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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Teen was killed six years ago. His voice was recreated with AI to demand gun law reform.

    When the phones ring at some Congressional offices this week, the voice of Connecticut teenager Ethan Song will ask for votes on tougher gun laws — even though he died six years ago.

    “In 2018 when I was 15 years old, I was killed by an unsecured gun at my friend’s house,” the recorded voice will say. “The thing is, kids like me are dying every day. It’s time to act.”

    Using family videos and an artificial intelligence program, two organizations that lobby for stricter gun laws on Wednesday launched a “call your congressperson” campaign with a twist: The recreated voices on the calls are from boys and young men killed by guns.

    Valentine’s Day, the anniversary of the massacre at a Parkland, Fla., high school in 2018, was deliberately chosen for the launch of The Shotline campaign, according to organizers.

    “Six years to the day of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, lives lost to gun violence will return to call lawmakers directly, with the harrowing details of how they were killed, demanding immediate change in U.S. gun safety laws,” said a joint statement from Change the Ref and March for Our Lives.

    The new Shotline website allows users to send automated calls to their senators and federal House representatives demanding legislation to better protect against mass shootings and careless gun storage.

    Six recorded messages are posted separately on the site; each voice tells briefly of their death by gunfire and then calls on Congress to get tougher about gun safety laws.

    The recreated voices include Parkland student Joaquin Oliver, 17; Akilah DaSilva, 23, killed in the 2018 Waffle House mass shooting; Uziyah Garcia, who was 10 when he was gunned down at the 2022 mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas; Mike Baughan, 30, who killed himself with a gun he’d bought in just 15 minutes at a WalMart; and 20-year-old Jaycee Webster, shot dead in his Maryland home by three men in 2017.

    The sixth voice is that of Song, a Guilford teen who was accidentally shot in the head while he and a teenage friend played with a pistol in the friend’s house. The friend for months had been secretly taking the gun from a plastic box where his father, private investigator Daniel Markle, had stored it. The weapon had gun locks, but the key was left in the same box.

    Since the shooting, Kristin and Mike Song, Ethan’s parents, have campaigned for federal legislation requiring owners to securely store their guns. The “Ethan’s Law” bill has been discussed in Congress for several years, but gets no Republican co-signers. Kristin Song said Wednesday that the Shotline campaign is intended to change that.

    Frustrated by the national GOP’s hard line against stricter gun laws, Change the Ref cofounders Manny and Patricia Oliver, parents of Joaquin, contacted Ethan’s parents about the idea of using AI-generated voices to have actual shooting victims call for change. For each of the six families that took part, the first step was to gather recordings of their dead sons talking, either at family gatherings, school events or just on old social media posts.

    “When they started talking about it, I was a little hesitant to get involved. I had not heard Ethan’s voice since he died, and I knew going back to find those old videos would be heartbreaking for us,” Kristin Song said Wednesday.

    Shotline organizers worked with each victim’s survivors to draft scripts, and then sent them early versions of the AI-generated messages for adjustments and fine tuning.

    “Every time I’d listen I’d just sob,” Kristin Song said. “It’s a freaky thing to hear your dead child’s vice, but I’ll do anything to get through the barrier with the Republicans. I’ve been lobbying for five years, I’ve met with more than 400 legislators I’ve met with more than 150 Republicans  and that’s who it really comes down to — our voices just fall on deaf ears with them. They’re the party that refuses to step up and help protect children.”

    The audio message from Ethan says “My parents recreated my voice using AI so I could ask you to finally do something to protect kids from guns … it’s time to pass laws that protect kids from unsecured guns and help end gun violence. Helping people is your job after all. So pass responsible gun laws or we’ll find someone who will. More calls are coming.”

    The message from the Olivers’ son is even more blunt:

    “Hello, I’m Joaquin Oliver. Six years ago, I was a senior at Parkland. Many students and teachers were murdered on Valentine’s Day that year by a person using an AR-15, but you don’t care. You never did. It’s been six years and you’ve done nothing. Not a thing to stop all the shootings that have happened since,” it says. “How many dead voices will you hear before you finally listen?”

    After listening to each recording, people using the Shotline website have the option to “send this call to Congress.” They enter a zip code, and get a selection of Washington office numbers for the local Congressional representative as well as the state’s two senators. The user selects one to three names and presses a “send” command.

    The system debuted at 9 a.m. Wednesday, and by 4 p.m. reported that it had sent 6,558 calls.

    Sen. Richard Blumenthal, an advocate for Ethan’s law and various gun law reforms, said the system appears to be a responsible use of AI because each recording identifies itself as AI — so it’s not misleading “deep fake.”

    “This is a very dramatic and compelling use of AI in a responsible way because there’s disclosure,” he said.

    Asked if opponents of stricter gun laws are likely to be swayed by such calls, Blumenthal replied “There’s no telling who might be moved. If there’s any chance we can pass Ethan’s Law, we should avail ourselves of it.”

    Hard-right NRA loyalists from the GOP aren’t likely to move, Blumenthal said, but that’s not the goal.

    “My standard is the responsible, thoughtful Republican who is perhaps wavering because they know the NRA’s grip has been broken,” he said. “This kind of message will appeal to their hearts as well as their heads, and maybe move them to be on the right side of history.”

    Kristin Song said she’s had success lobbying for state or local versions of Ethan’s Law, even in some conservative states. She said she’s convinced the federal version will eventually be passed, but only after more mass shootings.

    “It takes Uvaldis and Parklands and Sandy Hooks to bring the Republicans to the table. We’ll have more tragedies: There are 500 million guns out there and it’s just a matter of time,” she said. “Every year there are more parents in Washington lobbying on this because we lost more children to 100 percent preventable deaths. It’s heartbreaking, it’s horrific.”

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