for an active shooter by instantly distributing descriptive information about the suspect and weapon. (Courtesy | ZeroEyes)
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7 minute read

When Mike Lahiff picked his daughter up from school, just months after a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, killed 17 people, he found her distraught following an active shooter drill that day. 

His daughter’s emotional response highlighted the growing impact of gun violence across the country. 

Lahiff, tapping his past as a Navy Seal, swung into action. He asked school officials what they were doing with their security cameras. Very little, he concluded. The school would mostly use them after an incident. 

ZeroEyes was created to change that.  

The weapon detection company, where Lahiff now serves as CEO, aims to help security cameras be more preemptive by using artificial intelligence (AI) to detect a weapon and alert law enforcement quickly. 

The company is growing and expanding its presence across the country. ZeroEyes co-founder and chief financial officer Sam Alaimo described the technology as the “best kept secret” to helping keep people safe at school.  

ZeroEyes recently partnered with Stonemont Security Solutions, a Lee’s Summit-based security consulting firm. Public records requests to 31 Kansas City-area schools revealed none had yet purchased ZeroEyes, but the Independence School District has held discussions with Stonemont Security representatives about ZeroEyes. 

ZeroEyes now is in 42 states, including Kansas and Missouri, and has expanded beyond schools to government and commercial buildings. Several states including Iowa, Michigan and Utah have passed laws funding firearm detection technology for schools. 

State legislators in both Kansas and Missouri tried last session to direct funding for schools to implement ZeroEyes after the company hired lobbyists across the country to try and persuade lawmakers to fund the technology.  

Governors in both states vetoed the funding — not because they rejected the technology, but because they said the language prevented other school safety measures and technology companies from taking advantage of the funds.  

Alaimo said in a statement that he believed the standards the legislators included were important and non-negotiable to ensure the technology best served schools. 

“The bottom line is that some companies can provide gun detection at scale and others cannot,” he said. “Legislators are going to do what they want to do. We are here to educate.” 

Some, though, have concerns. 

Local gun safety groups appreciate the technology but worry it distracts from wider initiatives to address the root causes of gun violence. Adding AI to security cameras also can spark concerns about student privacy and data collection.  

ZeroEyes has worked to assuage these worries. 

Alaimo said that anyone working to stop mass shootings is a partner, not a competitor, and he welcomes other solutions to help solve the violence plaguing the country. To avoid invading privacy, he said the company doesn’t collect biometric data and works to distance itself from other invasive technology.  

A video panel for ZeroEyes, an AI-powered weapons protection system.
ZeroEyes, an AI weapons detection software, can instantly recognize weapons when they appear on school cameras. After being spotted, live video gets sent to an operations center where humans can verify and alert authorities. (Courtesy | ZeroEyes)

From Navy Seals to Private Equity to AI  

Speed is fundamental for ZeroEyes.  

The system works in three parts. First, ZeroEyes is installed in existing security cameras, so those video feeds can be monitored by AI trained to spot weapons. Once the AI recognizes a weapon, the video feed is sent to human technicians. Once they verify the weapon, they alert school officials and law enforcement.  

The entire process aims to take 10 seconds or less.  

“We’ve gone out of our way to make sure that we do this one thing and that one thing the best in the world,” Alaimo said. 

After leaving the military, Alaimo went back to school and got his master’s degree from Columbia. After working in private equity, Alaimo realized he wanted to find something that gave him a greater sense of purpose and joined ZeroEyes.  

“We’ve gone out of our way to make sure that we do this one thing and that one thing the best in the world.”

– Sam Alaimo, co-founder of ZeroEyes

The co-founders and team at ZeroEyes are made up of ex-military and law enforcement personnel who have all joined forces to work on the company’s mission of preventing shooting deaths. 

But the new technology hasn’t been developed without concerns. Integrating AI surveillance technology with school security cameras can spark worries about protecting student privacy. 

“Technology moves at such a rapid pace and the law moves very slowly,” said Maya Weinstein, an education attorney in North Carolina who has done research on the intersection between AI surveillance and privacy.  

Weinstein said many parents may prioritize their children’s safety, even if it means personal data like photos or fingerprints are stored in databases. However, some are concerned about the collection of their children’s intimate data. 

Weinstein said the steps ZeroEyes takes to preserve privacy help address concerns when compared to other technologies that track biometric data or use facial recognition.  

“I think we can all agree at least that every second counts in these situations,” Weinstein said. “And they’re doing it in a way that is minimizing impact on privacy.” 

That was a goal of Alaimo and the ZeroEyes founders. Alaimo described the group as “patriots” who wanted to use the technology to help prevent tragedy while taking every possible step to avoid invading privacy.  

For Alaimo, ZeroEyes is just one part of a broader solution to gun violence. He welcomes other solutions like metal detectors as another way to help try to save lives. 

