We are, once again, doing some soul-searching about gun violence in America after the tragic killing of 19 elementary school children and two teachers by an 18-year-old shooter in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24th, 2022. One tragedy seems to be followed by another as we had another mass shooting on July 4, 2022 when seven people were shot and killed at an Independence Day parade in Highland Park, Illinois. How many tragedies must we endure before we take meaningful action to reduce gun violence? Every day seems to bring another report of a mass shooting. In 2022, we have already had over 200 mass shootings.
My podcast version of this episode is here.
On Memorial Day weekend alone, there were 12 mass shootings. In 2020, the most recent year for which we have complete data, 44,222 people died of gun-related deaths in America, with more deaths by suicide (24,292) than by homicide (19,384). According to 2020 data, the gun-related suicide rate in America was 7.4 per 100,000 people, which is the second-highest rate in the world.
If you are like most Americans, we want to do something to reduce the level of gun violence. There is no single “right” answer because there are no simple answers to thorny questions in this wickedly complicated world. If there were an easy, simple answer as to how to reduce gun violence in America, we would have already found it.
America as an Outlier
When it comes to deaths from gun violence, America, thankfully, is not the worst country in the world. According to 2019 data, America had almost four deaths (3.96) per 100,000 people yearly due to gun violence. In comparison, El Salvador had 36.78 per 100,000 and Venezuela had 33.27.
Yet, as a strong, prosperous, and great nation, should America use the most violent countries in the world as our comparison group? When the BBC used several studies to compare ourselves with more prosperous countries, ones that are more similar to us, they showed that America has over eight times as many deaths from gun violence as Canada (.47 per 100,000). America has almost 100 times more deaths from gun violence than the United Kingdom (.04 deaths per 100,000 people) and nearly 200 times more than Japan (.02 deaths per 100,000).
Searching for Solutions to Gun Violence
As we look for ways to reduce gun violence in America, it helps to keep an open mind. In The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama describes how looking for truth is a little like searching for a lost object. For example, if we are searching for our lost keys, and we’ve decided that they could only be in one room, the kitchen, what happens when they are actually in a different room? We won’t find our keys (i.e., “the truth”) when we completely shut the door of our minds to other possibilities.
You have to let it all go, Neo: Fear, doubt, disbelief. Free your mind. –Morpheus to Neo from the movie, The Matrix
Many will claim that we don’t have a gun problem in America. We have a mental health problem. There is some truth to that. However, other affluent countries that have similar levels of mental health problems still don’t have near the level of gun violence or the homicide rate that we find in America.
Certainly, America can do a better job at providing mental health care so that there are fewer people who would use firearms for homicide or suicide. However, the trouble with only focusing only on mental health, school security, and so on is that this entirely eliminates any gun safety legislation from the conversation. Going back to the Dalai Lama’s story about searching for truth, we must remain open to the possibility that improving gun safety legislation could be one avenue worth exploring when trying to reduce gun violence.
Don’t Fall for the Slippery Slope
When talks of gun safety legislation arise, many people resist entertaining any possibilities for fear of sliding down the “slippery slope.” They often point to the Second Amendment right to bear arms and worry that any gun safety legislation will necessarily lead us down to the bottom of a slippery slope. The fear is that our government will start with small limitations on access to guns that will eventually lead to many people’s worse fear: A repeal of the Second Amendment and all guns confiscated, perhaps even by force, by the government.
The problem with the slippery slope argument is that it creates a false dichotomy. Either one is at the top of the slippery slope, representing the status quo, or one takes even a tiny step on the slippery slope, and they will automatically slide to the very bottom. The bottom of the slippery slope represents the worst-case scenario or one’s greatest fear.
I’m sure readers will point out that slippery slopes do exist, and one can slide to the bottom of a slippery slope. This is true. Yet, our real-world experiences tell us slippery slopes are incredibly rare. One could make a slippery slope argument for every decision we make. For example:
You shouldn’t let your six-year-old son start piano lessons. If you do, when he becomes a teen, he will probably want to take up guitar. If he takes up guitar, he will probably want to form a rock and roll band. If he does this, he will probably start smoking pot. He will start failing his classes, dropping out of school, moving into a dingy apartment with his bandmates, and using harder drugs like heroin. He will end up overdosing and dying. So, for the love of God and all that is holy, do not start piano lessons for your 6-year-old son.
Basing our daily living decisions upon slippery slope fears would mean that we are all living some nightmarish version of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie at all times. However, think of your past decisions and fears, including our toxic politics, and how many of them result in worst-case scenarios? We might notice some times that they do, but we forget or don’t even notice the countless times our choices do not lead us to the bottom of that dreaded slippery slope.
Our worst misfortunes never happen and most miseries lie in anticipation. –Honore de Balzac, French novelist, and playwright
Reducing Gun Violence Aligns With Life’s Purpose
We know that life is dynamic and ever-changing. Life’s complexities rarely, if ever, fit neatly or rigidly into either/or dichotomies. Reality is not beholden to any particular ideology or stance. Because life is complicated and dynamic, the answer to how much-improved gun safety legislation could reduce deaths is unknown, but the answer is not zero.
A purpose in life is to grow and improve. This pertains to both individual and societal levels. When we look at the tragic levels of gun violence in America, surely there are some policies and efforts that will reduce it. Yet, we must not be rash or impulsive either in embracing or resisting changes.
Rather than using a more rigid, dichotomous approach to reduce gun violence in America, we should use a more flexible, “both/and” approach. We need to examine the data, hear from experts who study this problem, carefully weigh the pros and cons of different ideas and strategies, and try various options. Then we collect data, and we iterate based on the findings.
To many Americans, the level of gun violence is already a nightmarish, unacceptable problem that must change. Thoughts and prayers are not enough. In addition to addressing mental health problems better, improving school security, and other approaches, it’s possible to introduce gun safety legislation that could reduce some of our gun violence while still providing access to firearms to law-abiding, responsible adults as per the Second Amendment.
A truth of life is that there are usually multiple keys to solving complicated problems. It’s time we liberate ourselves from the either/or polarized, dichotomous thinking that prevents us from pursuing different options.