Faced with mass murders (e.g. Columbine, Aurora, VA Tech, Tuscon, Oak Creek)—62 over the past 30 years—coupled with the gun violence that happens every day we haven’t sought to understand these horrific events within the larger context from which they emerge. Until very recently America has been unaware that it has a problem.
According to the FBI Uniform Crime Report, firearms were used in fully 2 of 3 murders in 2011. Not only is the U.S. a more violent society it also presents a strong demand for guns: By about 3 to 1 there are more licensed firearms dealers in the U.S. than there are McDonald’s restaurants. Though we love burgers we just adore guns!
What have we been thinking?
Being individualistically oriented and tending to reductionism as a problem solving approach we’ve turned our focus on the individual who committed the murder—as if these are all independent and unrelated to our culture. Thus we have turned a blind eye to the societal context only seeking information about the characteristics of the individual person committing the crime—asking why did he do it. We frame each event as the specific individual’s problem and this keeps us from understanding the system of causes, and so the pattern continues.
In the case of recent mass killings, some have brought attention (and rightfully so) to the fact that mass murders in the U.S. are not just a gun control issue but rather they are reflective of a mental health issue. Because of our society’s proclivity for reductionism and its associated either/or thinking many have shown the light of attention on mental illness as the problem thus keeping the prevalence and loose regulation of guns in society in darkness. Unfortunately this can be the seed of a growing miss-belief that guns have no causal effect here that it all resides with mental illness.
Guns don’t kill people; people kill people! The argument continues: Yes mentally ill people with guns is a danger but (and here lies the kicker) we can never eliminate the possibility of mentally ill people from committing mass murder with guns so we mustn’t infringe upon the right of law-abiding citizens to own any kind of gun they desire. What this is saying is that a gun is neither good or bad it is just an object that people use; so it isn’t the gun but the person that is the problem. The implication being that guns—buying, having, owning, and carrying guns of any sort—are not the problem. It is the particular person that is the problem. Is this argument reflective of good solid logic and problem solving or is it reflective of avoidance behavior and problem deflection? Would we be reasonable if we made the same argument about drugs and drug use?
Further there are those who don’t wish to see any real change so they employ a line of thought—that is a defense—where the only real solution is a 100% solution. The only solution they will support must completely eliminate the chance of murder by gun. In other words if whatever is proposed will not stop with 100% certainty every person who might want to use a firearm to kill innocent people then what is proposed is grossly inadequate, it can’t be a solution. Until such a solution is provided nothing should or can be done—status quo is sustained.
Yet another argument reflective of the relationship we as a society have with guns goes something like this: if more people carried a gun (to protect their self and others around them) then there would be fewer murders—it would be a deterrent to gun violence. The answer to too many guns in the hands of some people is to have more people with guns. Apart from the fact that accurately shooting a gun is not as simple and easy as what you see on television and in the movies, this argument rests on the false logic that having a gun deters others from bringing a gun to a gunfight.
An argument based on false logic is simply a strategy to turn the attention away from the system of causes and the creation of an effective solution to a well-defined problem. Offering up a red herring keeps people from defining the problem, identifying the system of causes of the problem and taking appropriate and meaningful action. It is no wonder we’ve been mired in this for so long.
Is it possible that material self-interest maximization is playing a role? How much does the profit motive relate to what an industry, businesses within the industry and policy makers who receive funding from the industry (i.e. elected officials) impact what they are willing to do? That is, could it be that the gun industry (and its lobbyist and those who profit from a strong demand for guns) just can’t let anything get in the way of the profit that can be derived from having widespread availability and unregulated sale and use of guns?
It’s the System
Clearly the usual arguments have done little toward developing an understanding as to why we have a pattern of gun violence in U. S. society—which by the way is the most violent among OCED countries. Yet we seem unable to understand the system of causes of the pattern because we are unwilling to honestly look at how the society we’ve created contributes to this phenomenon as well as others. Our problem goes far deeper. Why don’t we go there? Could it be that at some level those with the authority to affect fundamental change realize that what they believe and advance is no longer valid—what they know ain’t so—and that they too will have to change?
If a system doesn’t encourage and support something from happening it won’t continue to happen!
Unfortunately policy makers don’t appear to use both systems and statistical thinking, so they don’t continue asking why are the trends we have in society, such as gun violence and mental illness manifesting? We must cease trying to do a better job of inspecting individual events and turn attention to the system that supports/promotes the events continuing.
In their book The Spirit Level Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett discuss the strong positive correlation between income inequality by country and: the index of health & social problems; the index of child well being; children’s experience of conflict; imprisonment; the percent of people with any mental illness; and the number of homicides per million. Negative correlation is shown between income inequality and social mobility and income inequality and level of trust. Each pairing shows the U. S. to be at the high end of positively correlated pairings and at the low end in negatively correlated pairings—not a good report card for America.
Although a correlational relationship does not imply cause-and-effect it suggest that the variables are linearly related. That is, as income inequality varies so too do these other societal characteristics—they aren’t independent, they move together and so one may affect the other or both are influenced by the same cause or causes. An understanding of the causes of the patterns begins with an understanding of the patterns caused, and so additional analysis leading to deeper understanding is needed.
We need to change
Unless people have the courage to let go of their attachments and the will to collaborate toward seeking a greater and deeper understanding of both the individual and collective (i.e. both cultural and policy/process) causes then the solution coming forth will be just re-action and compromise. Systems thinking, collaboration and deeper understanding, not compromise, will lead to understanding that can inform changes in policy to positively affect life in society.
As discussed in Hey Einstein Solve This recurring problems such as gun violence, mental illness and poverty are not structured and well-defined problems. If they were we’d quickly dissolve them and they wouldn’t recur! These problems require soft systems methods whereby we identify and challenge the underlying assumptions, beliefs and the sought after objectives that have guided current policy and action.
We should be asking: what is it about our system of orientation—not the values we espouse but the beliefs and values-in-practice and the ends supported and sought—and correspondingly the way we structure life and define success that is giving rise to these symptoms? What is the complex of causes—not the one cause or the one that various special interest coalitions are willing to compromise on—that is most likely at the root of what we are experiencing. Until this is done, all we will get are re-actions that pacify the masses and keep things essentially as they are.
The cultural change that is required won’t be easy and because of that it won’t happen without heroic leadership. However, the history of major change happening in America (e.g. women’s suffrage, civil rights, environmental protection, gay rights) shows that heroic leadership won’t emerge unless there is a critical mass of people that put their foot down making it very clear that we the people won’t accept anything less. This could take awhile, especially if few of us become part of the critical mass.