“We’re not competing against these technologies,” he said. “We’re adding a layer to the technologies.” 

That is part of the reason ZeroEyes and Stonemont Security joined forces. Stonemont Security president Thaddeus Debolt said the partnership offers even more avenues to help create plans that fit different schools.  

“A lot of schools are in the mindset of, ‘Oh, it’ll never happen here,’” DeBolt said. “Well, now, guess what? It’s starting to happen more and more.” 

DeBolt said the ability of ZeroEyes to help cut down on response time is a game changer for security and safety.  

He said in his conversations with parents across the area, the biggest response when they hear about technology like ZeroEyes is: Why is this not here? 

“I’ve had a lot of schools I’ve talked to that have said if they had the funding, they would be putting it in tomorrow,” DeBolt said. “But they don’t.” 

Olivet Community Schools in Michigan is one district that has installed ZeroEyes as a part of the school security system.  

The process began with a revamp of the school’s camera system. Terry Sedlar, director of human resources and operations at Olivet, noted that many schools may need to upgrade outdated security systems before they can install ZeroEyes.  

Thanks to a state grant similar to the ones vetoed in Kansas and Missouri, Olivet installed ZeroEyes with a new system for a fraction of the cost. The grant funds the detection software for two years.  

“It was definitely, you know, a selling point to us,” Sedlar said of the grant. “Because we feel like we have substantially upgraded our system in terms of safety and security. Why wouldn’t we put one more layer in that has a different approach from what we currently have?” 

The goal, Sedlar said, was to ensure peace of mind across the district. Hopefully, the technology never has to be used, but he said teachers are thankful for the extra layer of protection the software will offer.  

“This is one less thing they have to worry about in terms of, ‘What do I as a teacher need to be doing to make sure my students are safe?’” Sedlar said.  

‘The Issue is Access to Guns’ 

Judy Sherry, founder and president of Kansas City’s Grandparents for Gun Safety, argues that while ZeroEyes may offer helpful technology, it misses the bigger picture as to why gun violence continues to rise nationwide.  

When it comes to government funding, she argued the money is better spent stopping the proliferation of guns. While homicide and mass shooting rates have risen, the majority of gun deaths remain from suicide or avoidable accidents.  

“These are all band-aids,” Sherry said. “Nobody wants to deal with the issue. The issue is access to guns, period.” 

Judy Sherry being interviewed at Mill Creek Park.
Judy Sherry, president and founder of the local group, Grandparents For Gun Safety (Stand With Us), gets ready to do one more interview at a rally in Mill Creek Park. Sherry, like many leaders in the movement for gun violence prevention, is always ready with facts and statistics to make her points. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)

Everytown, a nonprofit organization that advocates for gun control, ranks Kansas and Missouri in the bottom tier for the strength of their gun laws, naming them “national failures.” Missouri has the fifth highest gun violence rate and Kansas has the 20th.  

Jo Ella Hoye, a Democratic state representative for Kansas House District 17, which covers parts of Lenexa and Shawnee, expressed similar sentiments. She is hesitant to treat students like criminals with intense surveillance and security measures. 

In the Kansas legislature this year, ZeroEyes worked to add restrictions to existing school safety grants, ensuring they could be used only for ZeroEyes. That spurred Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly to veto the plan. Hoye praised the decision as a way to help schools be flexible in spending the money on what they most need.  

Alaimo said the restrictions were necessary to ensure the best school safety technology was used. 

Hoye decried the fact that school safety had turned into a multibillion-dollar industry, arguing that while many of the tools and innovations can be helpful, it all revolves around a fundamental frustration that access to guns makes it so easy for violence to occur at schools in the first place. 

Gun violence takes a toll, Hoye said, acknowledging that innovative solutions like ZeroEyes can help save lives and prevent shootings.  

“I’m not opposed to using this technology,” Hoye said. “It’s more of a frustration that we keep having to think up all of these new ideas instead of just passing smarter gun laws in our state and in our nation.” 

“I’m not opposed to using this technology. It’s more of a frustration that we keep having to think up all of these new ideas instead of just passing smarter gun laws in our state and in our nation.”

– Jo Ella Hoye, Democratic state representative for Kansas House District 17

Alaimo says he understands the depth of the gun violence problem and agrees that ZeroEyes is not an all-encompassing solution.  

But he hopes it can play a role.  

“School shootings have been getting worse and worse and worse,” Alaimo said. “And I think people are talking about mental health, which they should be. People are arguing about gun laws, which they should be. And then people offer thoughts and prayers, which we should be.  

“But we wanted to do something right now,” Alaimo continued. “And building this technology to identify guns where they should not be is one way to take an immediate solution to this problem.” 

Cuyler Dunn is a student at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and a summer intern at Kansas City PBS/Flatland.

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