Lost in Smartphones, SF Train Passengers Don't Notice Gunman Until He Pulls the Trigger

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 8 2013 3:55 PM

Lost in Smartphones, SF Train Passengers Didn't Notice the Gunman Until He Pulled the Trigger

SF Muni bus shooting suspect Nikhom Thephakaysone
Police believe this man brandished a gun on a San Francisco bus multiple times without being noticed, before finally shooting and killing a fellow passenger.

Screenshot / YouTube via San Francisco Police Department

The San Francisco Chronicle's Vivian Ho sets the scene:

A man standing on a crowded Muni train pulls out a .45-caliber pistol.
He raises the gun, pointing it across the aisle, before tucking it back against his side. He draws it out several more times, once using the hand holding the gun to wipe his nose. Dozens of passengers stand and sit just feet away—but none reacts.
Their eyes, focused on smartphones and tablets, don't lift until the gunman fires a bullet into the back of a San Francisco State student getting off the train.
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That's what investigators saw when they watched surveillance footage from the eastbound M light-rail vehicle* on the night of Sept. 23. The San Francisco State student, 20-year-old Justin Valdez, was killed in what police believe was an unprovoked attack. Authorities have arrested a suspect named Nikhom Thephakaysone, 30, who prosecutors say appears to have been out looking for a stranger to kill.

Could the train's passengers have been so oblivious in the pre-smartphone era? Thoroughly absorbed in books or magazines, perhaps? It's possible. But San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon told the Chronicle he worries that technology is exacerbating the problem. "These weren't concealed movements," he said. "The gun is very clear. These people are in very close proximity with him, and nobody sees this. They're just so engrossed, texting and reading and whatnot."

Authorities have been warning for years that people's texting, browsing, and gaming habits make them more vulnerable to phone-snatchings, not to mention being beaned with a basektball by Baron Davis. But Gascon is among the first to suggest that smartphone users are putting their neighbors at risk as well when they block out the world and lose themselves in Candy Crush. He just might be right: The tiny screens, the tiny buttons, and above all the headphones do seem more all-enveloping than a dog-eared paperback or the morning paper. On the other hand, it's hard to see an easy solution on the horizon, unless Google Glass can build in some handgun-recognition software. Come to think of it, maybe surveillance cameras will eventually be able to recognize a firearm when they see it, and sound some sort of alert. False alarms would be pretty awkward, though.

Here's another idea: What do you say we all just make a little more effort to poke our heads up and take a gander at the meatspace every now and then?

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

*Correction, Oct. 8, 2013: This article originally referred to the vehicle as a bus. It was actually a light-rail vehicle, or, colloquially, a train.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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