GunBail founder Trevor Brooks (Photo courtesy of GunBail)

This week, an entrepreneur hoping to get illegal guns off the street seeks advice on how to persuade municipalities to try his novel approach.–Dan Beyers

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 on his new business idea. By January 2016 he was hatching his start-up, 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 of the streets to reduce violence. Roughly 12 million people arrested every year and 85 percent of those arrests are for non-violent 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, whether 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, D.C.

“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’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

“There are a lot of cities that have return programs for illegal guns, but they have limited success because people do not want 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 entire 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. We just launched a crowding-funding campaign on Indiegogo to fuel our rollouts and raise awareness.”

Looking for some advice on a new business, or need help fixing an existing one? The Washington Post and the experts at the University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business are ready to assist. Contact us at capbiznews@washpost.com.